One of the best kept secrets in America is finally coming to the forefront. As chefs have known all along, quality ingredients can make the difference between food that is purely functional and that which inspires. The return to regional awareness in food is perhaps the most visible at local farmers’ markets around the country. It is also a significant marketing push in stores such as Whole Foods Market and is trickling into the tactics of mainstream groceries. While this is a good thing, still neglected are the small business owners with neighborhood stores and boutiques, which sell hand picked items to locals. These days, this type of business is most often a gift shop, art store or similar storefront in an area supported by those with disposable income, often in tourist areas. There are rare exceptions, one of which I came across during a walk through our neighborhood in Mission Hills.
Sara, Jenny and I decided to take the long loop that day and go down through Old Town San Diego to mingle among the throngs of tourists. Going down Juan street, at the corner of Harney, we noticed a sign for “Sooky’s Boutique.” Normally, it would have been dismissed as another tourist shop, but the sign mentioned Asian health products and curiosity took over. Upon entering the small storefront, the small room was wall to wall with cosmetics, kitchen utensils, ceramic pots, colorful clothes on racks and counters along with numerous containers and boxes with Korean and Japanese labels. It took a minute for the eyes to focus on individual items, then I began to notice familiar products that appeared to be of high quality, beautifully packaged and meticulously arranged. The atmosphere was inviting and the store had an almost fantasy feel to it, like a movie set for an apothecary store. In the far corner of her tiny shop, Sooky finished with a customer, who politely squeezed through the cramped aisle toward the door, and began her introductions. Noticing our interest in her green tea display, she patiently explained how Matcha tea powder is used for tea ceremonies, Genmai Matcha as an all around roasted rice and green leaf blend and the various kinds of Sencha leaves from Japan and Korea. It struck me when she said that this quality of green tea should be steeped in warm water, not hot and when the leaves are finished steeping, they become dark green and should be eaten like spinach. “Nothing should be wasted.” This reminded me of my experiences in India, where every aspect of an ingredient or tonic had meaning and value. At this point, Sara decided to wait outside. On the other hand, Jenny and I remained fascinated as Sooky would pick up each canister, box, vessel and ingredient, offering stories and explaining advantages with a passion that a jeweler might have with their gems. She demonstrated in detail how the Matcha tea was served in tea ceremonies, then served Jenny and I some mild-roasted barley green tea that was both subtle and heart warming. In addition to the teas, with great detail and enthusiasm she showed us pure Korean red ginseng, clay cooking pots, unpasteurized red miso and sprouted barley and brown rice. Since we were walking, Jenny and I purchased a small box of Sencha green tea, looking forward to the rituals that lay ahead, and assured Sooky of our return. Stepping back out into the Santa Ana warmed sunshine, I felt infused with positive energy and appreciative of our new discovery in the neighborhood. As if we found a cache of golden treasures, the rest of the walk was filled with thoughts and discussions of Sooky’s healing products.
Later, inspired by Sooky’s descriptions of her organic unpasteurized red miso, small harvest wakame and sprouted grains, I decided to make a noodle bowl for lunch. First, I sautéed ginger tamari tofu with a softer than normal medium tofu and toasted sesame oil. Next was a dashi with onions, matchstick ginger, kombu, tamari and mirin. Then kamut somen noodles were added and just before they were done, baby bok choy, broccoli, kale, carrots, celery and the tofu as well. I mixed red miso with some of the dashi and folded it into the pot. The meal in a bowl was served steaming, rejuvenating our mind and warming our hearts.
4080 Harney St
San Diego, CA 92110