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A little known fact that many of us would be surprised to hear – New Malden is home to more Koreans than anywhere else in Europe. With over 30,000 residents sharing the same heritage, this small South West London suburb has become an unofficial hub for all things Korean. Whilst the cuisine has yet to gain Gangnam style like traction in the UK’s cultural consciousness, Korean food imports have jumped a massive 135% in 2014. The ingredients of this lesser known Asian cuisine are slowly creeping into retailers across the country, and into the pantries of professional and home cooks alike. So when it comes to finding out a bit more about Korean ingredients, the natural place for me to explore was New Malden’s premier oriental supermarket, Korea Foods.

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With many of the products labelled in Korean, one of the lovely store clerks showed me around the shop, pointing me in the right direction towards the colourful array of imported foodstuffs the oriental emporium stocked. Recommending some snacking delicacies like crispy seaweed bites and chilli broad beans, I first picked up some treats for the office before heading to what I really came for. Chilli is the main theme connecting many of Korean products, with the spicy pepper paste gochujang, and the sweet heat of a bulgogi barbeque marinade both on my shopping list for the day. Chilli pickled vegetables, such as a diced radish called kkadugi, made up an aisle to itself, but the undisputed king of the ingredients was Kimchi. As powerful flavours like sriracha have taken off in the UK in recent years, the palette for bold flavours continues to develop, and Kimchi is stepping into the fold as the next go to ingredient to give dishes from a wide range of cuisines that intense chilli kick. Korea Foods had full shelves stocked with various assortments of the hot cabbage condiment, and as my kind shopping aid pointed out, it is by far their most popular product. With its powerful fermented taste fitting with current flavour trends and being widely used by a string top chefs, business was booming.  With chefs like Neil Rankin – who rubs his brisket in gochujang and makes a hollandaise with Kimchi – championing these chilli packed ingredients in his own restaurant, the enthusiasm for integrating them into everyday cooking is increasing.

Owing to a much larger émigré population and a longer cultural heritage in the country, Korean food is far more established in the US. However, the development of this cuisine has similarly only happened in recent years. The original Korea Town, a small area of Manhattan, was for many years an undiscovered gem of Midtown; where chefs from high pressure restaurant’s would take advantage of late opening hours,  lax liquor licenses, and of course fantastic food to seek refuge with these bold flavours late at night. Like the allure of most authentic Asian food, the cuisine’s deliciousness may be built on its contract with the rich palette of European and American dishes. In recent years Chef’s like David Chang, whose string of restaurants are heavily inspired from his Korean heritage, have stepped to the forefront and taken it to new levels across the pond

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Dishes like Bibimbap (a mixed rice dish), or gogi mundu (Korean meat dumplings) all combine sweet, sour, spicy, salty and bitter flavours in complex ways, and are a must try for any fans of Asian food. Spotting a gap in the market, Dong Hyun Kim opened Kimchee in 2013, and its success has continually developed gradually, with the chain looking to open multiple Kimchee on the go sites across the capital this year. However, the recent success of the Korean is partly based on the relevancy of many of the concepts involved in the cuisine. Most notably through Bulgogi and KFC (Korean fried chicken), the trending of relatable ideas such as barbeque and fried chicken have helped Korean food bridge the gap into other cuisines, making it an Asian gateway cuisine of sorts. It’s at the street food level that the most innovation has been seen in the UK’s Korean food, with the meshing of Mexican with the Asian cuisine by far the most prominent. Replace carnitas with bulgogi and swap salsa for Kimchi, and you have yourself a fusion masterpiece to rival any on the go food. Busan BBQ, Kimchi Cult, Galbi Bros. and personal favourite of mine, Kimchinary, are doing deliciously novel street food to give people their first taste of Seoul food.

In its more traditional form, Korean food is not only balanced in flavour, but on the whole a nutritionally balanced cuisine. Offering a far healthier option to some of its Asian counterparts, it naturally boasts dishes that can cater to all dietary requirements. As well as this, the Korean dining style of smaller plates ties nicely in with recent sharing trends, so the ceiling for what is a highly versatile, adaptable and healthy cuisine would appear to be very high. Whilst the UK does not share the throngs of talented Korean chef’s that the US can boast, innovators like Judy Joo at her restaurant Jinjuu are too beginning to make waves. 2015 could thus be the year that the word gets spread, and a full range of authentic delights from this diverse cuisine stretch much further than South West London’s own Korea Town.

Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant

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