Kimchi pops up on haute cuisine menus in London

December 2, 2013
Kimchi Cult’s Danny O’Sullivan poses with a jar of his homemade kimchi. Inset photo shows Kimchi Cult’s kimchi cheeseburger.  / Provided by Kimchi Cult

Kimchi Cult’s Danny O’Sullivan poses with a jar of his homemade kimchi. The inset photo shows Kimchi Cult’s kimchi cheeseburger. (Provided by Kimchi Cult)

By Cho Jae-un

LONDON — Until recently, a pudgy singer and his weird horse dance were the only things many Londoners knew of Korea. Now, they are increasingly discovering something far more tasteful about the country.

Korean staples such as “kimchi” and “gochujang” (Korean spicy chili sauce) are popping up on haute cuisine dishes in popular central London restaurants including 100 Hoxton and Hawksmoor. British supermarkets are increasing their stock of Korean condiments, and sauces such as kimchi and “bulgogi” (Korean grilled marinated beef) marinades. Last year, Tesco, the U.K.’s biggest grocery chain, stocked Korean food products in only three of its stores in the capital. This year, the number grew to around 50 stores in the Greater London area.

In fact, the city’s thirst for Korean cuisine is fast making it a gateway for introducing “K-food” in Europe. In the Europe Michelin Guide 2014, three of the four Korean restaurants featured are in London, including Bibigo, Asadal and Hana.

The biggest such franchise here is Kimchee, a chain of Korean food restaurants started in 2003 by Kim Dong-hyun. The main branch in High Holborn, central London, as well as its two take-out stores, often see massive queues stretching for up to a block. Kim plans to expand the franchise to include up to 15 outlets by 2015.

With the success of such restaurants, the K-food trend has now spilled onto the street food scene here, as young traders create accessible, casual eats peppered with Korean influences including Kimchi Cult and Kimchinary.

Hanna Soderlund greets customers in her Kimchinary food stall near King’s Cross Station this summer. Inset photo shows her kimchi burrito. / Provided by Kimchinary

Hanna Soderlund greets customers in her Kimchinary food stall near King’s Cross Station this summer. The inset photo shows her kimchi burrito. (Provided by Kimchinary)

Kimchi tacos with Swedish twist

With her deep blond hair and American accent, Hanna Soderlund would be few people’s idea of a typical kimchi seller. But the 25-year-old does just that, fermenting her own kimchi and making Korean tacos and burritos in the streets of London.

“Here I am — a Swedish girl selling kimchi tacos in London, going on about fermentation,” she says, discussing her fixation with the fiery, Korean cabbage dish. “Everyone thought I was so weird, especially in the beginning.”

Soderlund’s kimchi connection came in the form of two Korean roommates during her days as a politics major at King’s College London, who always made sure they had plenty of kimchi in their flat.

But it wasn’t until she saw a positive change in her health that she became partial to the pungent side dish. “This sounds really cliche but I started noticing that I was much healthier from eating kimchi,” she says.

Her newfound love of this super food led to a month-long trip to Korea early this year, where she visited Seoul, Busan and Jeonju to learn about Korean cuisine. There, she attended traditional weddings and raided the fridges of her Korean roommates’ mums to get her hands on the secrets of kimchi-making and the perfect soy sauce to sesame oil ratio for bulgogi, among other culinary curiosities.

With her blossoming love of London’s street food scene, Soderlund took the leap of her life and began Kimchinary in April this year. Besides trading in food festivals including Feast, the young entrepreneur started a supper club in her home.

One supper club dinner saw the attendance of Ian Dodds, market planning manager for popular street food market Kerb. By the beginning of summer, Soderlund was a regular trader at the highly successful street food organization, with its main basis near King’s Cross Station in north London.

With her success at Kerb, the street food merchant says she is feeling ready to go on to other things. “A Gordon Ramsey restaurant, Bread Street Kitchen, asked me to do a Saturday pop-up with them. It’s exciting to be asked, but I’m not sure where I fit in yet,” she says.

Of the ever-growing London street food scene, Soderlund comments, “It has gone from nothing to something very good in quite a short amount of time. British food used to be the shame of Europe basically, and now London has the most amazing street food scene.” She adds, “Loads of young people can actually start a business and make a living just out of being passionate about food.”

Wanderer expat creates cult of kimchi

After a few years as an English teacher in Busan, Danny O’Sullivan took his favorite part of Korean culture back to the U.K. and started a business making kimchi burgers.

“I love the Korean approach to food — strong flavors, rustic and wholesome. I also love the sharing aspect of the food culture in Korea and the casualness that comes with that,” said the Ireland-born 30-year-old. “I didn’t want to do straight Korean food. So I developed a more accessible menu to showcase to Londoners, with my kimchi-topped burgers.”

In early 2011, O’Sullivan and his partner, Sarah Hogg, started their street food business in the hip Brick Lane area in east London. Throughout their early days in various locations such as South Bank and Kerb in King’s Cross, the couple sold a vast array of Korean-inspired, casual street food, including pulled pork sandwiches with gochujang, cole slaw and bulgogi subs, before settling on beef patty burgers with a homemade kimchi topping and cheese. “We were influenced quite a bit by the Korean taco trucks that saw success in L.A. It made me see the potential for Korean food globally,” says O’Sullivan.

Being a non-Korean hasn’t been an issue for O’Sullivan. “I think if there are people in Korea doing burgers, it’s the same as us doing Korean food in London.”

Sourcing the right Korean ingredients on the other hand, has proven quite tricky at times for O’Sullivan. “I started using Chinese cabbage instead of Korean ones, which was fine. But one ingredient that I felt had no substitute in the U.K. was Korea sea salt,” he says, explaining how its unique taste makes a huge difference in how kimchi tastes in the end.

Following the summer success of its pop-up restaurant in Camden, north London, Kimchi Cult is headed to Glasgow, where the couple plan to open a restaurant this winter. But whatever form it takes O’Sullivan says Korean food influences will always be a part of the business. “One of my ultimate goals is to open a dalgalbi [spicy Korean griddled chicken] in Soho (central London). That would be fun,” he said.

The writer is a student at the Central Saint Martins College of Arts & Design in London.

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