Why has Kimchi Princess become so massively popular in Berlin?
"People come here because it is known as a new cool restaurant. They might not care about Korean food but they learn to love it and keep coming back," explains Hyun Wanner about the traditional Korean barbeque restaurant that he launched with friends Young-mi Park and Jan Vogel.
Every international city offers a mix of street foods, but for most cities the culinary culture is defined by a taste for a particular type of exotic cuisine. While London is as famous for its curries and high-end Indian food and New Yorkers take pride in their connoisseurship at Japanese sushi restaurants, Berliners routinely tuck into Thai or Vietnamese food when eating out. Now, thanks to the brilliant new Korean restaurants captivating the tastes of Berlin`s coolest foodies, Korean food is becoming a favored choice for one of Europe`s most international and progressive cities. As Berlin-based video artist Cecile Evans recounts, "There is a great range of Korean dining - from the ultra hardcore purists to some of the more dressed up places catering to the nouveau culture crowd. It`s all surprisingly fresh and the kimchi always has the obligatory kick - hard to find in spice-phobic Europe!"
When Kimchi Princess opened its doors last June, Korean cuisine in Berlin was limited to a few Asian fusion restaurants and a smattering of small-scale storefronts catering to older members of Korean community. In the past few months, however, Kimchi Princess in the bohemian Kreutzberg area and Yam Yam in chic Mitte, each founded by second-generation Korean-Germans with stellar hip pedigrees in Berlin`s creative, fashion and nightlife communities, have earned solid cult followings among fashionable Berliners.
Wanner was inspired to open Kimchi Princess after becoming frustrated that cities like London, New York and Paris had access to fashionable Korean cuisine while in Berlin, "the food was good but the restaurants were conservative and no one went to them." As a well-known hearthrob in Berlin`s nightlife scene, the half-German and half-Korean Wanner was ideally equipped to play Piped Piper and lure the city`s cool kids to a place where they would encounter the food he loved eating at home.
Kimchi Princess`s food is fresh, simple and tastes bright and delicious. Its bullak (marinated octopus and beef) is beautifully balanced between silky beef and firm octopus. Mulmandu (Korean-style boiled dumplings) are hearty but light. And the kimchi itself is crisp and refreshing.
"At Kimchi Princess," Wanner explains, "We specialize in authentic Grandma food presented in a ultra-modern environment."
The building that houses Kimchi Princess had been a less-than-popular disco after it was initially built by the city as an archive for Kreutzberg. Felix Pahnke, the artist who designed the restaurant`s decor, retained hints of the space`s history by giving it an industrial feel with cement walls and beams and a disco vibe through red neon ceiling lights. And the spirit of a cross-cultural meeting between Berlin and Korea is expressed in the overall aesthetic. Wanner describes the look as, "like a harbor. Young-Mi wanted everything to be industral but cozy, with a slight nautical element." On rare quiet nights, tiers of wood tables make for relaxed seating, but busy nights mean that some customers end up dancing off their meal.
In a parallel development, Yam Yam, Berlin`s other fashionable Korean restaurant, occupies a space that was once one of the city`s premiere fashion boutiques. During its five-year lifetime, The Best Shop lived up to its name. But after a season rocked by the recession, proprietor Sumi Ha feared that fashion had become too fragile and decided to return to food, her first love. Since opening in Best Shop`s cozy white space, Yam Yam has become the unofficial hub for Berlin`s fashion community and Mitte`s well-heeled creatively pioneering residents.
The Bonn-born Korean founder of Best Shop and its Ideale showroom had moved to Berlin 10 years ago to start a catering company with a half-Indonesian friend. The two women specialized in Asian fusion until they each became pregnant and the physical labor of catering become overwhelming. Because Ha`s graphic designer Hanno Baucker, Ha`s then-boyfriend, was launching his Mazooka tee-shirt line, Ha lent him a hand and was soon running his organization and designing a capsule collection to showcase his screen-prints. From there, she opened her own store on the fashionable Schohauser Allee and began showcasing designers from Berlin and Scandinavia. Then the recession happened and Ha saw Best Shop suffer. "It was like it had a sickness. I knew it would never be as strong as it was, so I had to shut it and start fresh."
Returning to her roots, she scouted for possible locations to house a Korean restaurant, but nothing was right. "I walked all around Berlin and then it hit me. I should just start it here, in the Best Shop." Within a month, she had untangled city`s red tape, gutted the store, installed white seats, repainted the walls a refreshing mint green and hung a sweet red and cream colored awning outside. Right away, Yam Yam became a lunch and meeting spot for her former shoppers. "The aesthetic at Best Shop was artistic, unisex, simple and definitely nothing girly," she recalls.
Ha`s attitude toward cuisine is similarly strong and direct. Yam Yam`s authentic Korean cuisine is unmodified for the German palate. I tell people that it`s just not possible to tone it down," she explained. The hotness of paprika is mild compared to the fire in other cuisines that use chili. Anyone who can`t handle Korean food is too sensitive. A lot of Koreans warned me that I needed to lighten up the spices, but I hope my success gives them the confidence to start cooking the food as it is intended."
Happy to adhere to Berliners` strict dedication to green thinking, Ha sources vegetables from a Korean-born organic farmer who grows the bean sprouts and other native vegetables outside Berlin. Even the restaurant`s generic ingredients are also organic, and the kitchen serves only halal meats - with the exception of organic pork. Ha quickly realized that Berlin`s busy fashion community and its leisure-loving artistic scene would appreciate the small savory dishes typical of Korean cuisine, which allow them to order as much or as little suits their appetite. And as the only location in Berlin to provide mung bean pancakes, Ha has taken it upon herself to educate the city`s chic diners in the delights of authentic Korean comfort food.
Despite the unfamiliarity of the cuisine to some Berliners, Ha finds that being a restaurateur has its advantages over running a fashion boutique. "Food is not for everyone," she says. "But only a few people came into the store and you had to beg them to buy. Now people come, start eating and stay. They come in every day and it becomes their place. They linger and you can see that it is part of their life."
Thanks to places like Kimchi Princess and Yam Yam, their more traditional fellow Korean restaurants have also gained a newly knowledgeable following and are earning the esteem of Berlin connoisseurs. Seoul-born Yoon Lee, the Berlin-based artist and the interior architect for I Park`sTom Greyhound, swears by Ixthys, a tiny and utterly unpretentious gem which has earned a devoted following among Korean food purists. Run by two Korean widows, the menu for their sixteen-seat space decorated with Bible quotes painted on the walls is partly devoted to Christian preaching and non-food concerns. But the sparse but select range of fresh delicacies such as ramen, stews and vegetables is divine. And among hip Berliners, the steaming yukgaejang (spicy beef soup) is rumored to cure colds.
"The decoration is weak," says local curator, food and art critic Emilie Trice. "But still, sincere service and genuine ingredients at Ixthys outshine any formulaic Buddha-and-paper-lanterns Asian eatery in vogue these days."
Lee adds that while the place "was made by Grandies," it "gives the best `kimchigasm` in Berlin."
Ha concurs. Summing up the new Korean cuisine vibe in town, she proudly affirms that, "It is a great feeling to feed people and feeding them healthy, spicy, real Korean food feels amazing!"
By Ana Finel Honigman