First came “K-pop”; now, get ready for “K-food” as Korea’s national cuisine attempts to shake off its also-ran status in the Asian food stakes and attract a new audience. With his catchy tune and crazy dance moves, Psy paved the way for fellow Korean pop-stars to break into international markets. And now restaurateurs and retailers are leaping on the Gangnam bandwagon by following K-pop with a host of K-pop-ups, namely Korean-influenced food trucks that are proving popular from Birmingham to Glasgow.
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Chefs are getting round the stumbling block of unfamiliar dishes – anyone for kkakdugi? – by slipping Korean flavours into old favourites such as hamburgers and tacos. The Hawksmoor steakhouse chain peps up its burgers with kimchi (chilli-spiked fermented cabbage), while barbecue specialist Neil Rankin uses gochujang, a hot-pepper paste, to spice up his chopped brisket.
And the trend isn’t limited to modish joints in the capital: supermarkets from Tesco to Asda are increasing their ranges of punchy Korean delicacies such as meat marinades, including bulgogi sauce, and crispy seaweed snacks.
Tesco recently extended its Korean ranges from three stores last year to 49 stores in Greater London after seeing sales jump by 140 per cent. It is poised to roll out the range to other parts of the UK if demand continues to grow. Matt Clark, Tesco’s head of world foods, said the move was a “direct result” of Psy’s influence as a “brilliant ambassador for Korean culture in the UK”.
The supplier CJ Foods said Korean food imports into the UK jumped 135 per cent in the past 12 months. And Dan Suh, managing director of a rival company, Korea Foods, described demand as “phenomenal”, adding that sales to major retailers had doubled during the past two years. He said the trick was making Korean flavours “relevant, because they risk being too niche in their original form”.
One man who has big plans for the UK is Dong Hyun Kim, a businessman from Seoul who spotted a gap in the market back in 2003 and started selling Korean food in north London. After his Kimchee restaurant proved a hit in central London, he developed a smaller Kimchee To Go format; he hopes to open 15 outlets by 2015. Mr Kim is backing his own cuisine alongside Japanese food: he owns the rapidly expanding Wasabi sushi-and-noodle chain.
Danny O’Sullivan, 30, from Belfast, started his street food stall Kimchi Cult in east London after returning from a teaching stint in Korea with his girlfriend. “It’s getting more popular. People ask me what kimchi is a lot less now, which is good,” he said. The pair are planning to move to Glasgow after Christmas, to open a restaurant there.
In London, Linda Lee, who founded Koba and Nizuni, will build on the success she has already had with a third restaurant, On The Bab, which opens later this month. She said her national cuisine, which spans grilled meats, hotpots, and rice and noodle dishes, suits the British palette, plus “it has lots of healthy foods, so fits well with the current trend for healthy eating”.