I went to Korea once. I had a 17 hour layover, on a cheap flight from Bangkok to Montreal, via Seoul and Chicago. I had grand plans – palaces, temples, more palaces, stand on the border of North Korea and South Korea and hop back and forth, saying “North Korea, South Korea, North Korea, South Korea,” over, and over again. I know you can picture me doing this.
I learned one thing from my brief stint in this bustling Asian megacity – don’t bother going on a Monday. Everything is closed. Palaces – closed. Temples? Closed. DEMILITARIZED ZONE? Closed! Hopes – dashed. There would be no hopping.
But, the bus from the airport is free. I suppose I could have gone to Gyeongbokgung Palace – that one is closed on Tuesdays – but instead, I wandered aimlessly through the eerily quiet city center, flip-flop-claden on a chilly November day. I lasted about 4 hours, and then went back to the airport to use the free wifi – I’d been backpacking for 10 weeks, and thought it was a good idea to let my parents know I was on my way home. Plus this was 2008 – they didn’t have wifi in temples back then.
What I didn’t do in Seoul (why??) was have a meal. So, have I actually been to Korea? I’m not sure if this pit stop counts, if I apply the criteria that I normally use to determine whether or not I’ve really, truly visited a country. These criteria being, mostly, did I eat?
I was, in fact, introduced to Korean food a few years earlier by my friend Jane, who, incidentally, is Korean. She prepared a Korean feast for me and four other friends in her small Ottawa apartment on Valentine’s Day – her Korean pancakes, or “jeon” would become legendary in our circles. She dazzled us with her chopstick skillz, and left us in awe of her flawless ability to converse with her mom in two languages, when she called home to ask a question about one of the recipes. “Jane, it’s probably very early in Korea,” I reminded her as she picked up the phone. “Don’t be stupid,” she reminded me back, “My parents live in Yellowknife.
Fun fact: According to a 2011 census, the total number of Koreans living in Yellowknife is 30.
There is no shortage of Korean food in London – it’s like, a thing. All of the hipsters are eating it! Well, they’re eating a hybrid of American and Korean street food which is mighty, mighty tasty. Some of the most popular Korean food traders right now include Kimchinary (otherwise known as Korean tacos otherwise known as the best idea ever) and Busan BBQ, a cross between Texas and Seoul (or Pyongyang) in a burger.
There are at least three reliable choices for a good bibimbap near my office – I eat Korean food a fair bit now, thanks to Jane. The aptly named Bibimbap in Soho is a good spot for beginners. My favourite part is the rice crust at the bottom of the bowl.
The one Korean delicacy I hadn’t had the pleasure of trying before my current culinary journey was Korean barbecue, or gogigui, which means simply meat + roasting. I love Asian languages – the literal translation of the Chinese word for popcorn, for example, is exploding rice flower. They said it like it is, which is a quality I like in a nation.
Usually prepared on a charcoal grill built in to your table, I wasn’t 100% sure that in the UK this was allowed for health and safety reasons, but what the hey?
Myung Ga in Soho was chocablock at 7 pm on a Monday night. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was that the only table left was the one that I had booked – night saved! The second thing was that all the other diners were Korean. I took this as an excellent sign, until the table next to ours just wouldn’t stop eating which diverted the waiter’s attention away from you know, me.
We decided to order a mix of gogigui and other mains and small dishes. For the barbecue which, to the regulator’s delight, was of the less traditional variety – gas vs. charcoal, we chose two beef dishes and one chicken – the kalbi (beef ribs), bulgogi (thinly sliced beef) and dakgui, or “chicken marinated for the BBQ so that the weird girl who doesn’t like beef can eat.” To start, we ordered some fried tofu and kimchi jeon – Jane’s old staple, the Korean pancake, prepared with kimchi – if I said kimchi was a staple of the Korean diet, I’d be vastly underestimating its importance. Did you know that the average Korean eats approximately 40 pounds of kimchi every year? They also say “kimchi” instead of “cheese” when taking photographs. It’s very high in fibre, and low in fat.
Just in case this wasn’t enough, we ordered a portion of dak galbi – “chicken specially prepared in a Korean way with spicy sauce” – and bibim naengmyeon, a dish of cold buckwheat noodles in a hot sauce.
The food was delivered in an orderly fashion, beginning with the small dishes and the non-barbecue chicken; based on my limited experience (being Jane and less than six hours in Seoul) Koreans are nothing if not extremely efficient. The jeon, predictably, was delicious, although disappeared mysteriously quickly. The chicken specially prepared in a Korean way with spicy sauce was not in the least bit spicy; coated in a syrupy red sauce, it was undeniably sweet, but ravishingly so. My teeth will forgive me tomorrow, I promised myself.
Once this first stage of our meal was complete, the waiter arrived to turn on our grill. With a flick of a switch, the first small platter of beef was a-sizzling. We were brought a bowl full of lettuce – I wasn’t allowed to put this on the barbecue (but everything goes on the barbecue) but instead was to use it a wrapper for the meat, like so:
“Like a taco!” I exclaimed with delight. Tacos are my favourite thing ever.
While the plates of meat were somewhat small and once again a little on the sweet side, and the noodles, when they arrived, a bit on the awkward side to slurp, I would consider this a very fun and intimate experience to share with good friends. And, a learning experience : one, I did not know about the technique of cutting meat up with scissors. This is genius. Two – tinder! For a girl who has been in a relationship for more than six years, this was news to me. For a married woman out for dinner with her girlfriends, this dating app turned out to be the equivalent of the iPad game for cats – “all the fun of your cat chasing a laser pointer, without any of the work.”
Massive apologies to Rosie. I hope the guy without teeth doesn’t contact you again.
The verdict: Definitely a successful evening, but maybe more so because of my friend’s willingness to let me accept and reject her potential future soulmates on her mobile. At £16 a head (without alcohol) I thought this was a pretty good value meal; that said, I imagine you can find good value barbecue elsewhere with bigger portions, and less sugar.
If a Korean meal isn’t enough for you, the London Korean Film Festival is on until November 12th. If you happen to be reading this whilst currently IN Korea – Paktor is the South-East Asian version of Tinder. I kid you not – good luck!
Need to know:
Myung Ga Restaurant
1 Kingly Street
020 7734 8220
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus or Picadilly Circus
Opening Hours: Mon-Sat 12pm-3pm, 5:30pm-11 pm, Sunday 530 pm-1030 pm