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I fell in love with South Korea during three months travelling around the country, recounted in my book Meeting Mr Kim: or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi, and more than 10 years later, I’m still fascinated. Thankfully, there’s plenty of Korean food and culture in London.
Korean Festivals in London
Festivals and food are two things Korean people love and do very well, so the annual summer Korean Food Festival is a highlight of my calendar. Held in New Malden, a South London suburb which is home to around half of the 40,000 or so Koreans resident in the UK, the event is always busy with a mix of Londoners and dominated by sizzling smoke from the beef barbecue and other delicious aromas created by local Korean restaurants. It’s not all eating: there’s often a taekwondo display and traditional music performance, gradually descending into karaoke as afternoon turns into evening.
Taste the East Festival started up last year by Tower Bridge. And the Korean Residents Society usually holds a summer festival in Kingston honouring the British Korean War Veterans who turn up proudly in uniform; I’ve seen a mesmerizing fan dance there, and kimchi-making demonstrations – that’s a traditional Korean dish made of a pungent mix of cabbage, garlic, ginger, onion and hot red pepper.
Korean Food in London
I’m addicted to the spiciest Korean foods and even though I try to sample all the restaurants scattered over central London, I find myself returning to old favourites when in need of a satisfying bowl of soup and noodles or rice. Between Tottenham Court Road tube and Denmark Street is St Giles High Street, a little bit of central London that is forever Korea (I hope). Opposite a Korean and Japanese supermarket are Woo Jung and the tiny Seoul Bakery – both cheap and cheerful eateries, the latter with scrawled messages all over the walls from happy customers.
Just off Trafalgar Square, a traditional old building has been completely transformed inside with wood panelling and funky chandeliers to create the Korean Cultural Centre, where I like to catch a new contemporary art show every couple of months. There are regular talks and free film nights on Thursdays and there’s always a theatre, dance or art show or a touring musician in town.
The best for me are the Korean drummers for their energy, stamina and sheer sense of fun. So I couldn’t believe it when Jeung Hyun Choi from the drumming troupe Dulsori started to teach Korean drumming in London and actually let me loose on an hourglass drum! Try hitting both ends differently – in time – and remembering the words to shout along with fellow drummers. The experts make it look so easy.
Most Koreans are proud of their culture, and are more than happy to invite others to join in. Part of the fun is making new friends. You just might learn to love kimchi too!
Tell us where else you can find South Korea in London in the comments below.