It’s one of those warm summer days we’ve been enjoying lately in Reykjavík. The guests of Ramen Momo sit around the counter, smiling as we each discover the little square place cards with our names written in Korean, laid out by slender silk pockets holding chopsticks.
Chef Lim Ji Yeon is an industrious blur behind the bar. Her husband, Park Min Jae, assists. They’re newlyweds, having arrived in Reykjavík for their honeymoon. For one night only, they also prepared a Korean honeymoon dinner pop-up at Ramen Momo.
The meal is peppered with wonderful details, big and small. The silver chopsticks feature mating cranes; the brass cups traditionally used for soju instead contain a hearty kimchi soondubu jjigae. We’re served refills of maesil cha—a sweet, sparkly fermented plum tea. The details manage to create a vibrant Korean atmosphere.
“People still don’t know much about Korean food,” says Lim, softly. “But I’m very proud of Korean culture and cuisine. That’s why I started teaching foreigners about our food.”
Erna Pétursdóttir, the chef-owner of Ramen Momo, met Chef Lim in Seoul, South Korea, when she attended a course at Lim’s culinary school. A pearlescent pork mandu arrives as we speak, carefully pleated in the traditional half-moon shape, “for good luck,” says Min Jae.
“Korean food is harmonious food,” Lim continues. “Harmony with health, and the seasons. Nowadays people care about their health, but Korean food has always been so. We don’t deep-fry a lot. We steam and blanch. We think about colour when we cook and when we eat—red, yellow, green, black and white.” She pauses before continuing. “But the last pillar is taste—we take care that it looks good and tastes good.” Lim smiles over the colourful gimbap and seaweed rice rolls that embody the healthy and colourful spirit of Korean cuisine.
Images of a traditional Korean spread—or banchan—are quite well-known. But what is banchan? “It comes from our focus on rice,” says Lim. “Korean meals always have rice, soup, and multiple sides. In Western countries, you serve in courses; but in Korea, we serve everything at once. You can pick what you want—a little bit of meat, a little salad, a little kimchi—to make your own flavour with every bite. And most importantly, you can share with everyone.”
Contrary to popular belief, kimchi is a catch-all term for any fermented vegetable. At the pop-up, we’re served a trio of kimchi—crunchy cucumbers, classic Napa cabbage and a funky radish kimchi.
It also turns out that South Korea is the only country in the world that enjoys fermented skate besides Iceland. “My hometown is famous for Hongeo,” Lim confesses. “We eat it fermented, raw and thinly sliced, with kimchi. We prepare it in many ways, too, either steamed, or in soups.’’ Something to try for the next Þorláksmessa perhaps?
Despite the absence of a dedicated restaurant, Korean cuisine enjoys a cult popularity in Iceland. But, as with most non-European cuisines, misunderstandings abound.
“One misunderstanding is that all Korean food is spicy,’’ says Lim, laughing: “And okay, it is spicy, but we have dishes that aren’t. I hope that more people will enjoy Korean food. A lot of people confuse it with Chinese and Japanese food. They are geographical neighbours, but we have our own distinct food culture.”
And after this meal, we leave hoping to taste more of it in Reykjavík.
Visit Ramen Momo at Tryggvagata 16
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