Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the fact that despite being in the midst of London, I can be instantly transported back to Korea through the sights, aromas and above all tastes that Korean restaurants bring with them. I’m lucky to live in a vibrant city that allows such colourful and exotic dinner choices every single day.
The more London Korean restaurants I visit, though, the more I miss the little touches that come with the authentic Korean restaurant experience. These 5 points detail the things that I miss the most about dining there:
1) Specialised Restaurants
My old city of residence Chuncheon is famous for dak galbi (stir-fried spicy chicken and rice cake) and Makguksu (iced buckwheat noodles), and there are restaurants dedicated to these dishes throughout the area. In fact, there is an entire alley called ‘Dak Galbi Street‘, which does for dak galbi what Brick Lane does for Indian curry. Every other city has its own specialities, and similarly specialised restaurants.
Not only this, but it is usual for almost every Korean restaurant to have a specific identity. There are BBQ restaurants, soup houses, tofu eateries, etc., each experts at dishing up that particular culinary delight.
In London, eating Korean food is seen as an experience unique enough in itself, so all K-restaurants here follow a far more generic pattern, offering a menu of just about anything and everything that is traditionally Korean. The result is a wide variety of dishes to choose from that works well for K-food first-timers or big groups with diverse tastes. For more frequent diners, this style can get a little monotonous, and after a while the restaurants seem almost indistinguishable from one another. The quality of the food is always good, though!
2) Funny signs!
We Brits are known to be reserved, and it seems that this has impacted on the lack of funny or cute Korean restaurant signs! The signs in London usually just give the name of the restaurant in Hangul and/or English, whereas in Korea they are far jazzier.
There are no qualms about outlining which animal/s are going to be served as delicious meat dishes inside. Images range from idyllic pictures of cows grazing in fields to cartoon chickens welcoming you in. My personal favourite was a crazy cartoon pig wearing an apron and cooking away at some pork intestines, have a look for yourself. Yummy!
3) Floor seating
There are a couple of floor-seated restaurants in New Malden, but the vast majority of London’s restaurants will seat you upright on chairs. I completely understand the reasoning behind this- who would want to lose custom over a lack of a few chairs? I’m afraid I still can’t help but wish I was enjoying my sun dubu whilst comfortably perched on a floor cushion.
4) Appreciation of broken Korean
Korean people seem to love nothing more than a non-native giving the Korean language their best shot. They are grateful for the effort and give the impression of feeling very honoured. In London, not so much!
The poor restaurant staff must hear nothing but terrible, incomprehensible Korean from over-keen Londoners every hour and day that they are open. What’s more, almost all Korean waiters and waitresses over here can speak good English. It’s not surprising, then, that they fail to be charmed by someone trying to order in broken Korean, and would rather customers just spoke English. It’s still a bit disappointing for those of us trying to learn Korean and get some good practice, though.
5) Kimchi and Banchan
Kimchi is healthy and Korean people believe it should be eaten with every meal. Therefore, it comes as a ‘given’ in every restaurant in Korea. It’s provided free of charge, and as soon as you finish the pot, a refill comes your way.
Banchan (various side dishes) also come free when ordering a meal. I love them because you never get the exact combination twice, so can try new things all the time. They also add an interactive aspect to the meal.
Alas, in London a single, tiny pot of kimchi alone is priced at £2.20 in a restaurant, and I feel that because of this, Londoners are missing out on loads of Korean tastes and textures. Again, this is utterly understandable. The cost of living and running a business in London is huge compared to doing so in Korea, and it simply wouldn’t make economic sense to be so generous. I still wonder if a few shreds of free kimchi wouldn’t go amiss, though.
It’s so different eating Korean food here, and of course I miss the perks and charms of true Korean dining out (then again, there are things that I miss with less seriousness, such as the obligatory Korean TV shows that are blasted out to customers).
But whether grabbing some kimbap in Seoul Bakery or sitting down for a full-blown meal in Korea Town’s Sorabol, I always remember where I am- Korean London. And let’s face it, there’s a lot to love about that.