There’s a buzz around Korean food in London today. Although the hub of Korean life is still in New Malden, a long way to the south west, we can spare ourselves the somewhat arduous journey, and explore local sources of this delicious food, influenced in some ways by China and Japan, but with a joyful identity of its own. Oriental stores stock the basic ingredients, and a visit to Yu Xiao in Kingsland Road, or the Longdan supermarket in Hackney will yield freshly made kimchi, some take-away items, and many of the strange and wonderful fish and plants that you need in order to try Korean food at home.
But since the cuisine depends so much on an assortment of different dishes that take quite a time to put together, it is a good idea to eat out to experience the delights of the full range. Hackney has a small, busy and friendly place in Shoreditch, On the Bab, and up the road in Finsbury Park is the legendary Dotori, a crowded little Japanese-Korean restaurant with a huge following, a contrast to the wide open spaces of Bibigo at the Angel, while Hurwundeki on Cambridge Heath Road offers a haircut as well.
In spite of a long history of friendly and unfriendly contact with some of its neighbours (and the recent, unhappy division of the country), Korea has a strong sense of its individuality, with history, geography and various religious influences all shaping a vibrant and varied gastronomy.
You can see this all summed up in the pottery: not the (boring) elitist collectors’ pieces of greeny grey celadon or ghostly white porcelain or even the less posh buncheong stone-ware, but in the glorious range of everyday black-brown glazed onggi storage jars. They contain the country’s past and maybe its future – literally, for within these beautifully crafted forms lurk the essential elements of Korean cuisine. The jars and pots come in all sizes and various shapes, and until a few decades ago every household, in what was then a mainly rural society, would have an array of them clustered outside on terraces or rooftops. They held grains, especially rice, and water, wine, oil, vinegar and the defining condiments that enhance Korean food: soy sauce, brown soybean paste (denjang), fermented red chilli paste (gochu jang), and above all different kinds of kimchi: (salted and fermented vegetables with various flavourings, especially garlic and chilli). The beauty of these pastes is in their sweet, rich, dense flavour, not the amount of chilli in them. Never forget that chillies are enjoyed for flavour and not the macho impact of heat.
Kimchi evolved because things did not grow during the harsh winters, so preserving vegetables and fish was an essential domestic skill. This unique process, salting and fermenting, produces over 200 different kinds of kimchi, free of the harsh acidity of most European pickles. Every family had its own version. The fermentation process did not just make the stuff keep, it actually produced added nutrients, vitamins and minerals that make Korean food some of the healthiest on the planet. Kimchi has a clean, fresh-tasting zing and crunchiness. Different kinds can be served as side dishes, or it can be added to soups and stews.
The craftsmen who made the kimchi containers were socially inferior, their skills taken for granted, but every Korean family owned a range of their pots that survived generations of use, and the sensitivity and talent that went into their manufacture can perhaps now be seen in the cutting edge skills of modern Korean technology in other fields. The pots are now collected and treasured in museums, but also used for their original purposes. The Korean soul and genius is in these unique artefacts, the pots and what they contain, and eating the food is to enter into a world of innovation and tradition, of past history and a new future.
Another magic ingredient is Korean sesame oil. It works best as a condiment, sprinkled over a finished dish just before serving, or dribbled onto a salad, along with a few drops of Vietnamese fish sauce, transforming a banal mixture of lettuce, avocado and spring onions into an exotic treat. I don’t know what they do to make it so delicious, but there is no substitute. Seaweed gives flavour and texture, from slithery to crisp, and a big blast of umami. And tofu adds extra goodness.
A Korean meal might consist of rice, soup, stews, dumplings, pancakes and a lot of differently flavoured side dishes, something to eat out. But you can give your home cooking a Korean tinge by using the two densely flavoured pastes in fish and meat dishes, in soups and stews, and mixed with soy sauce, sugar and fish sauce to make dipping sauces and relishes.
Here are a few Korean-inspired recipes to try out at home:
The endearingly named bibimbab or pibim bap has become an iconic Korean speciality. It began as a peasant dish, when a frugal bowl of rice had to be eked out with any raw or cooked vegetables and herbs that could be got hold of for free. Now it has become restaurant performance art, with the cooked rice brought to table in an almost red-hot iron bowl (together with the necessary health warning) sizzling and hissing as the other ingredients are stirred in, while the rice sticks to the bottom, forming a delicious crust. Ingredients can be luxurious (thin slices of beef, seafood) or simply sautéed vegetables, chopped kimchi, mushrooms, a sprinkling of dried seaweed, sometimes topped with a raw or fried egg, and of course the red chilli paste. It gets its name from bab or bap, a word meaning a dish of cooked rice. And that is exactly what this is: a recipe to do at home, using cooked rice and plenty of fresh and preserved stuff to give contrasting texture and flavour.
1 bowl of cooked rice per person
An assortment of things such as: sautéed shitake mushrooms, thinly sliced rump steak, an egg, raw or fried, thinly sliced crisp lettuce, Korean radish kimchi, raw bean sprouts, rinsed and dried, matchstick courgettes, raw or stir fried, chopped herbs (basil, coriander, mint).
Chicken breasts and thighs
cut into pieces
Marinade: finely chopped ginger, garlic, spring onion, fresh green chilli,
soy sauce, sesame oil, a teaspoon of red chilli paste, a pinch of sugar,
all mixed together.
Rub the marinade into the chicken pieces and leave for an hour. Then put everything in a shallow pan with a little water and cook slowly until done, about 45 minutes, when the liquid should have evaporated. Taste for seasoning and add more chilli paste if you think it needs it. Serve sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and a few drops of sesame oil and some rice and kimchi on the side.
Seaweed and Shellfish Soup
This is traditionally made with miyeok seaweed and oysters, and given as a restorative to women who have just given birth, three times a day for seven weeks! You do not have to suffer though to enjoy a version of this, and the iron, calcium and vitamins in the seaweed will do you lots of good. There is a legend that the Samsin Grandmother, a folk goddess, caused the blue marks on the buttocks of Korean babies by hastening them into this world with a good slap, and so is offered this nourishing brew in gratitude.
1 cup of dried miyeok (wakame) seaweed, soaked in cold water for half an hour
½ kilo each of mussels, clams, uncooked jumbo prawns
2 cloves of garlic roughly chopped
Vietnamese fish sauce
Cook the shellfish separately, covered, with the garlic and strain off the liquid, filtering it through muslin to keep out any sand or shell. Take the flesh out of the shells and put to one side. Tear the soaked seaweed into pieces and cook in water until soft and a nice dark green. Then add the shellfish, their juices, and season with sesame oil and fish sauce. Serve hot.