Monday, February 3, 2014

Korean Food = Comfort Food

My first-year roommate at Mount Holyoke, Deborah, is half-Korean and spent most of her life on an American army base in Seoul. On a particularly cold and bitter winter's night, I remember getting into her car (a red Camaro - I'll never forget that!) and driving to a Korean restaurant in the Pioneer Valley that she'd heard about from the other Korean students. Up until then, I'd never tried Korean food, despite the plethora of Korean BBQ restaurants in Federal Way, which only a 20-minute drive from our house in Washington state.

Deborah ordered with ease in her fluent Korean (much to the surprise of the waitress, who had assumed she was Russian, for some reason), selecting a spicy, hot seafood noodle soup called jjamppong for both of us. An hour after our food had arrived and my bowl was licked clean, my nose was running, my face was hot and flushed, but I'd never felt better.

To this day, the hot, bubbling broths and spiciness of traditional Korean food is what I turn to in the winter months when a more mild-flavored Vietnamese pho just won't cut it, and I need something more - shall we say, extreme - to open up my sinuses. I love the side vegetable dishes that accompany each meal: the pickled slices of cucumber, cold marinated bean sprouts, and of course, Korean cuisine's most famous mainstay, kimchee.

In London, I usually frequent Naru on Shaftesbury Avenue or Bi Won on Coptic Street, for the simple fact that they're near my office and both tempting locations for the occasional office lunch or dinner. I've also been to the BBQ restaurant, Arang, in Soho, which is equally delicious but quite different from the other two as it's focused on Korean barbeque.

Unlike Japanese restaurants (ranging from ramen to sushi bars), which are far more ubiquitous in major cities, Korean food has taken a bit more time to build momentum, I feel. But this is definitely changing, especially with the arrival of Kimchee, a chain of Korean restaurants offering pre-boxed, grab-and-go lunch and dinner options for busy commuters - not dissimilar to what Itsu has done for sushi in central London. The food at Kimchee is far more mainstream; it tastes less like homecooking and more like the mass-produced results you'd expect from a place that produces hundreds of these "boxes" of bi bim bap per day. But it's a quick fix, especially if you're in a rush or need to eat at your desk.

In the US, the fusion of Korean food with the traditional cuisine of other cultures has taken quite the turn in the past few years, though the UK is a little slow on the uptake. Korean taco trucks have been popping up in New York for a while now, and I blogged about John Salt's kimchee, pulled pork, and cheese fries in Islington last year.

I'm not usually a fan of lazy, thoughtless "fusion" Asian food (I stage a walk-out as soon as I see "Chinese, Japanese, Thai" together on any restaurant menu e.g. pad thai with miso broth and kung pao chicken for £6.95), but done well and intelligently, it's fun to occasionally dabble in.

I'm excited to see what direction modern Korean cuisine develops and what possibilities this might mean for new restaurants in London.

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