by Jiahui Tan
Korean cuisine has not been paid its dues, somehow always overlooked in the face of counterparts like Japanese and Chinese cuisines. Yet despite its seeming obscurity, Kuwait is home to a few such gems. And set amidst the skyscrapers of downtown Kuwait is one such secret, Koryokwan. Located within the Carlton Tower Hotel, the unassuming rustic restaurant has been surreptitiously doling out authentic Korean fare since 1984.
Owned and managed by Korean expatriates, Mr. Lee Chung San and wife, Koryokwan serves an unpretentious menu within its traditional confines. The interior is an exposé of everything oriental and its rich wooden finish makes one feel right at home. Given the ornate wooden panels, the excesses of artwork hailing from the Far East, complete with the chirpy Korean tunes playing softly in the background, Koryokwan could easily be mistaken for any restaurants from the side streets of Seoul. And, despite its petite size, the restaurant still manages to house five private cabins, perfect for an intimate affair with family and friends.
To ensure that its tastes ring true to home, Lee’s Wife, Kil Woo Kee has made it her personal mission to dole out country-style fares with the help of her crew. And judging from the continuous stream of Korean patrons strolling in for their daily fix, you can tell that Chef Kil has been pretty successful thus far. And that may be attributed to Koryokwan’s other advantage; falling under the vestiges of the Cana Catering Company, there is certainly no lack of fresh ingredients from the land of the kimchi for Chef Kil and her team to work their culinary magic.
Moving on to food, the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about Korean cuisine is kimchi. In fact, pickled cabbage is only a small part of the Banchan, or appetizers that accompany the mains. Following our orders, a delectable array of kimchis in its various renditions (including cabbage kimchi, radish kimchi, Indian mustard leaf Kimchi, hot and salty scallion kimchi), as well as tofu simmered in diluted soy sauce were laid out before our eyes. The Indian Mustard Leaf or Gat Kimchi is certainly not for the faint hearted with its intense sourness and cough-drop sweetness, but the rest of the Banchans were simply excellent. If not for the mains that were beckoning for us, we would have ordered alot more of these starters.
But the Korean cuisine is more than just pickled greens. Our mains of Dolsot Bibimbap was first to arrive in a fanfare of smoke and steam. The dish could be summed as follows: a bowl of warm white rice topped with sliced soya bean sprout, carrots, eggs, mushrooms and stir fried beef, then crowned with a fried egg. The stone bowl is so hot that anything would sizzles for minutes when they come into contact with it. And because the bottom of the bowl is coated with sesame oil, the layer of the rice touching the bowl was toasted to a crisp golden brown. The toppings of our Dolsot Bibimbap were piled neatly, with adjacent flavors complementing each other flawlessly. The dish is eaten by pouring the gochunang (chilli pepper) and then mixing it up with the rest of the namul (toppings) and then letting it cook while you tuck in. This dish is a classics, and it is amazing how such simple ingredients can come together to create something so light yet possesses such complex flavors.
Our bean paste soup (Daenjang Chigae) which followed was also exceedingly delightful. The Korean daenjang is similar to the Japanese miso albeit more intensely pungent. Served with rice, the broth was hearty, and packed with delightful bits of beef, tofu and zucchini simmering within its bubbling expanse. The spicy version which we opted
for offered just the right amount of heat without compromising any of the overall experience. It was exactly the kind of comfort food that one would need for those cold wintry night.
We ended our meal on a healthy note, downing a glass of ginseng tea which was supposedly good for those who have had too much stress. Come to think about it, the Korean cuisine with its generous feature of greens, makes for an extremely nutritious diet, perfect for the health-conscious.
So the next time you feel the need to count your calories, tuck into some Korean fare. No one is more discerning that the Korean folks who have grown up on these staples, and when a restaurant like Koryokwan manages to attract so many of its compatriots, you know their authenticity is spot on.
Koryokwan is located in the Carlton Tower Hotel in Kuwait City. For more information please call 2245 2740.