Despite the considerable demographic surges in recent years from Southeast Asia (and much further afield), the few square blocks that lie between the north side of Kabukicho and Shin-Okubo still justify keeping the title of Tokyo’s Little Seoul district. And this is where we head for whenever those cravings arise for an infusion of full-blooded authentic Korean food.
With all due respect to Ueno, Akasaka and Azabu-Juban, nowhere else in town delivers the true flavor of the Korean Peninsula. The eateries here are not like those anemic restaurants where the food is a bland, Japanified approximation of kankoku ryori — and certainly very different from those ubiquitous smoky joints which purvey little more than yakiniku.
Little Seoul is where Tokyo’s own Korean population comes to dine. Everyone has their own favorites: Mugyodon, Seoul House and the wonderful Omuni Shokudo. But best of the lot — especially at this time of year when the inner flames need a boost not just of chili and kimchi but also the warmth of human companionship — is Sonanchip, otherwise known by its assimilated name, Matsuya.
It’s a converted house in a quiet residential area. You know you’re in the right place when you see the handwritten sign on the wall proclaiming in bold kanji lettering “ganso kankoku dento minzoku ryori” (pioneering Korean traditional folk cuisine). The front door is past the car park and through a gate surrounded by shrubbery. You leave your shoes outside and enter in your socks, as if checking into a family-run yogwan (minshuku-style inn) in rural Cholla Province.
The dining room is the sort of space you’d expect to find (but might be reluctant to search out) in dockside Pusan or the back streets of other provincial towns along the peninsula. You sit at low tables on colorful — if thin — square cushions on the hard linoleum floor. The walls are adorned with a cheerful profusion of ethnic artifacts, strings of garlic, chilies and dried Chinese lanterns (hozuki). Shelves by the kitchen door bulge with jars of liquor in which snakes and medicinal herbs are being steeped.
There are snapshots of their famous visitors, who range from popsters like Sharan-Q to Yokozuna Akebono. Signs in hangol describe the specialties of the house. A television flickers constantly in one corner. At the back, is a tiny room with wallpaper that looks like the inside of a Korean tansu, which is usually reserved by people who require greater privacy or intimacy.
There is a trio of willing young waitresses on hand to take your order: Without being unhelpful or unfriendly, they display a forthright lack of politesse that seems utterly in keeping with the surroundings.
The menu is inscribed in both Korean and Japanese, but nonproficiency in either language need not be a major stumbling block. A quick glance around the room at what your fellow diners have on their tables will tell you all you need to know.
Most people start by ordering up a couple of beers and some snacks to go with them. The house specials include: negi chijimi, a flat, round pancake as wide as a manhole cover; donguri “konnyaku,” cubes of a curious gray jelly apparently made of acorns, which is both more flavorful and less unforgiving in texture than the Japanese equivalent; and nori-yaki, squares of roughly formed laver seaweed which serve admirably as a simple tidbit until you decide what your main course will be. Kimchi, needless to say, is available in several pungent varieties.
Matsuya offers a choice of nabe dishes, including samgetang (ginseng chicken stew), bulgogi and hearty chige soups. But Matsuya’s main claim to fame is the rugged hot pot known as kamjatang. Literally this translates as “potato soup” — a description that fails to mention the most obvious ingredient: the generous pile of pork backbones that fill the pot.
Cooked over a gas burner that takes up much of your table, this is food that takes no prisoners. The broth is a fiery, sauce of chili miso. It is lip-tingling, stomach-warming, sinus-opening fare. In recognition of the inevitable physiological reaction, each table is equipped with a family-size pack of tissues, as well as a large jug of weak mugicha (barley tea).
For most people, however, the drink of choice with this is likely to be a large flagon of ice-chilled draft beer. Those who prefer to do things the local way may supplement this with Jinro (a liquor much like shochu) or makkoli, the tasty, fizzy unfiltered rice wine that is the Korean equivalent to doburoku sake.
When you have finished picking through the skeletal remains of your stew, you can ask the waitresses to bring you rice — or better still Korean-style barley (ask for “mugi-gohan”) — which they will simmer down in the remains of your kamjatang liquid to form a porridge of truly nourishing properties.
Stews like this have long been Korean peasants’ secret weapon against the arctic cold. They are certainly no less effective at the tail end of a Tokyo winter.