Korean food under lockdown

As the UK Covid-19 lockdown was announced back in March, what was one of the many concerns for me?

The fact that I wouldn’t be able to go to a Korean restaurant for a samgyeopsal feast for the foreseeable future, obviously.

So I began to plan for second best. While, somehow, samgyeopsal always tastes best with mates, with plenty of beer and soju to wash it down with, and some bantering with your friendly restaurateur to complete the experience, surely one can enjoy the taste at home without the added experience of the ambiance of your favourite restaurant?

So what, I wondered, are the key ingredients of a sampgyeopsal feast that it’s difficult to get from a typical London neighbourhood supermarket? And how can I source them? Here was the list I came up with.

  1. Kimchi, obviously.
  2. Ssamjang to add punch to the mouthful.
  3. Fresh perilla leaves (along with easily-obtained lettuce) in which to wrap the bundle. Yes, I know, not everyone likes them, but for me they really make a BBQ.

salad leaves

My plan only evolved gradually, and fortunately it was the perilla problem that I sought to address first. A quick bit of googling uncovered a supplier in the West of England that specialises in Japanese ingredients but which also dabbles with Korean foodstuffs: The Wasabi Company. I really must explore some of their other ingredients.

Perilla plants as they arrived from The Wasabi Company

I was surprised how quickly their three-pack of perilla plants arrived: they were carefully boxed up, and from the outside you would not realise that there was living plant material inside. I planted them out into pots immediately, and they soon became established. The soil in our garden is probably a bit heavy for them – they prefer a lighter sandy soil, but the area where I live used to be a market garden and the soil is very rich – but nevertheless the plants are now thriving and producing a generous crop suitable for salads, BBQ wraps and also, incidentally, for Thai recipes where you might otherwise use holy basil.

Overall, ordering perilla plants online was a genius decision, though I say so myself. I expect the plants to be killed off by the British winter, but I shall definitely order some more plants next spring. By the way, it’s not just humans that like perilla leaves. The snails in my garden love it even more than our hostas. So be prepared to share your crop with our slimey friends.

Kimchi. Well actually my local Londis does occasionally stock kimchi in glass jars, but having tried it once I’m not going to buy it again. So I wasn’t sure how to source the most essential side dish in Korean cuisine. Fortunately others were having the same problem. And a post in the LKL Facebook group elicited a tentative post in response (tentative, because the kimchi-makers in question were reluctant to make use of the forum to promote themselves – I wish others were as modest). The reply was from Korean Pantry, an artisan kimchi maker in south-east London.

Cabbage and Cucumber kimchi from Korean Pantry

Having checked out the website I was impressed. I’m pretty sure it’s more expensive than the bulk-produced kimchi you get at the Korean supermarkets in Central London or New Malden. But on the plus side you know where it’s come from, who’s made it and what’s in it. And it gets delivered to your front door. When I opened that first pack of fresh kimchi from them…. Wow: it’s the real thing. I’m now a regular customer, and order their kimchi of the month as well as their regular cabbage kimchi. Coinciding with my samgyeopsal journey, their kimchi of the month was cucumber. Perfect.

As lockdown has matured, Korean supermarkets seem to have adapted to the new normal. As far as I’m aware, just about the only Korean supermarket that delivers is H Mart. At one point, if I remember right, posts on Facebook seemed to indicate that you could only get a delivery slot from them if you logged on to their website at 5am. But now deliveries seem to be easier to secure. So I tried it out, and apart from a minimum order level that meant I had to bulk out my order with soju, I managed to get all the basics I needed (including pajeon mix). A few days later, a well-packed (possibly over-packed) box arrived with the ssamjang and other essentials, and then I was pretty much all set.

Making a tomato and perilla salad
Making a tomato and perilla salad while watching Hyelim Kim’s livestreamed Resonances performance

Pork belly from the local farmers market, a tomato salad based on a Korean Pantry tomato kimchi recipe; ssamjang from the H Mart delivery; perilla leaves freshly plucked from the garden; a sesame oil dip benefiting from Korean sea salt from a goodie bag given away at a past Korean event in London; soju, of course.

It was a pretty authentic taste, even though I had to cook the pork in the kitchen rather than on a table-top BBQ. I did some plain sampyeopsal, and also a version with the meat marinaded in red wine and herbs – an attempted twist on Chef Kim’s recipe from K-Place. Altogether, I was satisfied, and concluded that the experiment needed to be extended. Because I had forgotten that to round off a sampgyeopsal feast you need a bowl of furiously bubbling sundubu jjigae.

I’m not sure that H Mart delivers tofu. But I have now discovered that, if I’m feeling energetic, the nearest Korean supermarket in New Malden is a mere three hours’ walk away, across Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common, following the course of the Beverley Brook. And since my first self-cooked samgyeopsal experience, I’ve had my first home-cooked pajeon and sundubu jjigae experience. I definitely need to practice, particularly with the pancake technique (it turned out far too soggy). Although it wasn’t as good as what you get at a restaurant, I was quite proud of myself.

But there’s no substitute for the real thing, and for supporting your local restaurant owner. So, now that lockdown is beginning to be relaxed, I look forward to going back to my favourite Korean restaurants in town, hopefully sometime soon, in an appropriately socially distanced manner.

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