Simone Egger

The hitlist: Melbourne's best Korean restaurants. Click for more photos

Why Melbourne is crazy for Korean

The hitlist: Melbourne's best Korean restaurants. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Kimchi is on cafe menus; gochujang gets fine-dining treatment - dehydrated into a tuile-like crisp crowning salmon fillets - and Korean barbecue joints are becoming so everyday that, soon, we'll be chucking bulgogi on the backyard barbie. Stand back Melbourne: Korean cuisine has busted through to the mainstream, and it's going off like fireworks, shooting out sparks all over town.

The signature flavours of Korea are relatively simple - just three fermented ingredients are at its core. There's salty soy sauce, a dark-red-pepper paste that's slightly gritty with a chilli spice that sets the tongue tingling (gochujang), and tangy brown soybean paste (doenjang, similar to miso, but stronger and heavier). From those three flavour foundations hundreds of dishes are possible.

Gangnam's charcoal barbecue wagyu beef.
Gangnam's charcoal barbecue wagyu beef. Photo: Simon Schluter

According to American-Korean chef, co-founder of Lucky Peach magazine and head of the Momofuku restaurant empire David Chang: "What can be seen as monotone flavours of fermentation are just one aspect of Korean food. It's a showcase for a variety of textures and flavours: Salty, sweet, sour, bitter. It's an ode to frugality, but simultaneously abundant. It's a cuisine full of contradictions."

If you haven't already, it's time to get acquainted with dishes like bibimbap, barbecue and bulgogi. Bibimbap is that rice-based dish with a colourful array of vegetables that are cooked separately, then fanned around the top and crowned with an egg yolk; mix with chopsticks before eating. Japchae is a dish of glassy sweet-potato noodles stir-fried in sesame oil and soy with julienned vegetables. Jjigae is a kind of hot, shared stew defined by the principal ingredient (say, tofu) or condiment (such as gochujang). The other KFC, Korean fried chicken, has only been part of Korean cuisine since the Korean War in the early 1950s, but now every second corner of Seoul has a fried-chicken joint, with gochujang providing the not-so-secret spice hit. And, then, there's bulgogi (marinated beef sirloin) - the star of charcoal barbecues.

Healthy is another characteristic of Korean food. "Korean people believe their food is what keeps them healthy," says Korean-born Min Hui Lee, whose first restaurant, Frying Colours, is due to open in Kensington next week. "Korean people smoke a lot, drink a lot and work a lot, and yet are among the world's [top 20] longest-living people," says Lee. (Min Hui Lee's japchae Korean noodle stir-fry recipe here.)

The health benefits of a Korean meal come from its variety and balance - a traditional meal is a feast, a spread of colourfully laden plates that balance sweet with sour, heavy with light, and animal products with plant products. It's also said that food combinations deliberately optimise nutrient intake, like vitamin C taken with iron to increase absorption. Plus, there's bacteria and yeasts in fermented ingredients that aid digestion and boost the immune system.

It's not just for its funky, chilli hit that kimchi (fermented cabbage) is always one of the banchan (side dishes) served at Korean restaurants. It's a superfood. Melbourne Korean restaurants average about four banchan and, apart from kimchi, you'd be lucky to strike the same one twice. There are hundreds of varieties, including seaweed noodles and pickled beanshoots, which diners dip into throughout a meal to balance out its richness, spice or weight.

So, why is Melbourne so nuts about Korean food? And why now? The US is currently in the grip of a Korean food love affair, and trends tend to trickle down under. Along with David Chang, the States has celebrity chef Roy Choi - he of Kogi Korean taco truck fame - and in 2013 the first Korean Food Fair launched in Times Square, and was taken over by food vendors and K-pop boppers. Melbourne's Korean population is growing (the latest census shows the number of South Koreans living in Australia is up 40 per cent since the previous census), which means exposure to more K-pop, Korean cinema and kimchi. "Restaurateurs tested the water a few years ago, and are now opening second or third restaurants," says Insu Kim, owner of new-school Korean restaurants Seoul Soul in Abbotsford and Chick-in, which opened a few months ago in the city. He is also director of Arkim designers, responsible for fitting out at least seven Korean restaurants, including Warra Warra, Guhng and Mrs Kim's Grill.

New-school Korean takes a pop approach to food, ''Koreanising'' dishes Australians love, using familiar food terms and installing industrial-style interiors.

Ryu JongHyun is head chef at Chick-in. He trained in New York and worked a stint as line crew at Momofuku Ssam Bar. "We try to make food homelier - less strange," he says. "For example, Americans don't like the chewy texture of traditional steamed rice cakes, so we crisp-fry them." At Chick-in you can get spicy roasted rice cake (a bit like gnocchi) with ''Korean bolognese sauce'', and Korean-style chicken schnitzel.

But the trend is spreading beyond Korean restaurants. Le Miel et la Lune in Carlton has a Korean bent - and a Korean chef. Hammer & Tong (Fitzroy) pairs kimchi, apple and fennel with its grilled octopus. Carlton North cafe Small Victories adds house-made kimchi to its barbecued wagyu sandwich, while Sweetwater at Chateau Yering serves kimchi butter with its angus rump steak.

So, what can we expect next? In New York, where more than 6 per cent of the population are of Korean descent - Korean food is being refined with top-notch ingredients. Matt Rodbard has written a guidebook to Korean restaurants in NY and is producing a Korean cookbook, Koreatown USA (to be published by Clarkson Potter in 2015). He says one of the city's most progressive Korean chefs, Hooni Kim, is using meat free of hormones and antibiotics, wild-caught, well-stocked fish species, and organic, local produce at his two NYC restaurants, Danji and Hanjan.

"Korean cuisine is really on the cusp in America,'' says Rodbard. ''I think we'll start to see regional specialisation just as we have with other cuisines like Sichuan Chinese."

For now, Melbourne's restaurants specialise in styles rather than regions. There are late-night nibble-type places where you can practise slamming soju (South Korea's hugely popular national spirit). There are charcoal barbecue joints, plugging into our affection for DIY and all things grilled; and there are new-school K-eats and traditional cheapies. What's left to translate?

 

Glossary of Korean menu terms

Bap - Cooked rice and other grains

Doenjang - A pungent brown paste made with fermented soybeans

Dubu - Korean tofu

Gochujang - A thick, red paste made with chillies

Jjigae - A stew with vegetables, meat and tofu, in a broth usually flavoured with gochujang or doenjang

Jorim - Vegetables, meat and tofu simmered in a seasoned broth

Kimchi - Spicy or sour fermented vegetables, such as cabbage and radish

Namul - Lightly cooked and seasoned vegetables, such as spinach and bean sprouts

Ssam - To be wrapped, usually in leafy greens

Ssamjang - A mixture of doenjang and gochujang pastes, used in wraps

ESTHER HAN 


The hitlist: Melbourne's best Korean food

1. Chimac
Like LA's Kogi Food Truck (started by Roy Choi) phenomenon, Chimac offers Mexican-Korean mash-ups. A ''Ta-Kor'' (Korean taco) may come filled with bulgogi and a quesadilla with kimchi. Other good drinking food includes K-classics like fried chicken and seafood pancake.
Shop 1, 39-47 Peel Street, West Melbourne, 9939 5916

2. Gami Chicken & Beer
Like it says on the can, there's chicken and there's beer. Most people come after they've been sinking soju. Then, after a cleansing beer and half a crisp-fried chook (the Korean equivalent of a late-night souvlaki), they sing their hearts out at a nearby karaoke bar.
Shop G, 535 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 9671 3232. Also at 100 Little Lonsdale Street & basement, 26 King Street, Melbourne.

3. Joomak
Barely signed and hard to find, Joomak is a den of good times. ''Team Joomak'' staff rush rice-wine or soju cocktails to gangs of young (mostly) Koreans perched on industrial-reel stools or bunched into booths. Gnocchi-like rice cake with seafood, cheese, and more cheese, is a gloopy godsend after the fifth cocktail. Or have your share of pancakes (including a crisp, tasty kimchi version), soups and spicy pan-fried pork or squid.
Basement, 407-409 Swanston Street, Melbourne, 9663 7123.

4. Towoo
Traditional Korean barbecue meets modern Melbourne. Family owners include an interior designer, an artist and a chef, who have combined to create a sleek space where individual hwaros (little footed coal-carrying grills) are brought to the table, and your choice of marinated meat sizzles. The pork set is the go-to, with six curls of differently marinated belly, plus tasty fried starters, and banchan.
603 Whitehorse Road, Surrey Hills, 9846 0445.

5. Woo Ga
Woo Ga is one of a handful of traditional barbecue restaurants opposite Queen Victoria Market - perhaps Melbourne's closest thing to a Koreatown. It's wall-to-wall wood-panelling, with black exhausts to whisk away any sauna sensation. Set-meal ''combos'' offer full-immersion with at least three cuts of beef, rice, soup and sides.
270 Victoria Street, North Melbourne, 9328 1221.

6. Guhng
Also known as ''the Palace'', Guhng has four distinct levels. From the padded booths at lower-ground level through the more formal main dining area at ground and above, Guhng is more special than everyday. Its speciality is tabletop charcoal barbecue (maybe Australian wagyu) and traditional dishes like beef rib stew with house-made soy sauce and soybean paste hotpot with vegetables.
19 McKillop Street, Melbourne, 9041 2192.

7. Bistro K
A contemporary restaurant-bar in an accessible, industrial, bare-brick setting, Bistro K fuses Euro and Korean. Expect things like sous-vide pork belly with soy-citron sauce, served with apple and kimchi chips, and salmon bibimbap topped with a poached egg. At the bar, soju-based cocktails, and beers.
366 Smith Street, Collingwood, 9973 6055.

8. Chick-In
Hunkered down a narrow walkway, Chick-in is younger sibling to Richmond's Seoul Soul. It's all share tables, concrete walls, loud music and Korean-fusion food. As the name suggests, fried chicken is its thing - crisp, boneless morsels that go down like popcorn. Have it with a basket of fries topped with braised chicken, kimchi, cheese and sour cream. Have it late; with beer.
G23, 620 Collins Street, Melbourne, 9973 6244.

9. Melbourne Bornga
This traditional restaurant represents the cuisine's many guises. Formerly Myeong ga-Madang, Bornga has the same owners, same chef, but a slightly different menu including some Chinese dishes. Bornga has crisp, savoury pancakes, mandu (dumplings) and table-top cooking. There's a karaoke bar next door.
Level 1, 258 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne 9663 1112.

10. Mrs Kim's BBQ
Each table at Mrs Kim's has its own gas grill. Staff spark 'em up and when the grill is hot, sizzle and turn various cuts of meat for you. The kalbi (beef ribs) are traditional long strips of rib meat (no bones) marinated in soy and garlic. Other menu items (smoked salmon salad, tomato and avocado salsa) are more modern-Melbourne in style.
136 Koornang Road, Carnegie, 9563 4424.

11. Gangnam Pocha
An innocent night out could easily turn into a party at Gangnam Pocha. It's open till 2am every night, fizzes with K-pop, and has a liquor list that's almost as long as its hours. The drinks are sometimes in the food as well, like a rice-wine sorbet. Otherwise, the menu's mostly traditional Korean; there's bibimbap with a crunchy base, crisp pancakes, and budae jjigae - kimchi, ham, cheese and noodle stew - a result of US Army influences since the war.
141 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9078 8882.