Jennifer Barclay reports from the Korean Food Festival, held in the garden of the Fountain Pub, New Malden, Saturday 12 July 2008
By 10.30 on Saturday morning, I’d already done my best to introduce millions of BBC Radio Four listeners to the delights of kimchi.
I’d been invited onto the travel show Excess Baggage to talk about the experiences described in my new book Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi. What an appropriate thing to do on the day of the Korean Food Festival in New Malden – to have Sandi Toksvig, one of the beeb’s top presenters, eating kimchi on air and know the garlicky whiff of it was pervading the whole of Broadcasting House through the air con system. Sylvie, the French producer, knew the ins and outs of making kimchi and was happy when I offered to leave the rest of the packet.
In fact, my book contains a little scene from last year’s Korean Food Festival, when I first tasted soondae and tongdwaeji, so this year I went hoping to try some more unusual, traditional dishes. In this, dear reader, I’m sorry that I failed. But the sixth annual festival was a great success, in spite of weather that, just like last year, had occasional sunshine but generally hovered on the brink of wintry.
New Malden has a fair with stalls that line the high street on the same day, and so the garden of the Fountain pub was already busy with crowds – both Koreans and ‘foreigners’, as even I started calling the non-Koreans – by 12.30 when the first taekwondo demonstration took place. Only four restaurants were offering food this year, Hankook, Green Farm, Cook Il (a name which unfortunately doesn’t inspire confidence in an English speaker!) and the Phoenix.
Unable to resist, although it was hardly broadening my gastronomic horizons, I bought a tasty plate of tokbokki, the rice cakes, carrot and cabbage in spicy red sauce, for four pounds from Green Farm and watched the opening ceremonies, where the Korean community presented the local council with a cheque to help stamp out drug use. Then came a great performance by Ji Eun Jung on kayageum and Sung Min Jeon on guitar. I loved their rendition of ‘Let It Be’, Sung Min adding harmonica into the mix, and the lively ‘Arirang’ was most enjoyable.
Master Cho’s taekwondo school performance was next, and although they promised to smash eighteen sheets of granite, I felt it was taking TKD too far to watch another, when my main purpose was eating, so showing none of the Self-Control promoted by Master Cho’s school, I headed back to the food. Alas, there were no interesting little stalls selling Korean trinkets, and now there were long queues at Green Farm – and elsewhere there was little unusual food on offer, just barbecued meat, galbi, and much fried chicken and egg fried rice and fried dumplings. So much for Korean food being healthy.
I munched some heavily battered fried chicken in a cloying sweet-and-sour sauce. Someone hinted that restaurants hadn’t made money at Dano in Trafalgar Square this year, hence the less than exciting turnout. I wondered if they’d have sold a lot more at Dano if they charged four quid a plate instead of six. I tried some ‘spicy chicken’ from another stall but it wasn’t spicy, and I had chicken overload.
A couple of English blokes noted, ‘There seem less stalls this year – better get in there,’ as they carried pints of lager into the fray. An older British couple who frankly didn’t look adventurous types sat eating bulgogi and fried dumplings, so the festival was obviously doing something right. The beef didn’t look very traditionally Korean, mind you, with potatoes and broccoli. A couple of Korean friends pointed at the mounds of sweet fried chicken and noodles and said, ‘This is not real traditional Korean food.’ I know, I said. I imagined Brits saying later, ‘It was just like Chinese!’
‘Karaoke, innit?’ said a British voice. Yes indeed, the crooning had started – Koreans and Brits love a good sing, and they were off, queueing up to be rock stars for the afternoon. The most amusing was a young boy with a high-pitched voice and no musical ability whatsoever but bags of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Soo Kim, formerly journalist for the Korea Post and now a freelance videojournalist with a new book deal, introduced me to some friends, and thus I met Dominique, who is French/Swiss but has lived in the UK for twelve years. She’s got lots of Korean friends and feels a little out of touch with French culture, so I thought she might be able to assess dispassionately the bold statement a certain Mr Kim offered me at the last year’s festival – that Korean food is more highly developed than French.
‘I could believe it!’ she answered, with a slight French accent. ‘In Paris now, French-Korean food is very posh. I think that cultural mix could really work.’ Apparently there are even two Korean-French restaurants in London. Dominique explained that her father was a French cheesemaker and winemaker, so she has very strong links to French gastronomy, but she learns a lot from the cooking of her Korean friend Sunny and they exchange culinary tips. I mentioned to Sunny that I’d heard wine bars were now everywhere in Seoul. Yes, she said, ‘Korea is very quick to change!’
Dominique added, ‘Korean food is a food I’m not tired of. I don’t start missing my own food.’ Partly because it’s so diverse, and partly because Koreans cook from fresh, which they have in common with the French. I learned from Sunny’s Australian husband that she loves their flat in Elephant and Castle for its view that looks out over a greengrocer’s – that’s how passionate she is about fresh food.
Dominique did have food that was a little too fresh once during her three-week tour of South Korea. It was in a small restaurant on the east coast where nobody spoke a word of English, and the ajumma seemed rather embarrassed when Dominique pointed to an octopus in one of the tanks outside, went back to her seat and waited.
‘She came back with a shallow dish with a live octopus, trying to crawl out. I quickly looked in my Lonely Planet to find the word for ‘cook it’. [The Koreans just swallow it quickly.] I could only find the word for ‘boil it’, so she brought it back in a minute, dead. It tasted OK – with lots of side dishes.’
She came home with wonderful travel stories – of her hosts taking their pet dog to the hairdresser, of her friend inadvertently booking her and her boyfriend into a brothel where the owners switched on a porn video for them, of having a wonderful drunken conversation with a deaf couple in Taegu where they discussed everything by drawing pictures all over the paper tablecloth. And six years later she’s still keen on things Korean.
Once again, we were some of the last people in the garden of the Fountain pub at six o’clock as everyone cleared up. Prices of food were reduced slightly, but they still wanted two pounds for a little tub of kimchi, so I bought some for half that price at the supermarket on the way back to the train station. The New Malden community is coming of age these days, with the You-Me restaurant celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. That’s a long time for any restaurant to keep going. I must go back there and try something new – and will try to avoid fried chicken.