For a long while, getting my parents to take my brother and I for Korean was an effort in persuasion. From their perspective, and understandably so, paying inordinate amounts of money for what seemed to be a cuisine inundated with garnishes, some half-decent sauces and an assortment of grilled meat, seemed excessive when we could just go for a trusty Chinese. If we ever fancied some Korean fried chicken, my parents would suggest that we pop over to the Bonchon outlet near where we lived, and get a box of chicken that would do us just fine. All things considered, we knew very little of what Korean cuisine had to offer and hence ordered poorly whenever we visited a proper restaurant. This cycle was curtailed, however, by my fortuitous discovery of Maangchi.
For the life of me, I cannot remember how exactly I came to find her gem of a YouTube channel. I think I was on an Asian cooking binge or watching one of David So’s food vlogs, when Maangchi’s video on how to make kkotgetang, a fragrantly spicy crab stew, popped up in the sidebar. Fascinated by a dish I’d never heard of before and by the fact that the video had over a million views, I clicked the link and my life was forever changed.
There is nothing overtly spectacular about the quality of her videos, nor necessarily in the food being cooked or the techniques being used. Stripping everything away, and I’m sure her millions of fans would agree, the reason we subscribe to the channel is because Maangchi herself. Though little in stature, she drew me in with her excited larger-than-life personality and absolute passion for Korean cooking. She reminded me, in a way I cannot justly explain, of my late great-aunt who was equally bubbly and animated. Both ladies share this reminiscent confidence in the assuredness that their food will always find a way to make things better.
I think I’ve watched every single one of her cooking tutorials to date, and in the process, have cultivated a particular fondness for Korean food. From the incredibly Spicy Braised Chicken (sakbokkeumtang) that made my ears ring, to the delicious flu-fighting Ginseng Chicken Soup (samgyetang), I tried to recreate as many of her dishes as I could in my tiny university halls kitchen in Derby – to more success than failure, I might add, despite the inconvenience of tracking down the ingredients.
When I went back home to Dubai the following Christmas, I had a whole new list of dishes to try. My family, though sceptical at first, were immediately converted by the newly introduced dishes that they should have been eating all along: for starters, I got us a large plate of haemul pajeon, a generously portioned seafood pancake with spring onions; to ease the transition, a plate of kkanpunggi, something I was glad Seoul Garden had on their menu, which is a Chinese-inspired chilli garlic chicken; dakgangjeong, the pleasantly spicy fried chicken popularised by Bonchon; a steaming hot bowl of bibimbap, a very popular mixed rice dish with marinated meat, neatly chopped vegetables and a plump egg on top; and finally, not to be forgotten, bulgogi, traditionally prepared with marinated beef, which is the one Korean barbecue dish that made the cut from our previous visits.
Since then my family has been going at least once a month, keeping mostly to the dishes they have nailed down, but occasionally switching out the fried chicken options for jjampong, a zingy seafood noodle soup, kimchi jjigae, a kimchi based stew with pork and tofu, or a portion of tender finger-licking good galbi, which are sweetly savoury beef short ribs. Yum….
I think it is fair to say that the gateway dishes to Korean food are: kimchi jjigae, bibimbap, bulgogi, dakgangjeong and haemul pajeon, each showcasing essential Korean ingredients such as gochujang (spicy fermented soy bean chilli paste), and acerbic kimchi (fermented cabbage). These dishes are also the ones I try in almost every Korean restaurant I go to. It is my way of deciding whether I will ever return – for if they can’t get these right, then I safely assume I won’t enjoy anything else.
From there on out, past the gatekeepers, one soon begins to realise that Korean food has something for everybody: if you fancy noodles? Jajangmeon, japchae and naengmyeon are good shouts; dumplings? Give the different kinds of mandu a try and you might forget other types of dumpling exist.
You name it, and something great on the menu is waiting to suit your preference.
I don’t profess to have tried all of what Korean cooking has to offer, mainly due to budgetary confinements, but I think it is safe to say that I know more than the average foodie about the cuisine. So, pushing through the front door of the Simya in Earls Court, I was not just an ignorant passer-by deciding to try something new. I was a man craving some good Korean grub, and not in the best mood to be disappointed.
There were a few people in Simya when Maddy and I arrived, eating what looked to be plates of prawn katsu and tempura. This would have normally set off my early warning signs but I dismissed it as some people just like what they like and order it everywhere they go – an eventuality that can’t be helped. The restaurant seemed nice enough: simple, modest décor with prominent greens to mirror the greenness of the logo, and contrasting dark brown furniture that balanced the light earthiness of the place. A folding shoji screen separated the open kitchen from the dining area, but one did occasionally see a chef’s head pop around for a quick peek.
The Simya menu was disappointing to say the least, with no sign of the abundance that I was so used to, and with the audacity to include Japanese gyoza, tempura and katsu as if to compensate for some lack in the traditional Korean menu that was not apparent to me. They had most of the basic options I would go for, but nothing much besides. If it was not so late and we were not so tired from a long day, I probably would have suggested we leave and have something else.
A part of me also decided to stay because having a Korean go-to, so close to where I lived, would have been the dream even if the menu was limited. I kept reminding myself that while there were few things that annoyed me as much as being disappointed by a well-reputed restaurant, there are fewer things that make me happier than being pleasantly surprised by one that doesn’t seem immediately appealing.
I ordered from the menu all that I could vaguely recognise: the seafood pancake, gangjung which is a derivative of dakgangjeong, dajjung kimchi udon soup and a classic bibimbap. What came to the table, however, was probably one of the most flawed expressions of western integration I have ever experienced.
The pancake, which would have been alright had the spicy mayonnaise and the thick soya-based sauce been on the side, was thickly streaked across the top, making it the kind of decadent dish that progressively got more and more difficult to eat as the meal went on. A pancake that would have been light and delightfully textured was ruined by the outrageous richness of the sauces which were too sweet by far.
The gangjung chicken at Simya was just plain insulting. I was so annoyed that I wanted to send it back as soon as it came, but Maddy did not want a scene and forced me to leave it be. The gangjung was a plate of dry fried chicken pieces and onions, indiscriminately topped with cheese. Yes, cheese. Of course, there are some dishes that do incorporate cheese sometimes for its heat alleviating qualities, like in the spicy buldak which literally translates to ‘fire chicken’, but gangjeong does not. It could not have been a mistake either, because there were no other such dishes on the menu. I desperately wanted to kick up a fuss, and I probably should have, but I decided not to for Maddy’s sake and gave it a go anyway. Hunger and Maddy did not much care for principle.
The chicken was cooked beautifully, which almost made the situation worse. The cheese added nothing but unwanted alien heaviness and goop, ruining the dish. They honestly thought that just because the name of the dish was in Korean that nobody would notice if they changed it completely. It was shocking. I scraped off the greasy cheese-slime from my plate and dipped my chicken into the gochujang that came with my bibimbap.
Even with the usual dollop of gochujang mixed in, the bibimbap had barely any taste to it. Supremely anticlimactic, it was like turning on a television that promised high definition, only to be surprised by the staticky images of the 90s. However, I will concede that the bibimbap beef was tender and succulent and the egg was runny, which even then is the very least one can expect. I was forced to pour all the remaining paste into my bowl and scoop in the excess I used for the chicken, just so I could make the bowl of food more palatable. There was also no crispness of the rice at the bottom, the kind that, after the bowl is stirred, adds that surprising crunch and umami richness. I didn’t finish what I was given because the food at Simya was not worth the carb intake.
Maddy couldn’t finish her noodle broth either. This too was severely under seasoned, but she liked the consistency of the udon and cook on the seafood, so she did her best to conquer a rather large bowl. After trying some, I suggested we take it home and have it the next day. I was confident that with a few tweaks, the addition of some soya sauce or even plain salt, we could make the soup what it was meant to taste like. We did, and it was awesome.
Once placated by the food in my belly, I was able to calmly ask the waitress about the farcical Simya gangjung that was served to us. The embarrassment on her face was evident. She innocently replied, in her limited English, that it was what their management told the chef to do and that it was what people who came there wanted. She assured me that she would convey my grievances to the chef, although she was quite honest about the fact that the dish was not likely to change for one customer. I wasn’t getting my hopes up either, and neither was I intending to come back.
The fact is that the food at Simya is not horrendous, it’s just unsophisticated, inauthentic and under seasoned. People still eat there though, chomping on their katsu as I walk past. In fairness to them, the restaurant is conveniently placed, and I am quite sure they do not know any better – I do. My experience at Simya is therefore more akin to that of authentic-Chinese enthusiasts walking into a local Anglo-Chinese joint and being shocked by the mutations and contortions their food has been made subject to. I personally enjoy a cheeky Chinese now and then, but if I did not, the force of the blow on my first time would have only set me back a tenner and not what they charge at Simya.
251 Old Brompton Rd, Earls Court, London SW5 9HP
Starters £6.90-11.90; Mains £8.90-16.90; Drinks £2.50-16.90