February 04, 2011

The Importance of Eating Kimchi

Madang - Korean Food

A few years ago I spent the evening sitting across the table from a South-Korean lady of sixty in a fairly nice Parisian restaurant. We were both waiting for my French aunt, who eventually showed up two hours later than planned. By that time we had been forced into making useless conversation about the weather, the restaurant and the French in general. The Korean lady was petite and fashionably dressed in white. She was wearing a white turban and was holding a white dog on her lap. Its white face had the shape of a white snail.

The one thing that kept the conversation going was our fantastic ability to whinge about nearly every possible subject: the sky, the noisy tourists at the other table or the low quality of French television. And yet, I thought she was taking it one step too far when she had started moaning about the bad food in France. I actually regarded food as the one advantage of living in France. When I finally asked what the problem was, her answer was just as cryptic: “No kimchi”.

“Kimchi?!” I thought. Yes, I knew kimchi and I had always liked it. But does lack of kimchi automatically disqualify any other cuisine? She nodded. “You’re not Korean,” she frowned, “you’ll never understand.” She then told me a story about how the Japanese uncovered North-Korean spies by serving large meals with a bit of kimchi in them. Most of the real Japanese around the table would sneer at the red stinky cabbage, while the North Korean spies – otherwise the perfect image of good Japanese men and women – would be the only ones who would devour it with unmistakable enthusiasm. “Alright, if you say so”, I shrugged.

After this conversation I also started developing kimchi-cravings. As I said, I had always liked Korean food, so it was not entirely new, but for some reason, it was only after the fashionable Korean lady’s stories that I started appreciating its due place in the pantheon of world cuisines. With time I learned that Korean restaurants were just about the best thing you could get. And for a long time, the lack of kimchi in Berlin stood as a symbol of the city’s culinary inferiority to food capitals like New York, London or even Glasgow and Stockholm. And then a few years ago something quite wonderful happened: Korean restaurants started appearing in Berlin. In order to start mapping Asia’s finest outposts in Berlin, we ventured out to Madang on Gneisenaustraße, just off Mehringdamm.

Tiny pancakes and noodles

The inside is quite spacious and the ambience is a fairly pleasing middle ground between poshness and an Asian hole-in-the-wall that serves greasy noodles. The lights are a tad too bright and the chairs are a tad too reminiscent of furniture you got in the 80’s if you happened to step into any generic Chinese restaurant in the West Midlands. But then again, none of it is really disturbing. The waitress seemed to be overwhelmed by the job, but was otherwise professional, nice and helpful in a way you rarely get to behold in Berlin. The prices were all humane and the menu was large enough to be intriguing, yet not so vast it got confusing.

The first round was an array of starters, ordered both from the “appetizers” section as well as from the “sides” section. The waitress hinted the sides were just larger and better appetizers, and it turned out to be true. The Chljeonpan (tiny pancakes with five miniscule different vegetarian fillings and mustard sauce, 3.50 €) and the Chung mu Gimbab (three pieces of sushi-like rice rolls with a tiny portion of squids and radishes in spicy sauce, 2.90 €), both ordered from the “appetizers” section, were both nice, but too small and unspectacular to be really pleasing. The good thing to be said about them was that you got your money’s worth and the spicy radishes and squids were very good. However, the “sides” were a different story altogether. The Gogi Chanche (noodles made of sweet potatoes with vegetables and beef, 4.90 €) were very good and the Kimchijeon (pancakes with kimchi, 5.50 €) were nothing less than spectacular. They were soft and conveyed a myriad of different tastes. In fact, they were so good we found ourselves obliged to order another round of them.

The grill in all its glory
Ideally it would be eaten like that

For the mains we concentrated on two types of dishes: my beloved bibimbap (rice, vegetables, meat and egg all mixed inside a hot iron pan together with spicy sauce. I chose the “Imperial Bibimbap” or the Jeonju Bibimbap with beef and nine different types of vegetables for 9.50€. It is also available with tofu or with other types of meat and costs less. One can also get them in a boringly normal bowl without the heat factor for one Euro less. But what’s the point in ever doing that?) and the bulgogi (a grill dish in which you witness the meat grilled in front of your face and you can eat it together with various different sides. Madang offers a variety of grill platters for a minimum of two persons. Our table went for the Sabulgogi, or the beef grill for 13.50 € per person).

The portions were quite large in both cases. The main dishes came with fresh kimchi, marinated beans and marinated potatoes. Before I get to the description of the actual dishes, a word: the most important indicator for the quality of Korean food is the kimchi. And this one was perfect. The texture, the spiciness, the taste and that awful stench were all just right. The dishes were brilliant as well. I could have used a bit more spicy sauce for the bibimbap, but it was perfect otherwise: the size and the quality of all the ingredients were both just right, the pan was sizzling and it was highly enjoyable. The bulgogi was just as good. The cornerstone of a good bulgogi is the quality and taste of the meat. It scored well on both. High quality meat and fantastic seasoning. The meat came with rice and the aforementioned sides, while the whole lot was supposed to be stuffed into a leaf of lettuce. However, the meat itself was so good that we found ourselves eating it “freestyle” with the rice and the sides serving for pleasant distractions.

Bottom line: Go there. Good quality, good value. It doesn’t offer the posh experience other Korean restaurants do, but the quality of the food compensates for it. At the end of the day, very little compares to good kimchi.

Overall mark:

Gneisenaustr. 8, 10961 Berlin
Tel: +49 (0)30 488 27992

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1 comment:

  1. Well I don't know if I'm ever going to come to Berlin, but thank you for this guide, it's very well done!
    Please visit