We’ll remember this summer heat: after so many Korean summer festivals in London marred by rain and cold, this one was a scorcher. Blue skies, Tower Bridge in the background heaving with tourists, the Gherkin to the north, and on the south side on some of the greenest lawns I’ve seen for weeks during this long dry spell, and a colourful array of food stalls set around a simple stage to showcase Asian culture.
Taste The East was the brand new brainchild of Hyun-wook Lee, creator of The East newspaper, and rivalled the New Malden Korean Food Festival on the same day. But setting it a short walk from the Tower, the London Dungeon and the fleshpots of every trendy Thames wharf was a daring stroke of genius, as was tying together Korean and Japanese food and culture.
I’m sometimes disappointed by the abundance of greasy fried chicken and overpriced fast food at big cultural events. What kind of impression do people new to Korean food get from that? The price of the concessions makes it tricky to provide the best food. But here there was a variety of options, and hallelujah, one Japanese stall even advertised free range chicken.
After all, Taste the East also aimed to be ‘part of an East Asian Healthy Food campaign’, to share with the rest of the world some healthy ingredients undiscovered in the west. Information came mainly through the cookery demonstrations and literature on offer there. For example, I learned that sushi doesn’t mean raw fish but the combination of vinegar with rice, and the vinegar not only brings out the full flavour of the fish but kills bacteria.
The Korean chef created a superb dish of rolled rib of beef, marinated in a reduction of red wine, soy sauce and sake; garnished with a crispy stick of gonbu, a seaweed usually used for making stock. There was no shortage of visitors waiting to sample his creations. Another dish had a delicate fish mousse sitting on a bed of delicious kimchi chopped with tofu.
‘Little Korea’ restaurant offered one of the best £5 buffet plates that included a nicely spicy chaeyupokum, pork stir-fried with vegetables in a red sauce. A stall set up by a group of New Malden business owners was selling perhaps the healthiest fare, and usually had the biggest queue. I watched a lean cyclist pile his plate with tteokbokki, cucumber in a sesame oil marinade, japchae and lots of crunchy vegetables. For a little indulgence, there were the Japanese rice cakes including a supremely decadent chocolate ganache mochi that melted in the mouth – apparently available at Yo! Sushi. Yami had the coolest outfits and, apparently, the coolest beer.
Entertainment was a mixed affair, ranging from Koreans Ji-eun Jung and Sung-min Jeon playing a mixture of Korean classical and western pop on kayageum and guitar (look out for Ji-eun Jung’s CD coming out later this year), to some non-professional but enthusiastic Taeko drummers with rather unfocused dancers, to a bizarre display of perhaps the slowest martial art I’ve seen, the Japanese Jikiden Iaido, with a group of East London blokes in priest-like black robes lunging forward and drawing swords, to a talk on the practicality of the kimono.
We took shelter from the blazing sun in the shade of the trees, and caught up with old friends, one of the greatest pleasures of these summer festivals. To those who organised it and to those who supported it, a big thank you and congratulations: I’m looking forward to the next.