The best food in Korea

By Ben Preston, co-founder of ViaHero.com

Korean food has always been one of my favourite types of food, albeit one I barely understood. Then, a short while ago, I had the chance to travel to Seoul for a close friend’s wedding. During that trip, I was able to get a week-long crash course in Korean food from my friends (who also happen to be local foodies and overall great guys). Here are some of my favourites:

5 – Kimchi Dumplings

Namdaemun Market is a sprawling street market in Seoul selling second-hand goods, clothing, and most importantly, tasty food. While some of the sit-down options here seemed a bit too tourist focused (I would avoid a place called ‘Noodle Alley’ at all costs!), the gems of Namdaemun are on the street. Using my general rule of eat-where-lots-of-locals-eat, I stumbled across a small stand selling freshly steamed kimchi dumplings. Warm and inviting, this was the best street food that I ate and was perfect on a cold day.

kimchi-dumplings
Kimchi dumplings

4 – Banchan

Banchan are the nearly endless variety of tasty small plates of food that come with almost every meal. Kimchi was almost always present (yum!) which always added a spicy and complex complement to any meal. My favourite thing about banchan is that they are served right when you arrive to eat and refills are endless. I am pretty sure I could live in Korea for five years and still not sample every type of Banchan.

bonchon
Banchan

  

3 – Kimbap

I’ve always associated maki (rice and fillings, wrapped in seaweed and then sliced) to be a classic Japanese dish. Then I came to Korea, and found out about Kimbap: the Korean cousin of maki filled with uniquely local ingredients like kimchi, daikon radish, and pork. Kimbap is cheap, filling, available everywhere, and super tasty. Pork sushi?  Yes please.

  

kimbap
Kimbap

4 – ChiMac

Now we are getting to the big leagues. ChiMac, derived from the Korean words for Chicken and Beer, is a Seoul classic. One of the coolest parts of eating ChiMac in Korea was trying the different styles. The first place I tried was in the super trendy Gangam district and was filled with young business people out from work and what looked like lots of first dates. The chicken was perfectly crispy and crunchy, topped with herbs and sauce, and served with a crisp ice cold beer.

But my favourite of numerous ChiMacs was actually from an old-school ChiMac joint that I could best describe as a Korean pub. Definitely not a place known for the ambiance but loved for the chicken, the ChiMac came both plain and in a sweet-spicy sauce. The meat was tender, so juicy and flavourful, and the coating was crispy and unlike any fried chicken I have ever had. It was simply amazing. This was one of the dishes that I would travel back to Korea just to eat again.

chimak
ChiMac

1 – Korean BBQ

Choosing between ChiMac and Korean BBQ was nearly impossible – both were so different and amazing in their own way. However, the sheer diversity of Korean BBQ in Seoul put BBQ on top.

We started with some classic beef BBQ: self-cooked tasty morsels wrapped in lettuce and loaded with garlic, kimchi, and Ssamjang sauce, yum! 

Then we moved on to what is surely one of my favourite meals ever: Pork-centric Korean BBQ. Slabs of every kind and cut of pork cooked by a pro right at our table. The best was the sliver of pork belly, super tender and flavourful, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf. Another must-try food here was a variation on Kimchi I had never seen before: cooked below the pork on a slanted grill, pork juice flowed down and cooked the kimchi. This pork-juice-cooked-Kimchi was oddly reminiscent of Polish stuffed cabbage, and was one of the most unique I ate on the entire trip.

korean-pork-bbq-1
Korean Barbecue

But perhaps the meal that put Korean BBQ over the edge for me was a fusion of Korean + Mexican food that was unexpected and amazing. The chicken was marinated in a blend of Korean and Mexican spices, and then grilled at the table along with tortillas. Instead of classic lettuce wraps, we assembled little packets of grilled chicken, Korean Nacho cheese, mint leaves, and onions for perfect bitesized pieces of happiness.  The restaurant even served a boiling plate of cheese with tortillas chips inside – what I can only describe as Korean Nachos.   

The food in Korea was diverse and incredible. My only advice would be to try to find a local to take you around, or make friends quickly, to get the true Seoul experience.

Bodean’s and the hipsterisation of Muswell Hill

Muswell Hill, at least the Muswell Hill I’ve known since the mid-1990s, has always been a typical middle-class London neighbourhood. Parents were lawyers, journalists and teachers, did yoga and pilates, bought muddy vegetables, and read the Guardian. It was a relatively idyllic place to grow up, with four or five parks within walking distance and safety to play on the streets.

The Broadway feels much like a traditional English village centre, enhanced by its lack of tube station. More importantly, it houses several long-established, independent shops, such as W. Martyn, a quaint coffee and tea specialist opened in 1897, or Broadway Pet Stores, whose friendly staff have remained unchanged over the past two decades. These independent outlets make the area feel more like a community than many London neighbourhoods.

Food-wise, however, Muswell Hill has lagged behind its more ethnically-diverse neighbouring areas, particularly Crouch End, Stroud Green and Hornsey. As a boy, it was always exciting venturing south and east with my parents, to authentic Turkish food in Green Lanes, to trendier outposts in Crouch End, or to the ethnic melange of Stroud Green.

Not that there wasn’t anything good in Muswell Hill. La Porchetta, which proudly proclaims its independence from London’s other Porchettas, was a childhood staple; Kilim offered reliable Turkish fare; Toff’s was always proudly, if somewhat dubiously, affirmed as one of Britain’s best fish and chips shops; and Ask and Pizza Express were always there, for those times when your parents wanted pizza but found the superior La Porchetta too noisy. In short, there was always good food, it was just simpler, less adventurous, and somehow felt less authentic than in other areas.

In the past couple of years, however, the hipsterisation of London’s food culture (street food, small plates, cheap, better-quality fast food, and ‘artisanal’ produce), has belatedly ensconced itself into Muswell Hill’s leafy streets. The pioneers, bizarrely, were characterless chains like Carluccio’s and Côte, corporate behemoths serving blandly generic Italian and French fare. Fortunately, they blazed the trail, putting the area on the map for some more interesting restaurants, delis and cafés to emerge.

In July 2014, Alexandra Palace hosted its first street food and craft beer festival. The fair brings together some of London’s finest food trucks, craft beer stalls and alternative bands. This welcome addition to the local scene arrived late (Street Feast first opened its doors to hungry East London hipsters in 2012), but better late than never.

Bodean’s opened it’s newest branch in Muswell Hill in late 2016. In 2002 Bodean’s was a trailblazer, bringing the now-ubiquitous concept of American-style ribs, wings, and pulled pork to Londoners. As ever, we Muswell Hillbillies got our share late, long after Soho and East London were crawling with American diners, some good, some terrible. While not perfect, Bodean’s is a welcome, and self-consciously hipper, upgrade on Giraffe.

The Broadway’s culinary range has diversified, and to a large extent improved, in the past two years. The extortion of Planet Organic notwithstanding, Muswell Hill has received the once-cool but still-good Franco Manca, a trendy salt-beef selling café (salt beef is always a good thing), and even purveyors of fine sourdough bread and Monmouth coffee at Flesh & Flour. There will always be a place in my heart for traditional cafés like Feast on the Hill, but I am thankful for the superior coffee at Flesh & Flour, and obviously for their artisanal lard.

The belated hipsterisation of Muswell Hill’s food scene, the term in itself an oxymoron, is not completely benign. The snootiness of Muddy Boots, a new deli that looks down on those unable to afford organic meat, is uncalled for. A recent sign outside the shop stated that “most people are totally happy to buy their meat from supermarkets. For everyone else, we’re here”; most people would buy their chops if they could afford them.

Furthermore, trendier stores and eateries threaten the existence of many of the area’s long-established and popular locations. The fishmonger Walter Purkis & Sons came to the area in 1987, and still commands lengthy queues every Saturday morning. The recent imposition of a more modern fishmonger on Colney Hatch Lane may threaten their existence. Sable D’or has recently closed for refurbishment. The café is certainly modernising to compete with the influx of coffee sellers.

Until recently, Muswell Hill was, if not quite a gastronomic Siberia, somewhat limited food-wise. Recent years have seen vast improvements, and providing that traditional outlets are not pushed out, that can only be a good thing.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele brings traditional Neapolitan pizzas to Stoke Newington

In Eat Pray Love, Julia Roberts’ character famously falls in love. Though a man was the object of one of her desires, the film’s best love story involves Roberts and a pizza. Not just any pizza. At L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of Naples’ oldest and best-loved institutions, Robert declared she was “having a relationship” with her Margherita. Not quite “I’ll have what she’s having”, but a memorable scene nonetheless.

In 1870 da Michele began producing pizzas for hungry Neapolitans. 147 years later, they have brought their world-famous pies to London. Unparalleled hype means da Michele has had no problem attracting customers to its first London outpost, situated in the hippest of locations on Stoke Newington Church Street. On my first visit, a week after opening, it took two hours to finally get a table, though we were free to wander and wait for the restaurant to call. The clientele was mostly Italian, always a good sign.

The restaurant is small and unpretentious despite its trendy surroundings. The hustle and bustle of 40-50 hungry foodies waiting for a table or a takeaway makes for a challenging environment, but the staff calmly dealt with it. The menu is short, a big Italian middle finger to unnecessary ostentation; there’s no venison or kale here. There are only two options: the classic Margherita, and a Marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano), and the drinks menu is equally concise. The customer next to us was denied chilli oil. This is my kind of place.

The pizza arrived promptly, and my god was it worth the wait. Da Michele have flown in Neapolitan experts, and have even adapted their dough recipe to suit the British climate. Meticulous attention to detail is crucial for such a simple dish, and da Michele pulls it off as well as anywhere in London.

image003

“Jesus, those are huge!” was my first impression as the waiter brought our giant Margheritas (£7.90). The dough was beautifully chewy, light, and bubbly, with charred spots providing the characteristic Neapolitan look, taste and texture. Mozzarella was sparsely dispersed, allowing the real party piece, the sweet, fresh tomato sauce, to shine. It is brave to strip down to the basics, especially to Londoners used to artisanal meats and heirloom vegetables atop their pizza, though da Michele will offer a rotating specials menu. But when the basics are this good, there is no need for more.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not a trail blazer in the London pizza scene. Since 2008, when Franco Manca first opened its doors, Neapolitan pizzas have become overwhelmingly popular, and several establishments across London serve excellent versions. What the doyens of da Michele have done, however, is to bring the original, humble pizza back to its simplest form.

And finally, a message to Julia: you may have entered a relationship with your pizza, but, sorry to break the news, your pizza has moved on, finding a new lover in London. As soon as the crowds die down, I’ll be back.