(5) Korean by Nathalie Bonney.
It’s all too easy to be an ignorant westerner and lump together a number of oriental cuisines on the ‘it’s a lot of rice and noodles’ premise but doing so is the same as saying all Europeans eat the same thing. Try telling that to a squeamish Englishman being force fed zee big fat juicy escargots by a gourmande Frenchman or asking the Greeks to just eat one dish for starters instead of their sumptuous mezze feasts. It’s inaccurate and, as a result, misses out on so much.
Korean restaurants in London aren’t entirely unheard of, and a quick Google search brings up a decent amount of options, but Korean food as a whole hasn’t quite reached the Wagamama mark in terms of its popularity and familiarity.
What then should we be ordering to ensure we are Keeping up with the Koreans (and thus creating the premise for an undoubtedly fantastic reality TV show in the process)?
The quintessential Korean dish, kimchee is the side dish of choice and is served up with pretty much everything. Not ordering it at a restaurant is like eating roast beef without Yorkshire pudding, or going to a kebab house and just eating chips. It’s integral to the meal. So what is it? Pickled cabbage in a spicy red chilli sauce. Yummo huh? If you’re not a fan of pickles, skimp on the kimchee, otherwise heap on this delight to add zing and flavour to your dishes.
‘Be bop a bodda bop, bop a bodda bop…’ Surely Bibimbap should have made it into the Scat Man Joe’s seminal song ‘I’m a Scat Man’? If not, he missed a trick. Aside from sounding a lot of fun, bibimbap is a lot of fun to eat too. Translating as ‘mixed meal’, bibimbap is served in a large pot with rice at the bottom then topped with stir fried vegetables, meat, and Gochujang or chilli paste. A raw egg can be cracked over it and then stirred in immediately before eating too.
Steak tartare for Koreans, steak meat is minced and then marinated in sesame oil, salt and pepper and sesame seeds. Served on a bed of shredded pear and cucumbers, a raw egg is cracked over the top. Squeamish meat eaters are strongly advised TO EAT this fantastic dish. The flavours are superb and even the most cowardly carnivore will be pleasantly surprised.
Soup. Soup with kimchee, soup with seafood, soup with tofu, soup with meat and so on. While western cultures adhere to the ‘what’s in my soup bowl is mine not yours’, Koreans adopt a more communal approach. Diners share soup dishes just as they would any other course.
Korean BBQ is unmistakably popular in the UK. No surprises then to hear it’s taken off in the US too where Korean BBQ beefburgers are already making the fast food rounds. Barbecued beef is the undisputed king of the grill: sweet, soft and tender but still cooked all the way through. Also try chicken bulgogi or BBQ pork belly. Eat the meat wrapped in slices of lettuce.
Tasty pancake/omelette style dish that can be enjoyed with a number of fillings such as vegetables, prawns and squid or kimchee.
Misty white Makgeoli (pictured above) was the drink of the peasant farmers once upon a time. Made with fermented rice and giving off a rice wine taste, it’s surprisingly refreshing. Another rice-based fermented drink is Bek se ju. Flavoured with herbs and ginseng it has an earthier taste than Makgeoli. Soju (pictured below) meanwhile, is today’s national drink of Korea. A clear spirit, it’s deceptively stong but is often mixed with beer to last longer. For special occasions reach for plum liqueur Seoul Joong Mae. Refreshing plum tea and Aloe Vera juice are great soft drink shouts.
Where to eat Korean food in London
NKOTB - the new Korean on the block - is the appositely-named Kimchee (pictured above) in Holborn, which aims to be bigger, badder and more bombastic than any of the other Korean restaurants in London. Doing away with any gadgetry, all of the barbecuing happens in the kitchen, leaving diners free to admire the plush fittings and choice of Korean beverages. Long communal tables, in dark wood, are reminiscent of Wagamamas and it’s clear Kimchee doesn’t plan to be a solo establishment for long. Fancy lampshades, a pretty water feature at the entrance, and beautiful crockery put it a cut above though. Be sure to leave room for pudding. Kimchee offers a tempting selection of ice cream from the sublime chestnut to green tea, red bean and gorgeous almond.
Asadal (above) stemming from the Korean words ‘Asa’, meaning morning and ‘Dal’ meaning land. ‘Morning land’ DOESN’T serve breakfast but it sounds nice and it does a mean DIY Korean BBQ, with sunken hot plate/cooking surfaces on each table.
Kimchee, choosing to name itself after one of Korea’s most famed dishes, Bibimbap (above) is a smart move. Diners opt for the one-stop meal instead of the more typical communal style Korean dining, but with ten varieties of Bibimbap to choose from, there’s still enough choice. This Soho restaurant has a fun, casual feel. After eating, diners are snapped by the restaurant’s Polaroid and the walls are adorned with the pics, some arranged into a cutesy ‘I heart u’. Ah bless. Fluid loves you too Bibimbap.
Myung Ga (above) is hardly any distance from Bibimbap but the difference between the two is that Myung Ga specialises in Korean BBQ. This is the place to go in Soho for diners who want to have a go themselves. A hot plate in the middle of each table allows guests to cook their own meat and seafood. While a fun dining experience it does mean the chances of perfect Bulgogi are somewhat reduced. Don’t neglect to try other non-BBQ dishes too.