Mikkayla reviews: Chan Korean Cuisine (plus some snaps from Mikkayla’s childhood!)
Chan Korean Cuisine
383-385 Camberwell Rd, Camberwell
I was 6 months old when I was adopted. My parents travelled from Newcastle, NSW to Seoul, South Korea to get me — their second trip after adopting a boy two years earlier. For a couple of non-travel-savvy, small-town folks, the vibrant hustle and bustle of the capital city was just as exhilarating and overwhelming to them the second time as it was the first.
My mum struggled a bit with the cuisine. She quite possibly has the blandest palate in the history of mankind (I say that with love, as her cooking was still extraordinarily good to me), but this meant that during her time overseas, she existed on a diet of plain rice and McDonald’s fries. On the other hand, my dad – who likes to see himself as a culinary adventurer – was happy to try any and everything. Deep fried crickets? Sure. An unidentified bit of skewered meat off a street vendor? Go on then.
My mum recalls a moment where I started screaming a restaurant down. “What did you give her?” she panicked as my dad sat there with a guilty look on his face.
“Ummm, this stuff here,” he gestured towards a bowl.
That ‘stuff’ was kimchi, a traditional staple in Korean cuisine, made up of salted and fermented vegetables. Wonderfully spiced, it’s a tangy, pungent dish, today lauded as a superfood for its probiotic properties. It can also be made mouth-searingly spicy and my 6-month-old taste buds were not quite up to the challenge.
This story is now told with retrospective fondness. No permanent harm was done and actually these days a container of kimchi is as much a staple in my fridge as a bottle of tomato sauce (yes, I keep my sauce in the fridge).
Korean cuisine has experienced a massive surge in popularity in Australia largely thanks to its popular KFC (Korean Fried Chicken), the novelty experiences of Korean BBQ (where you can grill your own meats) and communal ramen pots that bubble away on your table, and the rise in fascination concerning all things Korean pop culture. I’m a massive fan of all of the above… but was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know much about the day-to-day eating habits of our K-pop karaoke-loving east Asian friends… and hence why I ventured out to a little place on a corner in Camberwell.
There is zero fanfare to Chan Korean Cuisine’s venue — it’s neat, tidy and clean, with bare walls, dark wooden floorboards and a number of tables and chairs squeezed into the sparsely decorated room. There are display fridges packed with an array of fresh, pre-prepared dishes and meals for sale, and from the counter, you can catch glimpses of the cooks out the back. As per my usual style, a fear of missing out led to the over-ordering of a number of dishes that I decided to get to take away. You won’t be sent broke here — 7 selections set me back $88 — and I walked out with two bulging bags with the most amazing aromas wafting out.
Ra-bokki is a stir fry of dense, chewy rice cakes, tofu and cabbage leaves mixed through ramen noodles and a deliciously addictive, spicy sauce. The heat-factor is sinus-clearing and the portion size is HUGE. For $12, I was not expecting a dish of this magnitude and with this depth of flavour. Ra-bokki is pinnacle Korean street food, actually referred to as bunskip, meaning inexpensive Korean dishes and commonly sold as a snack, but let me tell you: this was no mere snack.
I also ordered a cold noodle dish. Now, I’m not usually a fan of cold noodles — but the jjolmyeon — a spicy, cold chewy noodle dish with fresh, crunchy vegetables, a boiled egg and a sweet, tangy gochujang sauce is the ultimate exception ($16). Another popular street food, it’s perfect for lunch on a warm day (and equally delicious on a cold, drizzly day).
The Goon mandu, or panfried dumplings, are made with beef and pork mince with onions, chives, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce ($10). They are crisp and light but as a self-proclaimed dumpling connoisseur, I wasn’t wowed by these ones — which was okay because the kimchi pancake was up next. Kimchi-buchimgae is a staple in Korean households — hot, crispy, spicy, salty, sour and sweet in each bite ($12). No dip required.
Bulgogi literally translates to ‘fire meat’ and is one of the most well-known Korean dishes and has been around for thousands of years. Traditionally made with thin, marinated slices of beef grilled on a barbeque or stove top griddle, home cooks make do with a super-hot cast iron skillet to get the same smoky, sweet-savoury, charred bits of meat. I decide on the spicy pork bulgogi — chopped pork tenderloin marinated in a delicious sauce of soy, sugar, pear juice, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, giving flavours that are simultaneously salty, sweet, nutty and savoury ($13). The combination is addictive, and the pairing with rice allows you to soak up every bit of sauce left.
Chicken Ganjeong is a version of the wildly-popular Korean fried chicken — boneless, bite-size pieces fried in a sweet rice batter till crisp, then tossed through a sticky, sweet, sour and slightly spicy sauce ($11). It’s the perfect snacking dish, commonly paired with beer — a combination called ChiMaek — and incredibly hard to stop at just a couple of pieces… which is why I ate the whole serving.
Finally the Bibimbap, probably one of the most well-known and beloved Korean dishes. Translating literally to “mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables“, there are endless variations when it comes to the protein and vegie choices. Chan’s offers your choice from beef, pork, chicken and tofu. I go with the beef, which is assembled with a bed of rice and with the various accoutrements sectioned on top ($13). A dollop of bright red, spicy Bibimbap Sauce and a signature soft fried egg to finish it off, you admire it for about 2.5 seconds before mixing everything around into a delicious mess before consuming. It is a complete feast in one bowl and absolutely delicious.
Despite the half-hour drive from Camberwell back to my place, the dishes all held up well in their takeaway form. I’m left full and happy and with a much greater understanding and appreciation of my first culture’s cuisine. The lesson here is: don’t just stick to the tried-and-true trendy choices when you’re trying different cuisines. You are assuredly missing out on what the locals have been quietly enjoying for years. I have a lot more eating to do.
Chan Korean Cuisine is open Tuesday – Saturday from 11.30am – 6pm (3.30pm on Saturday)