…but this is no East-End boozer. Jennifer Barclay reports from Saturday’s Korean Food Festival
The softly spoken Mr Kim tells me he thinks Korean food is the most highly developed in the world, while standing over the searing hot barbecue cooking galbi, beef marinated in 17 different ingredients. His white t-shirt somehow manages to remain immaculate, although he is slinging steaks onto the grill all day.
‘French food is seen as the best in the world. The French, they have 170 different cuts of the cow, of beef. Koreans, we have more than 200. Close to 300.’
An impressive fact, although I wonder privately if it is a good thing to eat that many parts of a cow. The thinly sliced meat tastes sweet, and I’m impressed that young men like Mr Kim are spending their Saturday helping at the community’s Korean Food Festival that takes place every year during the New Malden Fortnight. All the restaurants in this London community have special events — the high street is packed with stalls — but it’s only the Korean restaurants who come together in the expansive garden of the Fountain Pub to create a cultural gathering. I come prepared to eat lots.
I start off with tokboki, and sit down at a table where a friendly lady asks, ‘Are you OK with this spicy food?’ It isn’t very spicy, but has pleasantly crunchy carrot, cabbage and spring onion, and enormous fat rice cakes. The sun is strong and she goes to seek shade, leaving space for an older Indian couple. We are watching the taekwondo demonstration — tiny kids breaking blocks of wood with their kicks and punches.
I like this festival immediately because all the announcements are made first in Korean and then in English for people like me who would be lost otherwise — and there are plenty of us, some finding their way in through the Fountain, the sort of sports pub I wouldn’t normally associate with cultural exchange. The Mayor of Kingston gives a short speech, commenting on the ‘lovely smell of food’.
A bewildered older British lady is walking around with a plate of plain white rice. A mum isn’t convinced her son will like the Korean grape juice with the whole grapes inside. ‘My son’s a bit funny, I’ll just have a bottle of water.’ But he’s tucking into a plate of bulgogi, barbecued marinated beef. ‘Yeah, he loves it. It’s the first time we’ve been down here.’
The Phoenix restaurant offers tastes of delicious sweet and spicy chicken. My objective today is to expand my Korean food horizons from pibimbap, kimchi tchigae and the handful of dishes I always order. I know from my months in Korea that not every traditional dish is for me. But there are hundreds to try.
First, some culture. The superbly co-ordinated martial arts show is over, and two musicians are up next. Ji Eun Jung plays a traditional instrument called the kayageum with 25 strings. She performs several solos before being joined by guitarist Sung Min Jeon. The sound system is good and I enjoy the music, especially the traditional melodies. When Ji Eun Jung plays ‘Amazing Grace’ she mentions something about her Christian faith, and I later find out she is studying theology.
‘I was a Buddhist all my life. Then one time I was in the island of Guam for a concert, and I met a singer called Mr Yoon. I knew he was a Christian — he was a very famous folk singer in Korea, like Simon and Garfunkel. He invited me to his church, but I didn’t want to go. But that Sunday I was bored and so I went to his church. He sang a song and suddenly I was crying… I didn’t know why.’ It took two years for her to grapple with what happened, before she converted to Christianity and found ‘peace in my heart’. All because of a song. She started performing in churches all over Britain.
I am lucky to be invited to join a group of friends at a table where we can share mounds of food, giving me a chance to taste and learn about a range of things in good company — the right way to enjoy Korean food. We’re in the shade of a tree and we have some drinks too. ‘You know we Koreans have to keep eating side dishes in order to keep drinking!’
I trawl the food stalls and come back with two new dishes. The first is soon-dae, slices of a dark sausage, griddle-fried with hot sauce and cabbage. Only when I put it on the table do I spot the unmistakable slices of tripe lurking among the cabbage. My new friend TJ tells me it is good for the stomach and for energy. The soon-dae is soft, with a slightly chewy skin; someone says it’s like haggis but there is none of the spice, and the texture is more like boudin, French black pudding. The tripe stays on the plate. TJ is disappointed. ‘It is better than snake!’ No, I think I could eat snake. ‘Better than dog!’ he jokes. OK, tell me about dog meat, I ask. He says his father’s generation mainly ate dog because there was no other food during the Korean war. Now, Korean society has advanced to the stage where hardly anyone eats dog. TJ recently met a British Korean War veteran who still remembered eating it. Did he say it was good, I ask? ‘No,’ says TJ. ‘Bad.’
My second experiment is tong-dwae-ji: slivers of spit-roasted pork, served with red garlicky sauce, slices of raw garlic and hot green chilli peppers, and — the really intriguing part — a spoonful of miniscule shrimp, each the size of a few grains of rice. The pork is lean and delicious, the prawns incredibly salty — apparently to aid digestion. But there is something very interesting about this dish if you can get the combination of ingredients right.
The karaoke is now going strong beside our table and I take a break to speak to the owner of the Black Rose Garden Restaurant — whom I’d met a couple of weeks ago with his hands stuck in a bucket of wet cabbage, giving kimchi demonstrations at Kingston. He and his chef hung this whole pig carcass on a spit, all 69 kilos of it, last night to cook for seven hours. All the fat drips away. ‘We are just introducing this to the general public.’ This whole pork roast is only cooked for a special occasion, as it can feed a hundred people. But Mr Nam is a man who spares no effort in the pursuit of perfect food, for he also imports high-quality charcoal from Korea for his galbi, and flour from Korea for the restaurant’s unique naengmyun noodles. I ask him what I’ve always wanted to know: why naengmyun are so difficult to eat that they have to be served with a pair of scissors. He laughs — ‘They are so long!’ But why…?
The crowds remain strong all day. A couple of British blokes with pints of lager with a bag full of food cartons look rather embarrassed when I start asking them their thoughts on Korean food. ‘The truth is there’s a cook-off at my work, and because I live in New Malden I had to cook something Korean. I’m lucky this was happening at the end of my road. I’ve bought a load of dumplings and some of that squid.’ Which squid? ‘That kimchi stuff, I think it’s squid.’ Ah, that would be cabbage, mate. They live in New Malden but are unapologetic KFC aficionados.
Back on the grass in front of the karaoke screen, older ladies are dancing to ‘YMCA’. A smartly dressed Korean man sings ‘My Way’, and a British woman does ‘I Will Survive’ and an ambitious rendition of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. A young Korean woman with surprisingly a huge voice almost gets a standing ovation. Around our table, American Ryan makes a good point. British people talk about the loss of community spirit. But can you imagine them out on the grass now, dancing in their best clothes and singing their hearts out?
Still, there are plenty of Brits here today warming to the community spirit. The Korean Restaurants and Supermarkets Association have organised a great venue, excellent entertainment and food, and London has managed to provide an almost summery day — although it changes four times a day like a woman, says TJ. As the day draws to a close, no-one wants to leave. The young men help to clear up, and our table is stacked with now cut-price deep fried dumplings, prawns fried in batter, kimchi, galbi.
The tripe remains on the table.