SEOUL, Aug. 12 (Yonhap) -- Street food vendor Kimchi Cult is on a mission to bring this staple of Korean food to the British masses.
While competition is fierce in the emerging London street food scene, Danny O'Sullivan and Sarah Hogg have carved out a niche with their Korea-inspired sliders, or miniature hamburgers.
"The fact that neither kimchi nor sliders are household names means that we usually have a lot of explaining to do, but that's all part of interacting with the customer, and I love talking about Korean food to anyone who will listen," O'Sullivan said in an e-mail interview. "For many people it's their first experience of Korean food, and even though we're not strict Korean, I enjoy the opportunity to introduce people to one of my favorite foods."
By now, the fact that South Korea is trying to globalize its cuisine is old news. New efforts are constantly being made to try and put Korean food in as many mouths as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese food.
The recent Korea-EU free trade agreement (FTA) may well pave the way in Europe, and likewise the Korea-U.S. FTA will surely open doors for Korean food in places outside New York and other major U.S. cities where it is popular.
Danny O'Sullivan at work (courtesy of Sarah Hogg)
Most recently, the "Taste of Korea" campaign by British supermarket chain Tesco, owner of Homeplus in Korea, brought 100 Korean food products to one of their outlets in the London suburbs for the month of July, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.
Perhaps the average person may develop a taste for Korean fare in fine dining restaurants -- the beautiful, sophisticated and quite expensive full set "hanjeongsik" persuading the palate. Or they could get hooked on Korean-inspired street food, fused with local flavors and dished out at farmers markets and food stalls. Or will it be prepackaged, quick and affordable food scarfed down on a lunch break that will win the hearts of office workers the world over?
Basically, will the battle for cultural propagation be fought and won in restaurants or on the streets?
While Kimchi Cult is hoping the answer is in the London street food scene, the venture is also a way for the two founders to stay connected to their Korean sojourn.
Belfast native O'Sullivan, and Hogg, from a small Scottish town called Gordon, decided that they wanted to travel after working for a few years after university. O'Sullivan said he had a cousin who was living and working in South Korea's second-largest city of Busan and suggested they go, too. They ended up spending a year in Busan before moving to Seoul.
"Korea was a really good move for us because it allowed us to take a step back from our lives at home and helped us figure out what we want to do with our lives. I decided to start a business and Sarah is going back to university in September," O'Sullivan said.
"It sounds cliched, but living in Korea was cool because it gave us the opportunity to experience an Asian culture up close and kick-started our love affair with the continent. We plan on going back -- lots!" he added.
A big part of that love affair was Korean food, in particular Korean street food. Beyond Korea's borders, the foodies were no less serious about sampling local fare.
"After our first year, we went traveling in Japan, China and Southeast Asia, finishing up in Malaysia. I ate some of the best food in my life, particularly in Malaysia, and we had a blast," O'Sullivan said.
It was during their travels that they realized there was no reason the delicious Asian street food couldn't work back in Britain as well.
"About four weeks into our Asia trip, I was eating these little quail egg skewers from a street vendor in Xian and it occurred to me that I could do something similar (at home)," O'Sullivan said. "The vendor was being mobbed with orders and I loved the pure simplicity of what she was doing and the happiness she was deriving from it."
So after Japan, China, Malaysia and another stint in Korea, the duo arrived back in London in March. But it was that moment in Xian that gave them the idea to bring a bit of Asia back home with them.
"That's when I first started thinking about it, and by the time we got home it had mutated into a fully fledged plan of action!" O'Sullivan said.
Developing the perfect menu proved to be tricky, with O'Sullivan considering typical Western foods like pork sandwiches, hot dogs or burgers. Then it dawned on him: Korean food.
"After that slow-motion eureka moment, I started teaching myself how to cook Korean food, trying out different recipes and ideas. I decided to go for kimchi sliders because I thought that people here would really take to kimchi and that I could offer something different," O'Sullivan said.
And, he noted, there was already a precedent for East-meets-West street food creations elsewhere.
"I was also influenced by the Kogi taco truck in L.As and how Korean food was getting more globalized and reaching more people," he said.
Kimchi Cult's sliders, typically beef or pork topped with kimchi, have so far been a hit with Britons, who are quickly developing a taste for the spicy, sour and crunchy Korean cabbage dish, O'Sullivan said.
"Our kimchi is a massive hit amongst seasoned kimchi eaters and newcomers alike. I also think that people like the small snack-size portions we do and the convenience of sliders," O'Sullivan said.
O'Sullivan plies his trade in different parts of London and keeps his fans abreast of his plans via his Web site, www.streetfoodie.com.
"At first I thought that not being Korean would be a problem, but I rationalized that if there were people in Seoul making burgers, why couldn't I do Korean food? It's the same reason I give on the stall to people who comment on how I 'don't look Korean' and I think it's a good one," he said.
In the grassroots globalization of Korean food, O'Sullivan is leading the British charge.
An ad from Kimchi Cult Web site