An Iraqi/Hungarian/Israeli Korean in London

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You can take a man out of Iraq/Hungary/Israel but you can’t take Korea out of the man. Bet you’ve never heard that one before. And I’ve never heard of an Iraqi/Hungarian Israeli who has never set foot on Korean soil, let alone been near a Korean recipe book, cook Korean food ‘like a Korean mama’. Until tonight at Parkholme Supperclub.

Meet Daniel Vais (above), Hungarian/Iraqi Israeli dancer, curator at TEDx Hackney, cook, philanthropist and general angel about town. He was the first guest chef at the prize-winning Parkholme Supperclub to cook Korean. Alicia Weston, Parkholme Mistress D’, insisted that I, being nearly authentic Korean, come along to see if he really does cook like a Korean mama. And you know what? He does. It’s comfort food with a big fat comfy poofa cushion.

We started off with kimchi soup with tuna. I’d never heard of it before, and was quite dubious. Til I tasted it. It had a bisque quality to it, like a light bouillabaisse with a spicy kick, and the cooked kimchi (pickled cabbage) made it all the more homely and comforting. One guest compared it to Jewish chicken soup – healing, comforting. And Daniel tells me his Jewish friends yearn for it. Kimchi is the new chicken soup. Who would’ve thought!

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The table was laid with a plethora of traditional Korean side dishes – spinach, cucumber, bean sprout, courgette salads (namul), seasoned fried tofu, kimchi (fermented Chinese cabbage) and chong gak (batchelor) kimchi made with radish. All authentically dressed, delicious and healthy. Then came the main events – braised chicken with potatoes (dak chim) and chilli marinaded pork (doegi bulgogi) on a bed of lettuce. Both exquisitely seasoned and yes, like mama would’ve made.

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Daniel’s Korean Mama food was so good I asked him to come and live with me. But first, he says, he’s got to cook for his friends in Israel who love Korean food and open a Korean restaurant there. An Israeli celebrity chef has asked him to cook Korean for 200 guests at an important banquet in a renown restaurant in Israel. He is writing a treatment for a documentary on Salpuri, the Korean shamanistic dance. He wants to teach the disabled to express themselves through dance, and go and help the poor people of North Korea. (I think his passion and goodwill could single-handedly bring peace not only to the Korean peninsula but also to the Middle East!) I want to make him a TV star, write a cookbook with him… I have never met such an intriguing character. I have never met anyone so knowledgeable and passionate about Korea! Not even amongst Koreans! Past life? Perhaps. A vaguely tenable link may lie in the fact that the Korean language is most likely a distant relative of the Ural-Altaic family of languages which includes such diverse languages as Mongolian, Finnish, and Hungarian. Such a strong affinity to a country he has never visited panders to a little theory of mine – that you don’t necessarily belong where you are born.

Whatever the reason, Daniel is a phenomenon in many ways. He cooks damn fine Korean food – flavoursome but not overpowering. Korean food tends to be quite pungent as a result of all the pickling, marinating, fermentation, garlic and chilli. But Daniel’s food leaves no aftertaste. Just a yearning to taste more. Lucky I brought home a doggy bag! (Not a real doggy, mind you.)

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Alicia Weston, Andrew Sinclair of Gonzales Byass

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Legendary photographer Tim Motion

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Broadcast journalist Imogen Brennan, serving

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Dry sherry, perfect accompaniment for Korean food

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