Finland’s original Korean restaurant.
The best way to familiarise yourself with Korean culture in Helsinki is actually not by stumbling into the South Korean embassy to Finland unannounced, but to step into the Korea House restaurant found within the aesthetically pleasing Kruununhaka neighbourhood.
After descending half a level of stairs, two figures dressed in the traditional ‘hanbok’ dress welcome me in, and if it’s not enough to set the mood, some soothing, melodic music soon becomes detectable in the background.
Skimming through the detail-rich interior of Korea House, some pillars covered with Korean letters, large moon-shaped jars and a miniature pond complete with a rice wheel catches my eye, before waitress Dahn Kim brings some tea to the table I’ve seated myself in. The tea, Kim explains to me, is a mixture between Korean Green Tea and the flower Solomon’s Seal, a common concoctionin Korea.
As I savour the last of the tea, feeling healthier already, Kim begins filling the small table to the edges with aromatic and colourful dishes. “These are the most well-known Korean food dishes,” Kim offers, as she places a hot pot filled with a boiling kimchi-tofu stew (€16.50) in front of my lap. “It’s a very common dish in Korea and many Koreans eat it daily at home,” she continues, while reaching for another hot pot which fortunately ends up on the other side of the table where photographer Eva unsuspectingly sits. “This dish is called Bibimbap (€15.50) and is also a very traditional and beautiful Korean dish, with rice on the bottom of the hot pot and probably five different salads and fried eggs on top of it.” At this moment, the owner Mun Gi Choi appears and without further ado empties the small plate containing chilli paste – which I rather naively had mistaken for dipping sauce for the deep-fried shrimps (€6.50) and dumplings (€5.50) – and mixes the whole dish together.
I had previously heard about Korean cuisine and chilli being closely intertwined, but this being my first encounter with Korean food, the realisation becomes that much more authentic as Eva exclaims, “this is quite spicy!” from across the table as the Kimchi hot pot takes her sensitive Spanish taste buds by surprise.
Proceeding cautiously, I really savour the Kimchi hot pot, where the mild tofu and the extra kick from the chilli and well-spiced kimchi counteract to reach a desirable, yet fiery taste. After adding rice to the stew at Choi’s recommendation, the dish also receives a bit more texture resulting in a more fulfilling meal. The multiple layers present in the hot pot opposite me are also complementing each other nicely, with the chilli paste again producing that desirable jolt to the meal.
The balance of the spicy and mild, or if resorting to a bit of Chinese philosophy, the Yin and Yang extends itself to the whole meal with all its different components, as the two other dishes present are much milder than the hot pots. The Bulgogi (€19.50), which contains strips of beef and stir-fried vegetables in a mild marinade has a delightfully sweet taste to it while the Jabchebap (€14.50) beef dish offers a taste of their glass noodles made of sweet potato, which make for a reinvigorating side-option for the rice. There is also some kimchi accompanying the meal, a presence familiar to many if not most of the dishes.
“I guess it’s pretty interesting that we always offer kimchi and reddish pickles, as a side dish,” Kim says. “We like to offer at least two different side dishes to show what Korean food is really like, together with the most famous dishes. But even though kimchi is a side dish, you can still make very numerous main dishes with it,” she explains.
At this point Kim urges me to try a piece of the somewhat spicy kimchi together with some of the mildly marinated beef, which turns out to be easier said than done as I’ve had some slight technical problems with the customary iron chop sticks throughout the meal. Fortunately she recognises the issue at hand by witnessing my clumsy finger movements and soon more familiar wooden chop sticks are brought to the table. Needless to say, ‘better grip’ has always been my motto!
After the meal, Choi sits down with me for a cup of coffee (Finnish, by the taste of it) and tells me how Korea House came to be and why in 2005, he and his wife and head chef Misuk Lim decided to move to Finland after a decade-long restaurant venture back in South Korea, and become the pioneers of Korean cuisine in Finland.
“Nowadays there are quite a few Korean tourists coming to Finland and before Korea House there were no other restaurants where, after a long trip, the weary and homesick Koreans could get Korean food,” Choi explains. “That’s why I thought it could be good business to open up a Korean restaurant here, and I also wanted to show the Finns what the Korean food culture is like. Then there are good schools for the children in Finland. So there were quite a few reasons why we decided to come.”
It was not easy to build up a customer base in Finland at the start, as the majority of Finns were not familiar with Korean cuisine at the time. But after some years the customers began piling up and with the Finns making up the overwhelming majority of the clientele, it seems like Korea House succeeded in striking a chord with the Finnish dining culture.
After ending the very satisfying food experience with some rice wine as a digestive, I ascend the few stairs separating us from the street feeling thoroughly educated in the basics of Korean cuisine and a bit more familiar with the Korean culture, while struggling to remember when “school” seemed like this much fun.
Text Rasmus Hetemäki, images Eva Blanco.