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Korean: still hot?

Think Korean was so 2010? Think again, says Françoise Poilâne, who finds three of the best east Asian eateries to heat up your cold spring.

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Shikgoo. Photo by Tania Castellví

In 2010 Berlin hipsters were all about bibimbap. Three years later, Korean food hasn’t lost its sizzle.

Korean food isn’t new to Berlin. The rather tame Kim Chi on Ku’damm blazed the trail in 1979, three decades before the popular Princess of the same name would draw in the Kreuzberg hipster masses and Exberliner staff would make YamYam in Mitte their lunch canteen (despite the somewhat steep prices and suffocating density of Easyjetset types). Proselytising Christian Korean ladies launched Ixthys in Schöneberg in 2001, but it took until 2009 for the New Korean Wave to roll through town. In 2010, we dubbed Korean the “Food of the Year”, and since then the trend has shown no sign of abating.

Prenzlauer Berg alone has six Korean restaurants now (Omoni on Kopenhagener was the first in 2007) – with two new openings last year (bold Kochu Karu and tiny Gong Gan). This ever-growing popularity reflects two realities: one, the growing influx of immigrants from South Korea (up to around 5000 now) who haven’t only impacted Berlin culture with their hyper-smart phones, great films and talented musicians and opera singers, but are also showing entrepreneurship on the food scene. Two, the fact that Korean food is to the expat hipster what Schmalzbrot is to the Berlin construction worker – a way of life, a defining feature (which involves the skill of eating rice with chopsticks and an acquired taste for all things scharf).

The hip and trendy bemoan the lack of ‘real Korean BBQ’ and debate the ‘authenticity’ of Korean eateries the way the previous generation used to discuss the comparative freshness of sushi bars. They know what a bibimbap is; the rest of Berlin doesn’t.

As for real foodsters, they know how to order mandu (dumplings), gimbap (sushi rolls), bulgogi (grilled marinated meat), ganjang (vinegar-soy sauce) and gochujang (chilli paste) without a stutter. They might even revel in the idea of making their own kimchi

But while popular enough to become a lasting trend, eating Korean has yet to reach that tipping point, that critical mass of fans that would make it mainstream. Luckily most Germans find it too spicy… it still has a future! We tried three of the newest bibimbaps on the block, all opened in 2012:

Shikgoo. Walk down a few steps into the semi-underground bistro-shop, take off your shoes and hop up onto a tiny elevated dining area with low tables and cushions. The intimate enclosure is walled in by wooden-framed panels, creating a rather Zen vibe.

Order a bibimbap or bulgogi and you’ll score a rectangular tray of artfully arranged mini-sides to start: a salad dressed in a delicious sesame vinaigrette, kimchi, and mini tofu rectangles topped with chilli sauce. Our Austrian waiter, who is the Korean owner’s husband and looks as if he’s had a lifelong fascination with Eastern philosophy, asks whether you want soya or spicy sauce and charges €1 extra for bibimbap in a stone pot, which seems a little stingy, but then he doesn’t flinch at a request for tap water.

The bibimbap (€9 for a veggie version with or without egg; €10 with beef), contains the usual veg (spinach, carrots, courgettes, soybean sprouts, etc) as well as glass noodles and hits the mark. So do the homemade Mandu (veggie 5/€4 or 10/€7.50; beef 5/€4.50 or 10/€8), served steamed or in a more elaborate fried version (2/€2.50 or 5/€4.50) The squid bulgogi (€9), a decently spicy stew with a sweet note, was delicious and filling. The green tea ice cream (€2.50) was a pleasant footnote to the meal. All in all, the fussy commitment to serving etiquette, cosiness, the Korean Hite beer and the tiny grocery shop in the back puts Shikgoo high on our list.

Shikgoo, Tegeler Str. 27, Wedding, U-Bhf Leopoldplatz, Tel 030 8501 2045, Mon-Sat 12-22:00

Gong Gan means “space” in Korean – not a bad name for a café opened by an architect. Jong Young Lee studied at UdK before taking over the tiny Memory Café on Schwedter Straße and giving it a convincing retro post-industrial makeover: Especially nice are the thick wooden tables with interlocking puzzle-piece benches, which he built with his own hands on the vintage-looking workbench that now shelves the many design magazines and imported instant noodle cups on sale at the entrance to the tiny café.

On top of more traditional café fare (soups and sandwiches, great cappuccinos with sturdy Milchschaum), Lee serves simple Korean food, including a generous bowl of rice topped with a seasonal selection of raw or blanched veggies: courgettes, mushrooms, radish, cucumber, carrots, green leaves, sprouts and no egg! It’s the closest bibimbap comes to a salad – at least here in Berlin.

Jong Young’s homemade gan jang (soy sauce with 16 ingredients and spices, from apple vinegar to ginger) is worth a special mention. The result is altogether light and satiating, with perfect rice and ultra-fresh greens.

Reasonably priced at €6 (for veggie or tofu), it’s one of the best, healthiest deals in town. Those craving meat can lunch on a plate of bulgogi and rice or add the marinated beef to their bibimbap (€6 and €7 respectively).

Gong Gan, Schwedter Str. 2, Prenzlauer Berg, U-Bhf Senefelderplatz, Mon-Thu 9-19, Fri-Sat 9-22:00

Kochu Karu is an ambitious culinary affair, the brainchild of a professional Korean soprano and a Spanish-born chef with 25 years of experience in German gastronomy. The result is playful albeit meticulous cuisine – mixing the chef’s native traditions and the belle’s maternal recipes.

The banchan or “Korean tapas” selection (€3-4.50) sets the fusion tone. The spicy pork bulgogi has been glazed with a sesame-soy concoction and is served with mini corn pancakes; the stockfish and seaweed is expertly balanced with the sour note of Brandenburg apples. There is traditional Korean marinated spinach and Spanish-style tortilla chips with grilled pimento.

Our favourite is a delicious octopus-chorizo salad with pea shoots, carrots, courgettes, all finely chopped and dressed in spicy lemon and a delicious Chogochujang sauce. Especially high on the fusion front are the Korean tacos (wheat tortilla, pinto beans, avocado, marinated beef and of course kimchi, €13.50) and the elaborate ‘blinis’ with home-marinated zander (€8.90), four sweet-potato pancakes served in a rectangular pile and topped with small chunks of the slightly smoked white fish, ‘slices’ of steamed eggs and salmon caviar.

On the more traditional front, a warm sweet potato glass noodle ‘salad’ (with or without meat, (€8.50-10.50), apparently typical Korean birthday food, and the ubiquitous bibimbap (€9.50-11.50) – served in the firestone pot with or without a rather saucy bulgogi , and a lush range of superior sides: kimchi, marinated cucumber and yellow beetroot (yes!), and chilli sauce.

Their commitment to quality is underscored by the multigrain rice served with most dishes, instead of the usual refined white variety, and the perfectly executed kimchi (not chopped up in bits but sliced in chunks, each layer delicately smudged with the chilli marinade). For dessert, don’t miss their signature hotteok – the mini sweet-potato-based, yeast-dough pancakes filled with honey or just cinnamon sugar are a real treat!

Kochu Karu, Eberswalder Str. 35, Prenzlauer Berg, Tel 030 8093 8191, Tue-Fri 11:30-16/18- 22:30, Sat-Sun 11:30-22:30