Food nostalgia is a new column on food and longing: food relished “when we are most remote from them.”
How can you write an authentic travel piece when you are forced to stay at home? The travel writer Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways that landscapes affect us both when we are and are not in them: “[t]here are also the landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in memory long after they have withdrawn in actuality, and such places — retreated to most often when we are most remote from them — are among the most important landscapes we possess.” Back in 2009, when my Japanese friend and I fiddled with our chopsticks while waiting for our meal, he appeased us with a comforting proverb: hunger is the best spice. (He also casually told me the literal albeit morbid meaning of oyako in oyakodon, his favorite meal: “parent and child”, as in chicken and egg.)
Hunger fuels anticipation (or vice versa? a chicken-and-egg situation) and both play a huge role in making food taste twice as better, especially if you were on queue for an hour and a half. Multiply that long wait for a hundred days and more and we’re in Covid-19 times, where we can only do so much as to enjoy food that we love in isolation, in absentia, when we are most remote from the restaurants – and the people we love.
When I used to work in Ortigas Center, good, cheap and fast food are hard to come by. (It’s scarce, in all honesty: there are no Jollijeeps serving life-changing meals of sisig or liempo, only faux-exclusive cafeterias and in-mall food courts.) What I did observe through the years is its evolution from a banchetto spot to a thriving Korea town of sorts, with restaurants like Song Do, Matgalne and Ye Dang, stalwarts long before samgyeupsal became a household name, and the Korean marts and groceries selling fresh produce and homemade kimchi. I’m no expert of Korean food, nor have I ever set foot in Seoul, but I know a good kimchi when I taste one: it’s briny and sour and spicy with hints of sweet. It doesn’t slap you in the face with copious amounts of gochugaru, but keeps your taste buds busy taking notes of funk, flavors and textures. The one that came with my bento meal at Honey Danji Korean Food is exactly that: it’s fresh, vibrant and crunchy – which I prefer over slightly pungent, fermented ones.
Danji is one of those Korean mom-and-pop that doesn’t believe in fanfare or extensive menus. Do not expect six bowls of banchan: think of it as a carinderia with air-con, with eight to ten seats, offering home-cooked meals and iced water in tall, plastic iced tea pitchers. You look at the menu posted above a stern ajumma sitting behind the small counter, pen in hand. Two to three waitstaff are busy at the small kitchen. There are no forks, only a metal spoon and chopsticks.
The restaurant is so cramped it can feel slightly intimate, like visiting a friend’s house for dinner: you feel the ajumma judging you while you take sloppy photos for Instagram, or fumble with the metal chopsticks as you try to clutch slippery chapchae – not an easy feat. You sit so close to each other you can see the apps they’re using, or hear the chatter from the varied clientele of local and foreign medical students and young professionals. Save for one Korean who brings his own food containers for take-outs, almost none of the customers lounge – they all eat rather hurriedly, knowing fully well how long it could take to get a table during work nights.
However, what it lacks for space it makes up for great flavors: almost every single dish is just fantastic. On a rainy night, after a gruelling work day I arrived at 8:00 PM only to find out later that mine was the last bento they served – they had sold out an hour before their closing time. Their bento is a must-try on your first visit, as it’s a sampler of the best dishes they have. The seaweed soup arrives first as an appetizer. Then comes the bento, served in a metal tray with a heap of rice and fried egg are chapchae, bulgogi, and dakgangjeong, Korean-style fried chicken, deep-fried and coated in sweet-and-spicy sticky sauce, clearly the star of the show, best to be paired with their homemade kimchi. (I must warn you that they do not serve extra servings of kimchi – I tried to kindly ask for it twice, with my request getting denied in both instances.)
I tried their chapchae a la carte on my next visit, which has more toppings: the noodles, springy and slick in sesame oil, were topped with tender beef strips, matchsticks of spinach and carrots, and a side of lettuce. On another night, I had dumplings steamed then fried on one side called mandu, which is quite underwhelming, as it’s no different than the frozen potstickers that you can find in the Korean marts nearby. The gimbap is great for takeouts, although it leans more toward rice than toppings.
When cooped up inside your house for five months, a bento jammed in a reusable food container sans the compartments is certainly a tempting offer. (Would it look like it was tossed in a fifteen-minute wash cycle?) I was surprised to see Honey Danji on Google – they weren’t on the list four years ago – so I sent a text message in vain, not to ask if they would deliver (Google Search says they do not) in my area, but at least to get a response amid these difficult times.
Dishes PHP 100-200 per person
Last visit was October 2019