The tiny London suburb that a YouTuber puts on the map as the best place for Korean food
Becky Lee Smith took The BBC Food Program to a restaurant in New Malden yesterday to try budae jjigae, a Korean army stew. Tonight she’s visiting Ogam, a Korean cocktail and tapas bar in Angel, and on Saturday she’s taking friends to a Korean and Japanese restaurant in New Malden for sushi and authentic Korean food.
And it’s Becky’s week off. It’s half term, and she’s a 28-year-old primary school teacher who lives near New Malden, Kingston – just across the border from Surrey. Under the name Hanguk Hapa (“Hanguk” meaning “Korean” and “Hapa” being a positive term for mixed ancestry), she posts videos of traditional Korean dishes, explaining their history and promoting her favorite Korean restaurants. This week, her plan is to generate material for her social media channels, which she will then scale.
“My mom is South Korean and my dad is English, so I’m half-Korean, half-English. I’ve made it my mission to promote real, authentic Korean food and the story behind it,” says Becky. “One of my main goals is to put New Malden on the Korean cuisine map and make it known as the Koreatown of London.”
READ MORE: The London restaurant where people queue for ‘at least 1 hour’ for the ‘best Korean BBQ’
As Becky, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on Korean colonization in New Malden, knows well, New Malden is home to the largest South Korean community in Europe. The southern suburbs of London are full of Korean restaurants, supermarkets, hair salons, bakeries, and more.
Becky started promoting Korean food in 2020, during the pandemic. Her YouTube account features longer and more in-depth explorations of Korean cuisine and culture, while she produces several TikTok videos a week and begins to grow. Becky’s videos are clear and informative, and it’s easy to spot the influences of her work as a teacher. She laughs, “When I plan a YouTube video, I plan it like a lesson: what’s the outcome? What’s the learning objective?”
Becky’s love for Korean food comes from her mother’s cooking, especially her hearty kimchi-jjigae, a traditional Korean stew. “She has what is called in Korean: son-matewhich means ‘taste of the hand,’ because she tasted it and knows what her mother’s good taste is, passed down to her,” says Becky.
“In fact, my father told me that one of the reasons he fell in love with my mother was that they lived together and they only had a carrot, an onion and a potato. molded, and somehow my mom made this delicious soup. I couldn’t believe how, with such basic ingredients, she made it into a meal.”
Cooking for the family, Becky’s mother would tell her the stories behind the food; of what it was like growing up in the years following the Korean War (1950-53). Each dish, says Becky, is steeped in a rich cultural history. “Due to Korea’s tragic history, much of the food comes from trauma or survival, so the dishes have so much more meaning than just being something to fill your stomach. – it’s something that my mother instilled in me when I was really young and when she was making food for the family.”
Becky tells me, for example, that after the Korean War, it was common to greet people by asking them if they had eaten, rather than saying hello. “I think it’s important to preserve the history and the traditional dishes that are so delicious and that few people still know about,” she says.
Most people recognize Korean BBQ and Korean Fried Chicken, for example, but Becky is keen to highlight dishes like nokdujeonpancakes made with ground mung beans, or yukgaejanga spicy beef soup made from eagle bracken, which acquires a chewy, meaty texture when boiled and dried.
Thanks to the rise of Korean pop culture, known as the Hallyu wave, global awareness of Korean cuisine and culture is arguably at an all-time high. Netflix’s dystopian hit Squid Game, for example, reached 142 million households in 94 countries within a month of its launch in September last year. Kpop and Kdrama, on the other hand, have steadily grown in popularity, no longer being a niche but part of the mainstream.
“Right now, Korean food — well, Korean culture in general — is very trendy,” says Becky. “I think it’s great that people become aware of Korean cuisine and are excited to try it.” His concern, however, is that demand for more popular Korean foods could push back authentic offerings in London.
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“In Britain we’ve turned pizza and curry into our own version. Sometimes when people try the real version from Italy or India, they don’t even like it. I think that could definitely come up with Korean food, so I want to try to preserve the traditions and show [people] what authentic Korean food looks like.”
The Hallyu wave also impacted Becky’s own cultural identity, which she initially struggled with. “When I was a kid, I didn’t like being half Korean and I didn’t like the way I looked. I think it really hurt my mom to hear her daughter say she didn’t like being half Korean.”
However, at New Malden High School, friends introduced Becky to Kpop and Kdramas. “That’s when I started to really embrace my Korean side,” says Becky, who seven years ago even moved to Korea to teach. (“The best thing about school work was the Korean school lunches – you get your rice, your soup, the side dishes. I’ve never experienced a school lunch like this before.”)
Now, Becky’s videos have taken on a more personal meaning, as a way to explore her own heritage. “I grew up here and I’m British. The only way to learn about Korean culture is through my mother’s stories, so I try to do my own experiences as well.”
Is Becky’s mom thrilled that she’s embracing — and sharing — her Korean identity? “Yeah, I think she’s really, really happy.”
Becky’s profile continues to grow: she was recently invited to host a Korean Kpop brunch and is an ambassador for K-Foodfan, a government organization promoting Korean food across Europe. In the long run, however, teaching remains his priority: “I love it. It’s very exhausting, but it’s so much more rewarding than anything else.”
I have one last question for Becky, as her descriptions of her favorite Korean dishes are so vivid that I’m tempted to catch the next train to New Malden and try them for myself. What are his best restaurant recommendations?
“There’s a famous one called Jin Go Gae, which is famous for its marinated barbecues and authentic Korean dishes… Almost every day of the week is sold out,” says Becky.
“My other favorite place is Chick and Beers if I want Korean fried chicken,” she says, explaining that it’s a family business that soaks the meat in brine for 24 hours. Their signature dish is Spam Fried Chicken.
“New Malden is a suburb, and it’s out of the way. But I’m 100% sure that if people come to try these amazing dishes at these restaurants, they’ll want to come back for more.”
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