The depths of our Seoul
Hong Kong's love for all things Korean continues undiminished, but it appears tastes are becoming more sophisticated. At one time, dining out on Korean cuisine invariably meant sampling barbecue dishes, but nowadays diners are more willing to explore the diversity of the nation's cuisine.
Korean food ranges from royal court cuisine to street snacks, from delicious morsels eaten with plenty of alcohol (anju) to the restorative stews served the following morning. to set you right again (haejang-guk).
To get an idea of the food options available, the best place to start is Tsim Sha Tsui, where a proliferation of Korean food outlets have also spread to parts of Tsim Sha Tsui East and Hung Hom.
In the past 10 years, Kimberley Street has quietly become a hub for the cuisine. To get a better feel for what the street has to offer, I meet James Kim, whose family runs the New World Mart Korean grocery store. Kim says his family was responsible for the Koreanisation of Kimberley Street.
'First, there was only one restaurant, but after my parents opened a Korean grocery store ... more Korean people opened stores,' he says.
'At [other Korean restaurants] such as barbecue places or restaurants in malls, the price is quite high, but here it is much cheaper. There are grocery stores and restaurants, and the taste is actually very good, very close to Korea.'
Our first stop is New World Trading Company (G/F, 3D Kimberley Street, tel: 2724 2414) which looks like a Korean deli. Refrigerated cases overflow with banchan (Korean side dishes) and kimchi of every description. This is the place to pick up Korean cold food, but it also offers more common hot snacks such as tteokbokki (cylindrical rice cakes in a peppery bright red sauce).
'The snacks here are also very good. The big barbecue restaurants do not sell many snacks such as rice cakes ... but in Korea there are many small restaurants, and it's similar here.'
Directly next door is Kim's favourite Korean restaurant in town: Azumma Korean Restaurant (shop B, G/F, 3 Kimberley Street, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2311 3983). This bright and casual outlet has an extensive menu of Korean favourites. Try the ginseng chicken soup (HK$100), which is lightly flavoured with tender chunks of steeped chicken; it is an especially healthy soup and a great choice if you're fighting off a winter cold.
Perhaps the best dish at Azumma is the beef rib stew with rice cake (HK$90). This stew is available at most Korean restaurants, but Azumma's version is on another level - intensely flavoured with big pieces of fatty beef that barely hold together and leave a golden sheen on top of the broth.
Cafe-style restaurant Hansong Korean Cuisine (10 Kimberley Street, tel: 2367 5025) is something of a rarity among Korean outlets in Hong Kong, It is big on snacks and noodles. In Korea these restaurants are popular with teenagers. At Hansong, Kim recommends the jjajangmian (HK$50), a popular noodle dish served with pork and thick black bean sauce, and the jjambbong (HK$70), or spicy seafood noodle soup.
Punching above its weight is Kitamaru Korean Popular Snack Restaurant (G/F, 1E Kimberley Street, tel: 2367 1628). Every outlet we've seen so far has been small, but Kitamaru is tiny, with an open kitchen and diner seating. The dishes here seem designed to go with a night of drinking. Try the roast chicken and leek skewers (HK$15) or a delectable looking pile of fried chicken bits in a sticky sweet and spicy sauce (HK$35).
Sue (G/F, 7 Kimberley Street, tel: 2311 0133) is Kim's go-to spot for boiled rice with bean sprouts in soup (HK$69). Take a friend if you go because you won't want to miss their budae chigae, or army soup. This dish has been slow to find an audience in the city, which is surprising considering Hong Kong's love of luncheon meat. It originated during the Korean war when meat was scarce and people depended on whatever food they could get from American GIs. At Sue, the dish is described as a kimchi casserole with ham, bacon, sausage, mushrooms and vegetables.
It is so easy to walk right by Kimberley Street without noticing the vibrant food culture all around you. Within two blocks, less than two minutes from one another, Kim has shown me five restaurants and a world of new flavours.
While it's true that Hong Kong has fallen head over heels for Korean cuisine, the time has come to get to know it a little better. Kimberley Street is a great place to start.