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I was speaking to a man who I consider clever and respectable when, seemingly out of nowhere, he admitted to me that he doesn’t quite believe the universe exists. There are corners of the internet, wonders of modern homo sapiens like the Flat Earth Society, that cause me to wonder whether the perpetrators are being serious or whether the whole joke is actually on me.
That was my first reaction. I asked if he was pulling my leg. But he wasn’t – he was quite serious – and he went on to explain his theory in detail. I won’t repeat it but let’s say that I can see his point of view, even if I don’t quite subscribe to it. In the end, however, when he’d said all he had to say, my reply was simply, “Ramen”.
If ramen existed, I argued, then so is the likelihood of a gazillion balls of flame hurtling away from us at a mind-bending speed. How can one use ramen as a sceptre of certainty in the face of such existentialist pondering? But I don’t mean it trivially.
If one is ready to concoct mind-control conspiracies about the entire universe being a mere gimmick to trick humans into thinking they’re worth something, then the universal truth that is revealed at the end of every bowl of proper ramen ought to be a spiritual reply to any question that puts reality itself into doubt. Because, as you correctly guessed, reality contains ramen.
A while ago, while dancing a merry dance around Gżira to find a spot I could park in, I finally wound up closer to Sliema than to Gżira when a lovely white box presented itself. I parked, half-fell out of my car, and realised I was just outside a Korean restaurant that had escaped my attention. I made a mental note to linger longer than I needed to in the area until it was time for lunch. Doma, and according to the sign outside, doma = chopping board, would be another foray into a cuisine I’m rather partial to.
By the time I was back, hunger had given up its gentle knock on the doors of my consciousness and was having a go at it with a crowbar. I hopped in, sat down, and perused the menus, presented on chopping boards as well as the boards above the counter with specialities written on them. Some dishes were familiar and others entirely new, and, quite frankly, unpronounceable to me.
On the menu, I espied a joyous sequence of words – Kimchi ramen – and was instantly sold on the idea. Kimchi is typically a side dish of fermented cabbage and radish, seasoned with onion, ginger, chilli, garlic and a host of other ingredients, the combination of which is particular to the chef who prepares it.
The chef warned me that the dish was spicy and this cemented my resolve. While sat there, waiting for the chef to prepare the dish from scratch, I looked around the little restaurant and saw that they have quite the selection of Japanese and Korean rice wines and spirits. If the food was any good, it would be one to visit in the evening.
We’d been treated very kindly, eaten what I’ll have to presume is actual Korean food, and enjoyed every second of it
The ramen was excellent. Korean ramen tends to be significantly less fatty than its Japanese counterpart and also less salty, rendering the broth almost sweet in comparison. In this case, the heat from the kimchi and no doubt additional chilli, takes over. Every sip of the broth courses through you like a balm for the soul while the kimchi makes for a crunchy intermission. After that, I had to drive home and change my shirt. I’d covered it in tiny dots of chilli-red souvenirs and wasn’t about to go to the office like I’d escaped a murder scene.
The next time I was in the general vicinity, I returned for more. There was a new special dish on the menu and it appeared to be a fish-laden noodle dish that looked great in the photo. Unfortunately, they’d sold out before I arrived. The dish included octopus and they’d run out. Undeterred, I asked the man who was serving me what he’d recommend. I’d eat anything, I explained.
He told me he liked the chicken and recommended it. I had no frame of reference here. Chicken can be prepared in countless ways but I wasn’t in a picky mood so I simply nodded in enthusiastic agreement. He then added that it was sweet and spicy. I asked if it could be more spicy than sweet and he hopped behind the counter to relay this to the chef.
Like the previous time, I had to wait a while for the food. This isn’t fast food, even if it is attractively priced. Everything is prepared from scratch and food that’s made with soul is worth waiting for.
It turned out to be a dish of battered and fried chicken thighs with steamed rice and kimchi on the side. The chef, watching me devour the dish while beaming with barely concealed pride, watched as I tipped the remaining marinade from my kimchi bowl onto the chicken and quickly prepared another bowl of his pride and joy, placing it at my table with a little bow. Once again, I walked out as pleased as the previous time.
The last time I paid a visit, and it surely won’t be the last time I do so, was for dinner. The courtyard was occupied by a table enjoying a Korean barbecue with pork belly. This is a dish that the chef recommended. He also recommended that I call in advance and book a table outside but I was there on a whim so I hadn’t had the time to.
I looked through the menu and it is quite skewed towards sushi. This is not a rarity. Many sushi chefs around Europe hail from Korea and they tend to do a reasonably good job of the Japanese dish. I was there for Korean food and this time I was quite keen on trying what they call Jjamppong. I wouldn’t know how to pronounce this so I simply pointed it out on the menu to the lovely lady who was serving us and who I presumed to be the chef’s life partner.
The better half was all for sushi and she ordered the Japanese carte du jour, or the daily Japanese platter that’s based on available ingredients. They also have Korean beer so I picked the one that’s a pilsner, having no idea what to expect.
Once again, the food took a while as the chef busied himself preparing our dishes from base principles. The little restaurant won’t win design awards but it is pleasant enough so the wait is fine; if you’re happy to listen to Korean pop music and ballads while you’re there, that is.
When our food was served it was evident that attention had gone into the presentation. The Japanese platter was a tastefully plated slab of slate, with a bowl of miso soup, a hunk of seared tuna, sashimi of tuna, salmon and prawn, and assorted maki and nigiri. The portion size is just right and the sushi is a cut above your typical take-out but not quite the fare you’d expect of fine dining. Considering the price, however, this is right on point.
My rather large bowl was packed with mussels, baby octopus, an entire small octopus, prawn, clams, udon noodle, bean sprouts, and sliced courgette in a spicy, fish-based broth. I’d been forewarned about this being a spicy dish and it has the heat you’d associate with Korean cuisine – it is hot but stops short of being too fiery to handle. I’m pretty sure you can ask to have it toned down but don’t expect a very mild version. Unlike Japanese noodle broths, it does not depend on a very salty and savoury base. It is a perfectly balanced and fish-driven broth if you manage to ignore the heat for a moment.
It is a very different style of kitchen, even if the overall format is visually similar, and I’m glad for this variety. As you drink the broth it feels like it can cure every disease known to man.
When we’d eaten more than our fill and finished off our drinks, we paid the bill for the lot and had change left from €40. We’d been treated very kindly, eaten what I’ll have to presume is actual Korean food, and enjoyed every second of it. I’m tempted to return with the man who doubts the existence of the universe and watch him argue with a hot bowl of Korean ramen. If this doesn’t convince him, I don’t know what will.
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