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Friday, Feb. 7, 2003
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Fare to put some hair on your chest
You think it's been cold here this winter? You should try spending some time over on the Korean Peninsula. Those bitter gales from Siberia take no prisoners. Not to worry -- as long as you're somewhere with under-floor ondol heating and plenty of that chili-laden food, you'll survive. You may even enjoy it, if you can access a regular supply of nourishing kamjatang stew, the way they make it at Sonamu.
Wind chill may be less of a factor in the back streets of Ebisu, but the appetizing aroma of garlic and chili that hits your nostrils well before you arrive at Sonamu is no less welcome for that. Simple, no-frills country cooking is the name of the game here, and the bright, friendly farmhouse decor puts you in the right frame of mind straight away.
Rough-hewn planks and rustic wooden doors mark the entrance. One wall of the dining room has been given the daubed-mud look, not with the understated refinement of a Japanese tea house but using a coarse mixture of chaff, straw and barnyard grit. Clusters of garlic and dried sweet corn hang in the corners, sandals and bags of woven straw adorn the far wall, next to a women's chogori jacket. A haphazard arrangement of bamboo rods covers much of the ceiling.
In the main dining area you sit on basic, boxlike stools. There is also a raised area to one side, where thin cushions provide minimal padding from the hard floor. But the fun place to be -- if you can muster a party of five or six and reserve in good time -- is the tiny room at the back, accessed through a low wooden door, its walls decorated with hangul-inscribed paper like the inside of a Korean trunk.
It's all very casual and convivial, and so are the young waiters, most of whom hail from South Korea. The menu is not in English, but unfamiliarity with katakana or hangul need not be a major stumbling block. A quick glance at what is on your neighbors' tables will give you plenty of ideas about what to order.
Most people start off with a few starters and a couple of beers (or a large pitcher) to go with them. There are plenty of exotic nibbles -- beef sashimi; chanja (think shellfish and seafood entrails in a salty, fermented sauce); or crisp squares of paper-thin laver seaweed (nori). But you can't go wrong with chijimi, those flat pancakes. Choose from three varieties: plain; studded with morsels of seafood; or attractively arranged with strands of negi scallions (ask for pajon). They are tasty and only slightly too oily.
Not that you'd notice, since you should already be munching on the house kimchi. Order up a mixed plate, which features cubes of daikon, cucumber stuffed with shredded garlic, and Chinese cabbage. It is all excellent stuff, spicy but not too much so, fragrant without being redolent of the fermentation vat. Obviously this is the genuine article, imported from the motherland, not some tame Japanese simulacrum.
Sonamu has also worked up a new variation on the same theme, which they call dekitate kimchi. They take regular Chinese cabbage kimchi and dress it with an extra layer of coarse-ground chili and other spices. It is not significantly hotter, but the extra layers of flavor add a creative new dimension to this old favorite.
On some tables you will observe meat being grilled with gusto, not just kalbi beef but also pork and chicken, as well as a small selection of seafood and vegetables. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but you don't want to spoil your appetite for the main event -- the hearty stews that are the house specialty at this time of year.
Sonamu's main claim to fame is the nourishing country-style hot pot known as kamjatang. Although this translates literally as "potato soup," this is only a partial description, since it fails to mention the most obvious ingredient -- the generous pile of pork backbones that take up most of the space in the gleaming stainless steel pot.
Rich and satisfying though this is, we recently tried one of the alternatives, a chicken hot pot described on the menu as harukawa dakkalbi nabe. Like the kamjatang, this is cooked at the table on a small butane gas burner.
The wide black stew pot was packed with chicken meat, pink-rare and cut with plenty of fat, plus a generous volume of vegetable matter. Besides cabbage, chrysanthemum leaf, carrot, green bell pepper and lengths of negi there were shiitake, enokitake, harusame clear noodles, and round slices of pounded mochi sticky rice.
There was enough for three or four here, and by the time we had worked our way through it, the fiery, chili-driven soup stock that remained was so concentrated it looked positively evil -- or it would be if you were to get it on your white cashmere sweater.
To round off our meal, we simmered some chunky, chewy udon wheat noodles in this powerful broth, then ordered a serving of rice and cooked it down to a thick, red porridge. This is the kind of fare that warms the cockles and implants thickets of those metaphorical hairs onto your chest. We left with tongues tingling, sinuses leaking and midriffs bulging with satisfaction.
A word of warning to the thirsty. The drinks of choice with most Korean food are beer, Jinro soju (clear shochu liquor) or chu-hai sours. But the best palliative for the tongue, in the face of so much chili, is the smooth, creamy, unrefined Korean sake known as makkoli. It's not that strong -- at 6 percent alcohol it's a good deal less potent than Japanese sake -- but that amazake sweetness makes it very easy to knock back too fast. Sonamu's makkoli is a superior brew, but still best imbibed in moderation.