Korean cuisine is having a moment — with Korean fried chicken (a.k.a. KFC) and gochujang ("the new ketchup”) turning up on many menus. And Victoria has some amazing Korean restaurants to sample, from modern Korean cuisine to killer Korean takeout.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Chef David Chung describes the beautiful, sharable plates he creates at his new Persimmon Tree restaurant as “modern Korean cuisine.”
It’s a sophisticated and exotic menu compared with most of the fare you’ll find here in suburban Langford – the sleek and modern little space a welcome respite from the bustle of Millstream’s big box stores and fast food chains.
But don’t worry if you’re not yet familiar with the nuances of spicy kimchi or savoury gochujang sauce. Chung’s Persimmon Tree is just one among a growing collection of Korean eateries around town, introducing Victorians to everything from soju to crispy Korean fried chicken.
It’s all part of a moment that Korean cuisine is having around the world right now. According to a recent Technomics restaurant survey, Korean fried chicken (a.k.a. KFC) grew by nearly 30% on menus last year, and some are calling gochujang the “new ketchup”, expecting it will find a place next to the mustard and mayo in many Canadian refrigerators. In nearby Richmond, you’ll find a variety of Korean street foods to try, from frozen shaved ice with rice cakes and sweet fish-shaped waffles at dessert cafes, to Korean Toast, the grilled breakfast sandwich of Seoul. Trend watchers also predict a move toward “upscale Korean” food in 2018, with more interest in Korean fermented foods, kimchi, grilled short ribs and mazemen, a ramen noodle dish made without broth.
For Chung, it’s a contemporary take on the food he grew up eating in Korea, a fusion of traditional flavours with the kind of technique he learned studying at BC culinary schools and apprenticing in top Canadian hotels.
From rare seared tuna salad with pickled radish and seaweed, to savoury squid and prawn pancakes, Bulgogi Bibimbap, and spicy kimchi fried rice sizzling in a stone bowl, his Persimmon Tree plates are made with fresh local ingredients and artfully presented. There’s roasted mackerel Korean style (in season) and tastings of imported soju, ginseng liqueur and plum wines, alongside local Hoyne brews on tap.
Kimchi Fried rice at Persimmon Tree (Cinda Chavich photo)
In a small, minimal space, stacked with take-out boxes, Tony Yeom and crew at Chicken 649 have become masters of this popular Korean fast food. Their fried chicken is now so popular that diners must call ahead when the restaurant opens at 3 p.m. to get into the queue for their order. Brined overnight, then fried to crispy perfection, the juicy chicken arrives plain or bathed in traditional sauces, like the sweet and spicy Yangnyeom, made with Korean gochujang, a sweet pepper paste of chilies and fermented soybeans.
Or get your fried chicken fix at Thunderbird in Cook Street Village, where the KFC comes in many guises, including the famed Thunder Burger featuring a fried chicken thigh on a brioche bun.
Of course, Victoria also has family-style restaurants to get your Korean food fix — King Sejong is a popular spot for Korean students. Other variations on the theme include the traditional tableside Korean BBQ at Sura or new Naru on Wharf Street, and the fresh bowls of Bibimbap (rice topped with a choice of Korean fried chicken, fried tofu or pork belly, with the requisite fried egg and kimchi) at Bao.
If you’re just looking for some Korean ingredients for your pantry, the Korean Food Market, a small family-run grocery, sells a variety of imported sauces and condiments, nori for Korean rice rolls, frozen meats, and other Korean staples.
There’s no doubt that the sweet and spicy flavour of gochujang or the probiotic-rich kimchi can become addictive. But thankfully Victorians now have more local spots to explore both authentic and creative Korean cuisine.
I’ll raise a glass of soju to that!