Seoul food: a guide to eating Korean

Korean fast food joints, fusion food vans, soju cocktail bars… London is on a K binge. Here's our guide to the dishes that are this season’s biggest food trend

© Ellen Wishart
 

Bibimbap (bee-bim-bap)

It might sound a bit like a jazz scat, but bibimbap is a dish of rice with other bits and bobs such as beef, eggs, vegetables and fermented chilli paste (gochujang). Dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl to crisp up the grains of rice at the bottom, is a real crowd pleaser. It often comes with minced raw beef and a raw egg, which cook as you mix it all together.

For variety, Bi Bim Bap – which has just opened a second branch in Fitzrovia takes the golden gong. There are ten different versions on offer, including a few veggie ones.

The student’s favourite is Seoul Bakery near Tottenham Court Rd tube, where the walls are covered in cutesie Post-it notes from appreciative customers and a standard bibimbap (served in a cold metal bowl) costs a paltry £4.50.

Bulgogi (bul-goh-gee)

Any barbecue restaurant worth its salt serves this sweet and savoury beef dish. Using sirloin, or other prime cuts, the meat is thinly sliced and marinated in ingredients including soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and puréed Asian pear before getting a good grilling. Korea Garden is one of our favourites for all things charcoal-cooked. For a filling fixed meal, order the bulgogi lunchbox – including rice, salad, pickles and more at Asadal.

If you’re not in the mood to play it straight, there are plenty of jazzed-up fast food versions on offer in London these days. Try bulgogi smothered in cream cheese and topped with spring onions from street vendor and pop-up operation Busan BBQ (see www.busanbbq.co.uk for details of where they are next).

Kalbi (kal-bee)

South Korea is a country that knows how to grill a piece of meat. It also knows how to make diners do it themselves on tabletop barbecues. Kalbi is the king of the coals. Meaning ‘rib’ in Korean, it’s usually made with beef, cut into long, thin strips before being marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sugar. Decent restaurants leave the bone attached at one end. Often cooked at the table, the strips are then chopped into bite-sized pieces with a giant pair of scissors. Wrap them in lettuce with fermented bean and chilli paste (ssamjang) or hot pepper paste (Gochujang) for the full experience.

Koba in Fitzrovia serves some of the best you’ll find in town but Naru’s is also supremely succulent.

Pa jeon (pah-jon)

On a rainy day there’s nothing Seoulites like more than a slice of savoury pancake, preferably coupled with a glass of rice wine (makgeolli). There are all sorts of theories about why it’s more popular in the rain – some say the sound is reminiscent of sizzling batter – but whatever the reason, you’ll have no trouble finding pa jeon (or rainy days) in London.

Generally filled with spring onions and seafood, the thick rice-and-wheat-flour wheels are cut into bite-sized pieces and served with a vinegar and soy sauce dip. Another popular version is made with kimchi (kimchijeon). Head again to Koba for crisp pancakes in a chic minimal setting. More homely Cah Chi in Raynes Park also serves one of the best around.

Jjigae (ji-geh)

From tang to jang, jjigae to jeongol, there are all sorts of soups and stews in Korean cuisine, and most set meals will include one. Traditionally served in a hot, glazed earthenware pot, jjigae is a thick soup made with strong seasonings like fermented soya bean paste (doengjang), or hot and sour kimchi. Some of the most popular include sundubu jjigae with soft tofu, seafood slivers and a hefty dose of chilli powder; kimchi jjigae filled with fermented cabbage, pork slices and plenty of garlic; and doengjang jjigae, packed with anything from veg to firm tofu and beef. Doengjang is a little saltier than Japanese miso paste.

Though most Korean restaurants are getting jjigae with it, Jee Cee Neh and Korean House, both in New Malden, are hotpot hotspots.

Korean burritos

Korrito, burrean… whatever you want to call it, this Korean-Mexican mashup is currently causing a storm on the street-food scene. Though it may not be one for the purists, Korexican food has now spread from a truck in Los Angeles to New York, London and Seoul – where it’s available in any number of fast food restaurants.

Head to Kerb on Fridays for a bite of Kimchinary’s punchy braised bulgogi ox cheek, pork belly or grilled aubergine tortilla wraps with kimchi-fried rice and own-made fermented chilli paste (gochujang). From January 17 Kimchinary will also be serving K’ed up tacos during a three month residency at Catch Bar.

Or there’s Korrito (www.korrito.co.uk), which sells Korean burritos at the Real Food Market in Southbank Centre Square most weekends.

Yangneom tongdak (yang-nom-ton-dak)

Forget Kentucky, this KFC is Korean fried chicken, and it’s turbo-charged with a finger-licking coating of chilli sauce or soy and ginger. Double fried for extra crunch, then coated in hot, sweet and sticky sauce, it’s impossible to eat without getting a little messy. Literally meaning ‘seasoned whole chicken’ in Korean, it’s more likely to consist of fried wings and breast than whole birds in London’s dining spots.

There are a lot of chicken wings claiming Korean heritage in the capital at the moment, but many are far from the mark. Head to Jubo for fancy fast food K-style or the newly opened On the Bab in Shoreditch, run by the same team as Fitzrovia’s Koba. Other deep-fried offerings on its menu include Italian risotto balls stuffed with kimchi.

Banchan

Kimchi (see below), seasoned veggies (namul) and stir-fries (bokkeum) are typical side dishes which accompany any Korean meal. In Seoul you can expect gratis extras with every meal, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch in London… not often, anyway. Head to a Korean restaurant in New Malden – London’s K-town – for a good selection of freebies, or to Nara in Soho.

Kimchi (kim-chee)

Love it or hate it, no Korean spread would be complete without a few mouthfuls of kimchi. A bit like spicy sauerkraut, the classic version is made from Chinese cabbage fermented with plenty of chilli and garlic. There’s a vast array of varieties out there. The pickle has been finding its way into all sorts of London dishes of late. Kimchi-topped burgers are a favourite and Hawksmoor’s the place to get ’em.

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