Kimchee is one of a spate of Korean restaurants to have opened in the UK recently
Many people think of British food as rather bland. But since the Crusades, we’ve had one of the most heavily spiced cuisines of any country, from Christmas pudding to devilled kidneys, tikka masala and haggis. Combine this ancient trait with a restless national palate and a trend for small sharing plates in restaurants and you go some way to explaining the sudden surge in interest in Korean food.
Like Japan, the Korean peninsula has a long coastline and largely mountainous terrain. But its food differs widely from its neighbour’s. Strong flavours of vinegar and ground spices bubble from the pots. Where the Japanese sip delicate miso soup, the Koreans stave off the cold by slurping doenjaen jigae, a steaming broth of fermented soy beans, fresh green vegetables, dried anchovies, fat prawns and chillies. Meats are flash-grilled or fall apart in hot gingery stews. There are endless, generous side dishes or banchan, featuring vegetables, legumes and meat or fish, as well as rice. Raw vegetables and pickles feature heavily, not least in the national dish of kimchi, a richly spiced fermented cabbage—the wicked, bewitching cousin of sauerkraut.
New Malden, a small suburb near Wimbledon, has hosted Britain’s main Korean community for nearly 30 years. The good train links to central London, relatively inexpensive rents and the fact that the Korean ambassador once lived there all attracted settlers. About half the UK’s 45,000 Koreans are now thought to live there, among them a significant number of North Korean refugees; Britain has accepted more North Korean defectors than any other western country.
In 1991, the Asadal restaurant joined the Korean barbers, estate and travel agents of New Malden, and many other restaurants have since followed. The last couple of years have also seen openings in Manchester, Edinburgh and Brighton, adding to a stock of Korean barbecue joints across the country. Though the earliest and most authentic Korean restaurants sometimes seemed a little austere and exclusive, Korean barbecue has always been sociable, accessible and interactive. Cooking your own meat at table on hot stones brings a primal immediacy to eating out.
The newest Korean restaurants are designed to appeal equally to western diners. Several have opened lately in central London: Kimchee on High Holborn is a good introduction to the cuisine, with an approachable menu and Wagamama-esque design. In September, the high-end, metallic, starkly decorated Bibigo opened in Soho. It’s the first European venture from Korea’s largest food company, the CJ Foodville Group, whose CEO said recently he wants to make the brand “the McDonald’s or Starbucks of Korean food.”
Such world domination seems more realistic now that everyone from the American president to the soldiers of Camp Bastion have mock-lassooed to the hyper-viral “Gangnam Style,” now the most viewed video on YouTube and probably the internet itself. K-pop chimes with the western understanding of a certain side of Asia—garish, semi-anarchic, somewhat unreal. For many people in Europe and North America, “Gangnam Style” was perhaps their first encounter with Korea. And in the UK, more are discovering its food. Google currently treats “Korean food London” as a “breakout” term: one experiencing a spike in popularity. Danny O’Sullivan started the roaming street food venture Kimchi Cult in April 2011. “I’m seeing more and more interest in Korean food,” he says, arguing that some of the new enthusiasm comes from America: “Korean fried chicken is huge in LA, and of course there’s David Chang.” Chang founded the Momofuku brand, which now numbers 12 restaurants in New York, Toronto and Sydney. Though it isn’t strictly or authentically Korean, Momofuku is embedded in the culture of the peninsula and has introduced countless New Yorkers to a more metropolitan style of Korean cooking than they previously found in Manhattan’s Koreatown.
This autumn, the consistently on-trend TV chef Gizzi Erskine ran a pop-up Korean restaurant called K-Town. “Gangnam Style came out the week we announced it,” she says. “I’ve known about K-pop for a long time and I knew that it was due to come over here, but the timing couldn’t have been better.” Erskine believes decent Korean food is still under-represented in the UK. “I’ve always known there are good Korean restaurants in London,” she says. “But Korean food in Britain before was a bit like 1980s Chinese food: very anglicised.”
Upmarket Chinese food is now easy to find in most British cities, in part because it built on foundations laid by high street takeaways. Saronged British tourists returning from Thailand brought home a taste for green curry, which became one of the most popular pub lunches of the 1990s. Like our language, ours has always been a greedy and polyglot stomach, wolfing tastes and ideas from around the planet.
If you’re still unsure, visit the dingy and glorious Seoul Bakery by Centre Point in the west end of London, and order a £5 bowl of bibimbap—spicy rice, beef and vegetables. With its colours and vibrancy it’s vaguely reminiscent of a K-pop video, and it’ll be a damn sight better than a Prêt sandwich.