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Hidden gem

Despite an explosion of world food and fusion flavours in Britain over recent decades, one of the tastiest varieties remains hidden to most, right under our noses. Kelly Falconer offers a rare insight into the rich and rewarding world of Korean food

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

Britain is a country that loves its imports: its BMWs, its Egyptian cotton, its Russian vodka and its hardworking Polish builders. And with our history of imperialism and exploration, our palates have developed a taste for a smorgasbord of flavours. We delight in the Kama Sutra pleasures of Indian food in Brick Lane, Birmingham or even in the wilds of Scotland in places such as Lossiemouth. We have Cantonese food; Szechuan food; Vietnamese food; Japanese noodle bars; Thai restaurants; Greek restaurants and now Polish restaurants as well.

Over the past 15 years or so, a British food revolution has also taken place, with the consequence that we are forever in the quest for the Holy Grail of new flavours or seasonings or food experiences. So how can it be that, amid all this new-found variety, we have overlooked one of the best, most lively food experiences that has been right under our noses for some time: Korean?

Korean food hasn’t yet entered mainstream dining. I’ve yet to see a review of a Korean restaurant, even of Kaya (the name of the ancient kingdom of Korea), the haute-cuisine destination of Korean food in Mayfair’s Albemarle Street. Korean food is still on the periphery of our culinary radar, though Hawksmoor has dared to add the highly fragrant, hotly-spiced fermented cabbage dish kimchi to one of its burgers as a topping. Really. Is that it?

Perhaps it is. Korean food must be understood in the context of the country’s history: only 60 years ago, the country was poor and rural. As a result, their food is less meat-based than either Chinese or Japanese food and, because they needed to preserve what foods they had, including vegetables and fish, they tended to keep the food not by bottling it but by fermenting it in glazed and lidded clay pots kept cool by placing them underground up to the necks of the vessels. The fermentation and preservation depended much on what was available locally; for example, kimchi from the south-eastern port of Pusan will feature more anchovy than kimchi from the northern inland capital, Seoul.

Apart from this, however, the regional differences are slight and overall the depth and variety of flavour of Korean food surpasses Chinese food, which tends to be heavy, greasy and often enhanced by MSG; even Japanese food seems extraordinarily bland by comparison. Korean food is also extremely healthy – if you’re ever feeling poorly try a bowl of sam kay, chicken soup a Jewish mother would envy and which Koreans regard as energy food, flavoured with ginseng to get the blood pumping. Add to this the fact that the recipes for Korean food have always been more fluid than proscribed and you find meals that are of-the-minute and evolutionary. Every cook is a master chef, constantly innovating and making do with what’s available. The Korean government has only now started to ask for recipes to be written down, so that the national cuisine can be more easily exported and experienced more widely.

The Korean people I’ve met, worked with and learned from have all been proud, and somewhat defiant. I asked one of my former bosses what he thought about the American military presence in Korea. His response? ‘A necessary evil.’ Such pragmatic sentiments go some way to explaining why the Koreans have done so well to preserve their heritage, even as immigrants to other nations: they tend to keep to themselves, cloistered within their own communities, safe with their own traditions and customs, which are still strong and binding. Which is why their cooking style remains untainted — by the influences of the Russians, the Japanese, the Chinese or the Americans. Korean restaurants cater to the tastes of their customers: the Koreans.

Mayfair’s Kaya is perfectly placed for passing tourists and local businesses, and has a clientele which is only 40 per cent Korean, according to the estimate of the head chef, Hyun Shik Sun. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t dare serve his customers dishes created purely to suit the tastes of the British — a Korean version of chicken tikka masala. Which is why a visit to a Korean restaurant is a more authentic foreign-food dining experience than any you will find in Brick Lane or Chinatown. Or Lossiemouth.

There are about 45 Korean restaurants in London alone, many of them clustered around Charing Cross Road, Covent Garden and Soho. A further 40 or so are based in New Malden, the suburb just outside London where many Korean expats choose to settle, on placement with companies such as Korean Air, Hanjin Shipping, Hyundai, Samsung, Lucky Goldstar and Daewoo, and forms the UK centre of Korean food. New Malden High Street seems a bit down-at-heel, a neglected time warp with its Tudor Williams department store, a few abandoned stores and a china shop stacked high with Wedgwood, porcelain figurines and lacquer trays. However, and despite this otherwise dearth of services, the High Street and its crossroad, Burlington Street, are dotted with Korean restaurants — some casual, some formal, some in between but even I, who love Korean food and am comfortable enough with the language to find my way around the menu, felt a bit intimidated by the foreignness of it all.

Thankfully, the Koreans at Cafe Koong were welcoming, directed me to a table and produced a cordial cup of traditional boori cha (barley tea) — dry, clean and comforting — served in an earthy-coloured glazed ceramic cup without a handle. They then politely warned me that the dish I’d chosen was very spicy. When I told them I’d had it before they raised their eyebrows in shock and repeated it back to me with more than a hint of incredulity: ‘You had this before?!’ And it was hot, and I was sweating in the end. Fortunately, I was on my own this time with a book and when I’d finished they knowingly brought out a warm, damp cloth so that I could wipe my face. How embarrassing. Reassuringly in the face of the other empty shops, and even though I’d eaten a late lunch, the cafe was constantly populated by an equal number of both Korean patrons and British.

To entice more people in, some Korean restaurants, both in London and in New Malden, are Japanese/Korean: because Japanese food is believed to be more familiar, the proprietors are able to attract more custom. One of my local Japanese restaurants in Richmond does the same, and I have found the mouth-watering marinated barbecue beef dish known as pulgogi there, as well as the ubiquitous bibimbap — a warm, spicy and filling sticky rice and vegetable dish (bap means rice in Korean) topped with a sliced boiled egg or a fried egg, alongside Japanese favourites such as tempura shrimp and sushi.

One of the great things about Korean food is the way it is served and enjoyed. Similar to meze or tapas, a typical Korean meal will consist of a variety of dishes, some small, some large, set out at the same time for all to share and enjoy. Kimchi, in its infinite varieties and levels of spice, is always included. Other dishes include shin sun kun, a hot food platter complete with vegetables, fish and meat that was once served only to the king but is now enjoyed by kings and commoners alike. Rice porridge, enhanced with pumpkin, spinach or other vegetables, is served as an appetiser or yet another side dish; pa jun is a wheatflour crepe filled with fresh spring onions, chives, shellfish or any other ingredient the chef may find close at hand. Khan poong gi is one of the few fried dishes available on a Korean menu — chicken like you’ve never had it before — with scrumptiously bite-size pieces smoking with succulence, very moreish and with a sophisticated, complex flavour structure that is nothing like the cloyingly sweet-and-sour Chinese version, or the one-dimensionally boorish American-style wings dipped in blue-cheese dressing.

Dwipuri (dwi = after; puri = to relax) is a Korean custom that gathers colleagues and associates together after official events or meetings to allow people to get to know one another in a more relaxed setting, over food and booze. Dwipuri may also include a bit of karaoke (no surer way is known to man to break the ice). But if you’re on your own, or with other novices, the best thing to do when you go to a Korean restaurant is to let the chef or waiter/waitress guide you. You will be delighted with so many different dishes and flavours that you won’t pay the bill and then head for the nearest chip shop. Let them guide you also to the soju, the Korean version of sake. Be careful though, the popular An Dong soju is 46 per cent proof, and it’s bad manners to refuse a drink if your Korean host proffers it to you.

Bottoms up and kamsahamnida.

Kelly likes her naengmyun cold and her kimchi hot.

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