Kimchi is not just a daily food for Koreans, it’s a potent symbol of national identity. Hence the outcry when the news broke of Japanese companies marketing ersatz versions not made according to the traditional process. This was sacrilege on the same order of trying to pass off carbonated grape juice as champagne.
It was not a storm in a pickle crock. But instead of street demonstrations and the burning of effigies, a wiser strategy was adopted. Japan obviously needed to be lifted from its benighted ignorance of the true nature of kimchi. This, above all, is the mission statement for Saikabo, arguably the most authentically “Korean” restaurant in all of Tokyo.
Much more than just an eating place, Saikabo serves as an unofficial kimchi cultural center. It has a street-level retail store, where you can pick up half a dozen different kinds of kimchi as well as other staples brought in from South Korea. The room at the back displays artifacts and photos of rural life, which you can contemplate as you lunch on simple dishes of rice and noodles.
The restaurant itself, up on the second floor, is less self-consciously didactic. With its low ceiling, simple wooden chairs and tables, and latticed wooden screens over the window, it’s as relaxed and enjoyable as a rural hostelry in Cheju or Kyongju. The walls are adorned with paintings and folksy artifacts; the tables are set with spoons and chopsticks of silvery metal.
The waitresses wear simple, cotton work clothes, not the bright silk robes usually thought of as the national costume. Saikabo celebrates the vigorous culture of ordinary country folk.
The format of a meal here is much like eating at a Japanese izakaya. First some appetizers with your drinks; then a main dish or two, to be shared in communal fashion by all present; and finally soup, rice or noodles and some more pickles (these are eaten throughout the meal).
You have to start with a plate of mixed kimchi — cubes of kakuteki daikon, sliced cucumbers and mounds of classic cabbage kimchi, all redolent with the searching pungency that derives only from proper, longtime fermentation. Not all Korean pickles are spicy, though. Try also the manul janachi, a whole clove of garlic pickled not in chili but dark vinegar, its sharpness tempered with a distinct under-flavor of anise and other spices.
Another popular starter is kimkui, crisp squares of laver (nori) seaweed given a rich coating of fragrant sesame oil. This may never supplant corn chips in your affections, but you know it’s much healthier.
Everyone loves chijimi, those tasty pancakes known here as Korean okonomiyaki. At Saikabo they are made with so much egg they are more like fluffy deep-pan omelets. Containing tasty chunks of squid and plenty of nira greens, these are strong contenders as the best in the city.
Our first main dish, chapch’ae, consisted of dangmyon (harusame) noodles with chopped vegetables and thin pieces of beef. Much like a Chinese stir-fry, it was well seasoned with black pepper rather than chili.
The centerpiece of our meal was pulgoki — not the dish that has become the yakiniku standard, but more akin to sukiyaki. Beef, clear noodles and a good mixture of vegetables (cabbage, green onions, nira, onions and shiitake mushrooms) are piled onto a round, concave pan of yellow bronze placed over an open burner. As the ingredients cook, they are pushed down into the seasoned cooking stock around the rim of the pan, then picked out with chopsticks.
Although most people slake their thirst with beer, for the full Korean experience, the drink of choice has to be makkoli. This milky-white, unfiltered rice wine (listed as doburoku on the menu but not as alcoholic as Japanese sake) soothes and comforts throats left stinging from unaccustomed chili heat. It goes perfectly with Korean food, in just the same way that lassi is the best accompaniment for Indian curries.
Other main dishes include ginseng chicken (samgetang) and kotchan chongol, a nabe-style hot pot with an angry-red soup guaranteed to put hairs on your chest. But if it’s chili heat you are craving, look no further than the yukkejang soup, a spicy, red-hot preparation made with morsels of beef stomach and an invigorating vegetable-laden broth that can also be served over rice if you choose.
This is power food, the fuel of farmers and fishermen, and a strong antidote for the summer lassitude. When it comes to serving authentic Korean food, few places in town are as uncompromising as Saikabo. So intent is it on its mission, that no dessert of any kind is offered (though you’d think there would be massive demand). If a cup of grain tea seems inadequate, you can pick up some fruit juice downstairs as you leave.
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