A whole year of my life passed me by in South Korea and while most of that year was spent at the bottom of every soju bottle I could find, I’d purposefully escaped London with the intention of enjoying the quiet life. I went as far south in South Korea as you can go without getting wet shoes – the rural province of Jeollanamdo. It was a far-cry from the fluorescent Seoul. Jeollanamdo was peaceful, however, the quiet life was not for me. But Korean food was a surprise delight that I knew I’d miss once I’d made my escape.
When I made the move, I honestly didn’t expect to find much in the way of Korean food out here in Hanoi. This, in hindsight, was stupid because South Korea was one of the first countries to establish formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam back in the 1990’s. Since then, Korea has become one of the bedrock financial partners in the development and growth of Vietnamese industry. With the rise of Korean joints opening up all over the city, it’s about time we talk about goddamn amazing Korean food is.
“When I first came here, there were slightly over 20,000 Korean residents in Hanoi. But now, it’s more than double that,” notes Hyunsoo Kim, owner and head chef of Sokchohang restaurant in My Dinh. Originally from Gangnam, Seoul – South Korea’s capital, Kim has joined many Korean residents in the Korea Town district of Hanoi – My Dinh. Kim’s 20 years of experience as a sashimi chef are hard to argue with and having spent the last four years in Hanoi, he’s seen the growth in demand for Korean food across the Vietnamese capital.
With the economy here growing and the developing taste for international cuisine, Korean food is one of the first in line. In May 2016, Dao Thanh Luu – Director of Van Thinh Phu Company Ltd – spoke with Vietnam Investment Review stating:
“Having been a food importer and distributor for eight years, we find that the consumption of Korean food on the Vietnamese market is fast increasing. Korean food is a good match for the Vietnamese palate. Furthermore, due to the Korean wave’s influence, exerted by films, cuisine, music, and culture, Vietnamese people, especially the young, give priority to Korean products.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Kim and one that keeps him optimistic about the growth of his restaurant. “There are two foods Vietnamese people enjoy the most, meat and seafood. Even if seafood is pricier than most of food, they do eat it fairly regularly.” He went on to explain that currently, the majority of his customers are Korean. “This is K-town after all, for many locals here it’s quite pricey too, but as the economy grows…”
We were sat in the brightly lit restaurant with a table creaking under the sheer weight of seafood that relentlessly made its way to our plates. It was like a clown-car of never-ending delicacies parading out before us and at numerous points I realised that my eyes were indeed bigger than my soju-swollen stomach.
Innumerate variations of Korean sashimi were stacked up high on a bed of radish, a live octopus squirmed hopelessly – despite having been dissected into manageable bite-size chunks – along with a variety of Japanese-style tempura-fried shrimp and a whole snapper marinated in some unidentifiable sticky sauce reminiscent of barbecue and soy sauce.
A notable absence on the menu was kimbap – the Korean equivalent of Japanese sushi rolls that deliver a tasty morsel of fish, egg, bulgogi (Korean-style beef) and various decorative vegetables in one mouthful of trendy munch. I couldn’t help but ask about Korean sushi. “It’s really hard to define sushi. Sushi that Japanese people conceive and how Koreans think it is different.” Kim is reluctant to lump Korean food in with sushi, mainly due to the expectations that gives people through their understanding of Japanese sushi.
“Japanese sushi has artisan culture, for instance, there’re millions of sushi places in Japan that have been running for centuries. In my opinion, good sushi comes from a nice little ball of rice and fine and in-season ingredients on top of that – it could be anything like eggs, vegetables or meat. That’s Korean sushi I think.”
Kim explained to us that had he not catered to the tastes and home-comforts of his Korean customers, Sokchohang may never have taken off the way it has. “In Korean restaurants, people expect to have all the little side dishes, dips and vegetables on their table along with their mains complimentarily. Koreans expect the same dining service from back home where you get all the side dishes, even wet wipes for free of charge.” Kim casts a grateful glance around the restaurant, his success is marked by the small armies of empty soju bottles amass around the tables laden with plates, but will it catch on outside of Korea Town?
“I’ve been planning to open a sushi restaurant aimed at locals – somewhere in Hoan Kiem – although I think that plan might have to wait for a few years.”