Not so long ago, if you asked the average Londoner what Korean cuisine comprised of, they would probably stare blankly back at you. But over the last year, to many people’s surprise, Korean food has emerged as one of London's major foodie trends, with kimchi and bibimbap appearing on plates across the City.
Raw beef bibimbap at London restaurant Kimchee — Photo courtesy of Kimchee
Recent months have seen a handful of Korean-influenced restaurants open up. Korean canteen Jubo in Shoreditch offers KFC (Korean Fried Chicken, of course), while newly opened On the Bab in Old Street - London’s first anju restaurant - serves traditional Korean cuisine and cocktails. Kimchee To Go has also opened two more outlets, both permanently packed out.
The urge to eat Korean has crept into the kitchen, too, and supermarket chain Tesco has reported a 140% rise in sales of Korean products. They've now decided to expand their range of offerings. Even established restaurants are incorporating aspects of Korean cooking into their menus, such as the popular kimchi burger at Hawksmoor.
This could all be seen as the next logical step in the so-called Korean Wave, which went global in 2012 after the insane chart success of Psy’s Gangnam Style. With K Pop cemented in our cultural vocabulary, an interest in the cuisine was never going to be far off, despite the country's most famous dish kimchi (that’s fermented cabbage, for those who don’t know) – being an initially unappealing prospect.
So what is Korean food? The focus is on big flavors: fresh and spicy, yet clean. Signature dishes include kimchi, bulgogi (marinated strips of beef or pork), barbecue and bibimbap, a one-pot dish of rice, spinach, egg and marinated meat in an extremely fiery hot pepper paste. Meals largely revolve around sharing dishes, which is already a popular trend amongst British eaters, with "small plates" dominating the menus of London’s hottest restaurants. Diners were predisposed to like the idea.
The interior of Kimchee in London — Photo courtesy of Kimchee
Well, yes, there have been Korean restaurants in London for years – just head to K-Town in New Malden for the real deal. But the difference is these recent openings are hot news. Restaurants like Nizuni in Fitzrovia, Gogi in Maida Vale and Kimchee in Holborn gave Korean cuisine a stylish makeover.
Food stall Kimchi Cult is inherently cool, started in 2011 at KERB gastro market. Danny O’Sullivan was seduced by Korean cuisine during a teaching stint in South Korea with his girlfriend. His Korean-style fast food – sliders topped with kimchi and fries covered in bulgogi – have proved big hits.
The trend shows no sign of slowing down, with Korean cocktails predicted to be the next big thing. Kimchee, which specializes in Korean-style barbecue, just opened an additional 1000-square-foot basement bar, serving cocktails using Korean spirits such as Soju and Makgeolli, a fermented rice milk.
It looks like Korean cuisine is firmly on the London food map, and here to stay.