Food & Drink | THE UNRELIABLE FOOD CRITIC

Downtown Osaka's faded replica of Korea's kaleidoscopic markets

by Nick Currie

Special To The Japan Times

There’s something suspicious about the way Japan and Korea differ so much in the taste and presentation of their foods, as if a kind of sibling rivalry were going on, some struggle for distinction and specialization.

“I like it spicy!” the Korean sibling seems to say. “I like it subtle!” retorts Japan. Korea announces: “I like my food all mashed together in a sizzling stoneware bowl!” Japan shakes its head: “Strictly compartmentalized in an array of delicate lukewarm plates for me!” Korea clinks her metal chopsticks, Japan clacks wooden ones.

But look beyond the stereotypes and you’ll find overlap between the cuisines. Osaka has its okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage-filled pancake, Seoul serves ojingeo jeon, a squid-filled pancake.

I’m chomping on one right now, in fact, in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station. This ojingeo jeon is a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.

Although they’re mostly of Korean origin, not all of the stall-owners here are speaking Korean, some are also speaking Japanese. But the ladies at the hottoku (a filled pancake) stall act as if they’re fresh off the Kyushu-Busan ferry — they even have Korean soda adverts on their wall. I order a honey-drenched hottoku filled with sunflower seeds, peanuts and sesame. Like a lot of Korean food it’s a little too sweet for my palate but delightfully warming on a chilly January day. I meander through the arcades, gazing in wonder at metal dishes of pickles probably hot enough to blow my head off, heaps of pigs’ trotters, wall-charts proposing “research whale,” crabs with elastic-banded pincers squashed against glass, dried seaweed presented as medicine, flattened squid in transparent polyethylene. It’s a Japanizied (and slightly de-vitalized) version of the covered Korean street markets I spent the New Year holiday visiting — Busan’s Gukje Market, Seoul’s Gwangjang.

I duck into a Korean restaurant called Ant House and order my standard Korean “dish of reference,” bibimbap. The lady who serves it is speaking Japanese in her kitchen, I notice. I ask for the minimum of gochujang hot-pepper paste, but still get a big dollop. The ingredients of the sizzling ceramic dish taste more fermented than I’m used to in Korean bibimbap — because of the doenjang soybean paste, perhaps, or because the Japanese palate is more at home with the lugubrious subtlety of umami (the savory “fifth taste”) than the fire of chili.

Accompanying the main dish is a spread of accessories: a bowl of delicious ginger-spicy broth containing chunks of turnip and squid, a cabbage salad in too-sweet sauce, orange blocks of pumpkin, a dish of candy-like dried infant sardines interspersed with okra, pickled radish. Separated like that, the meal becomes more Japanese, and only the universal touch of chili pepper reminds me that I’m in an immigrant enclave.

I pay my ¥1,000 and leave. The weather is cold, but not as brutally icy as it is currently on the Korean peninsula. The arcades are cleaner here, but I miss seeing colorfully dressed ajumma women (the universal Korean “aunt” figure with her tightly permed black hair and brashly clashing garment patterns) sitting on newspapers on the ground chopping vegetables, and I miss Korea’s younger population, with its louder vitality. Like the Korean cuisine here, the Zainichi (ethnic Korean residents of Japan) in Osaka seems a touch cleaned up and toned down. But they still spice up Japan.

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