The last day began like all the other days, with enough food to feed a battalion. One of the supporting role dishes I had been thinking about in the back part of the restaurant in Toronto was kimbap, a Korean-style sushi roll. “Kim” means dried seaweed (laver) and “bap” means rice. Working with Japanese sushi for most of my life and being Korean for all of it, this meeting-in-the-middle somehow made intuitive sense to me. Unlike sushi (which means “seasoned rice”), Korean kimbap rice is not seasoned. There is none of the tangy rice vinegar and sugar and dashi (which I usually use in my sushi rice). It’s just steamed rice, but the quality of the grain is critical. It should be tender on the outer part and slightly al-dente in the center, giving off a wonderfully subtle natural sweetness. Another difference between the two cultural interpretations to sushi rolls is that sesame oil is used in the Korean variety and not in the Japanese. Therefore, sesame oil is brushed onto the “kim”, with some salt for seasoning. Still another difference is that Koreans like the ”kim” (I keep putting it in quotes because KIM is the most popular Korean last name, including my own) itself double-roasted. In Canada, my mother used to put it over a flame or electric burner to give it that extra crispy texture. Finally, Koreans prefer cooked items in their rolls- mostly vegetables- over anything raw.
These kimbap were from different shops (they are everywhere in Korea) in the district during my stay.
For lunch, we went to yet another- and final- restaurant to try their famous noodle dish. Naengmyeon consists of long, thin handmade noodles made from the flour and starch of various ingredients like buckwheat and sweet potatoes. The one we had was called mul naengmyeon because it is the “watery” variety, with a vinegary-sweet finish to it. It is always topped with slivers of cucumber and a hard-boiled egg. The fact of the matter is that the most famous naengmyon comes from the city of Pyongyang, North Korea, but when I spoke with Kim Jong-un, The Supreme Leader, he told me that he was declining me entry into his country (and his favourite naengmyon shop) for fear that I would steal the recipe of one of their beloved dishes and bring to my own country. Oh well, back to the drawing board…Of course, you can’t really have naengmyeon without beef- or so I was told. The need to consume beef at every meal, I have learned, means that there is a platitude or “ancient” Korean saying that justifies such a need. It’s like the friend who insults you every Friday night after last call and, predictably, every Saturday morning, stands behind a fortified wall of “Well, I was drunk”. No apologies.
So, beef it was. This time, beef tartare, which by this stage of the eating frenzy that had been my week, looked a lot like earthworms deciding that it was fun to just make a ball-like shape on my plate. (The truth was that it was very tasty: lightly-doused with sesame oil and filled with pine nuts.) In any event, enough is enough, I thought, two hours before I needed to be back at Incheon Airport and wondering if I would fit through the security gates with all the weight I had gained. All this food had me hearing a voice in my head again- a distinct voice that I could swear I had heard at vaguely prescient moments during the week. (And it was saying something about maintaining a healthy and regular bowel movement.)I went back to my room to grab my bags. I knew I would miss the view I woke to every morning and wondered when I would be back again. In each and everyone’s life, a place can inspire as much as a great song or a great love story.