Korean food’s rise to prominence in the UK over the last five years has been, well, rather slow.
We’re all pretty well versed in some of the other major Asian cuisines such as Japanese and Thai, but Korean hasn’t really gone mainstream.
While Food Spark has talked about Korean being taken high end, one particular facet of the cuisine, the fast-casual, has successfully captured the attention of consumers over the pond and makes up part of the Asian food boom which is currently happening in America.
Between 1999 and 2015 in the US, sales of Asian food rose by 135%, with Korean dishes such as bibimbap – bowls of rice accompanied by a mix of vegetables and, typically, with the choice of marinated beef or chicken, tofu, eel or seafood – becoming a daily meal for many Americans.
Plus, we've already highlighted how Korean rice balls are easy to make, eat and adapt.
Chimaek, a Korean fried chicken and beer concept, is also well rooted in the Big Apple, with the food fast becoming an integral part of New American cuisine.
The chimaek concept – named through a combination of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’, the Korean word for beer – has started to arrive in London through spots such as Wing Wing, which opened in London last year and now has two sites. New Korean concepts are also emerging, including chicken-centric On The Dak.
Other fast-casual Korean businesses have begun sprouting up over the last few years, so is the UK set to finally embrace a rather neglected sector of Asian cuisine?
Still more to be explored
Kimchee, a restaurant chain named after the Korean national dish – namely a spicy, pickled cabbage – was started by Dong Hyun Kim in 2011 after he saw a gap in the UK market and is now starting to take advantage of an adventurous, foodie London just ripe for a new trend.
After having set up shop in Holborn seven years ago, Kimchee welcomed their second outlet, in St Pancras, in 2017. Both have an expansive menu – including a variety of cold and hot noodle dishes, grill options and rice bowls – with prices reasonable throughout to consolidate their place in the fast-casual arena.
“We’re spoilt for choice in the UK when it comes to enjoying cuisines from around the world, with the market saturated with influences as close as the Mediterranean and as far away as Mexico and Thailand,” a Kimchee spokesperson told Food Spark.
“However, the traditional dishes and flavours of Korea are still relatively unknown and so provide a really exciting new and delicious offering for consumers in the fast-casual space.
“The national dish of Korea, kimchee, is just the start. Barbequed meats and fish, marinated tofu, spiced soups and fragrant stews all feature heavily on any Korean dinner table and we find that consumers love the variety of dishes, the beautiful layering of spices and the intense depth of flavour that Korean food offers.”
Bibimbap is by far the most popular, and not too much for those with less adventurous taste buds, says Kimchee’s spokesperson.
“Our demographic stems from Korean nationals in desperate need for some home comforts, to those in the UK wanting to try a different flavour from the Far East.
“We get lots of younger foodies through the doors however as the dishes range from the easily accessible and not too exotic to the intensely spicy, and authentic dishes from Korea, the restaurant caters for all ages and taste preferences.”
Being a highly adaptable cuisine with as much variation as some of its more mainstream counterparts, Korean cuisine has long been touted as an Asian food trend just waiting to happen – and fast casual could be the gateway for an increasingly curious UK.
What do you reckon Sparkie, is Korean ready for the big time?
Korean is definitely becoming quite a regular high street cuisine. Things like bibimbap stand out when it comes to the fresh, healthy options that have been growing in popularity. Unique products like the grill plate BBQ, where you cook your own meals on a hot plate in the centre of the table, have really made a mark too.
As it expands on the high street, retailers will take notice, but I think it might be a little while longer. Generally, the big supermarkets will run at least a year behind on trends, as the process to approve a new product drags out extensively.
For those in the industry preparing foods for retail, the time is probably right to begin experimenting with recipes in order to get things ready for when the call goes out.