Until our recent visit there were only two facts I knew about New Malden. Firstly, thanks to the endless post-Christmas adverts on TV when I was growing up, I knew it has a giant DFS with a huge range of cut price furniture. Secondly, is that it’s home to one of the largest expatriate communities of South Koreans in Europe, and is said to be one of the most densely populated area of Koreans outside South Korea.
While a new sofa would be nice it was the second fact that really intrigued me, and, following the familiar low growl of our stomachs to guide us, we had taken a Saturday to drive all the way over to the wilds of south west London in time lunch.
While there are over 15 Korean cafes and restaurants in the area, favourites seem to be down to personal preference. While Giles, John and Jay had all reviewed the, relatively glam, Su La, on the edge of town, I decided to head straight for the heart of New Malden for a recce, finally choosing Jee Cee Neh on Burlington road, lured in by the smell of grilling meat and the mix of Korean and Western customers we spied through the window.
To drink a couple of cold Hite Ice Point; a sweetish and inoffensive Korean lager, brewed with their 'Freezing Point Filtration System' from rice. What it lacks in flavour, it makes up with its clean, refreshing fizz that helps cuts swathes through the rich fermented flavours common in Korean food.
Unlike most gaffs in the centre of London, banchan, the little snacks and side dishes that accompany every meal, are provided free. Our selection included the ubiquitous kimchi (a fermented pickled cabbage) alongside salted beansprouts and wonderful dish of boiled sliced potatoes in koch’ujang chilli sauce.
To start proper, some Gun mando; decent fried pork, glass noddle and veg dumplings with a poky dipping sauce; and a portion of Hea mul pa jeon; a rice based seafood pancake; studded with spring onions and assorted seafood, including shrimp and baby octopus, and fried until crisp outside and slightly soft and gooey within.
We also enjoyed the Japchae, a traditional dish usually served at parties or special occasions, consisting of sweet potato noodles stir fried with beef and vegetables and garnished with sesame seeds and chilli. While I normally find sweet potato noodles glutinous and gummy, these were lovely and bouncy and well complimented by the seared, smoky beef and crunchy veg.
Of course the real reason we were there was for some barbecue action. The Koreans are well known for their love of grilled protein, with the most popular type being bulgogi (literally ‘fire meat’), which can be beef, pork or chicken, marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper. Wafer thin cuts such as pork belly, beef sirloin or brisket, are popular, cooking almost instantly on tabletop gas or charcoal grills or portable stoves.
We chose a double portion (all meats must be ordered as a minimum of two servings if you want them cooked tableside) of the LA galbi, or beef rib. This cut, named by Korean immigrants in America who found the butchers slice the meat differently in California, sees thin pieces of meat being sliced across the bone. If you want to try the traditional Korean cut, not offered here, look for Wang Galbi, literally meaning King Ribs. In this version the meat is filleted in layers away from the bone to form a uniformly thin concertina-like strip of beef.
Soon a metal hot plate was bought to the table, quickly followed by a weighty platter of thick beef strips that had been marinating in soy sauce, garlic, and sugar, and dishes of pajori, or spring onion salad, lettuce leaves (for wrapping), slices of raw green chilli and garlic, and ssamjang, a fermented bean and chilli paste.
While other, saner, people were off enjoying the August heat and barbecuing al fresco, it may have seemed like a slightly foolish decision to elect to sit by a fearsome propane fuelled grill. But that first taste of the seared rib, adorned with fresh chilli, garlic and sweet bean paste and snugly wrapped in its lettuce leaf cocoon, made it all seem worthwhile.
When it comes to deserts, the choice is easy; there isn't one. In stead large slices of chilled watermelon are bought to the table, unbidden, to finish the meal perfectly.
While the food was very good, I think my favourite part of the meal came as we were finishing our lunch. With the stoves shut down for the afternoon, the ladies from the kitchen came and sat at the table next to us to share several plates of pa jeon pancakes and some raucous gossip, reinforcing the sense of close-knit homeliness and generosity about the place.
This is food you know you've eaten; a powerful and pungent cuisine – the Japanese didn't, disparagingly, call the Koreans garlic eaters for nothing – that may linger on your breath and seep from your pores for hours after. But, as well as packing a serious umami punch, there were also deft touches of skill, and, unlike a cheap Chinese takeaway, it didn't leave me dry-mouthed and fuzzy headed through a sodium and MSG overload. And surely all those raw alliums must go some way counteract the strain on the heart from all the of fried food and grilled meat….