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…