As far as East Asian cuisine in London goes, most people are familiar with their favourite dishes in China Town or their regular order at a Japanese sushi bar. Korean food still seems to hold an air of mystery among many citizens, with even the most travelled boiling it down to just – ‘kimchi?’
With the help of the uber chic SuperStar Korean BBQ in Central Saint Giles (near Tottenham Court Road), I will help uncover my Top 5 Dishes to rectify the issue. Not to mention the fact that you should only ever visit a Korean restaurant if it provides both karaoke and the traditional tables with in-built hot plates, for you to cook your meat just as you like it.
1.The Marinated Meats
Sorry Vegans but Koreans are known for their beautifully marinated, tender cuts of meat! With so many options and so little time, what does it all mean? Boolgogi is the type of sauce used to coat meats like chicken and beef. It is often left overnight to soak up all the flavour and has a sweet-soya sauce-like flavour. Eaten with rice and vegetables it is a healthy Korean staple. Galbi is a marinated beef or pork short rib with Korean soya sauce, the bones are quite thick but the result is incredibly satisfying. If my father had to choose one meal to live off for the rest of his life – this would be it.
2. Pa Jaeon
No not the name of a distant relative, Pa Jeon means ‘pancake’ and not of the thin french crepe kind. These are thick, gooey, corn-based pancakes filled with Kimchi (fermented pickled cabbage – amazing for gut health) and/or seafood.
3. Spicy Rice Cake – Tteokbokki
Despite the unusual appearance I regularly get cravings for this dish. The white sticks are made from rice flour, creating a soft and sticky texture that melts in your mouth. Coated in Gochujang sauce (a sweet yet spicy mix) it fulfils those sugar cravings without being overly insulin-inducing.
My mother always tells me that if I keep eating these, my face will one day turn into a giant mandoo i.e. dumpling. Superstar Korean BBQ does it just right, delicately steamed parcels with the soles lightly fried, locking in its juicy contents and preventing it from falling to pieces at the end of your chopstick (Koreans prefer to use the slippery metallic kind, just to be difficult).
Another great name for the house pet, Bibimbap is a signature Korean dish. Translated literally it means ‘mixed rice’ and is often served in a hot stone bowl. It contains white rice, meats, lots of freshly cooked vegetables and is topped with a fried egg and Gochujang sauce or Doenjang – a fermented soybean paste, your gut microbes will thank you for. The idea is to mash it all up with your spoon, give it a good mix and then devour.
My Top 5 orders for your very first Korean meal! Obviously the list is extensive and once you have passed level 1 I would highly recommend working your way through all the options, including the vegetable glass noodles (Japchae), sweet black bean sauce noodles (Jajangmyeon) and spicy seafood soups (Jjamppong).
Koreans don’t really do desserts as they are far too healthy for such things. Sliced fruit is often given at the end of a meal, or you may find shaved ice coated in flavoured sauces and topped with sweet, sticky red beans. Give yourself a post referendum pick me-up and embrace some global culture this weekend!