Korea Review – Jee Cee Neh, New Malden KT3
Think of BBQ, and my mind runs between two extremes. The first, in a dusty southern state of the USA, is an image of whole swine, slow cooking over a fire pit of apple wood and mesquite embers. Heavily perspiring men in dungarees mop their brows with their forearms, paint puckering pig skin with mop-loads of rich BBQ sauce and drink bourbon from jam jars. The atmosphere is thick with smoke, humidity, hissing fat, eight-bar blues and primordial desperation.
The second takes place in small terraced garden in London. The sky is grey but its warm enough to warrant eating outdoors. An inept gas BBQ from B&Q warms a dozen sausages and a handful of stripy kebabs. Bags of pre-washed salad wait to be opened next to the Styrofoam and cellophane remains of the super market meat packaging. The dull whiz of the Grand Prix plays from a Tv somewhere inside and comfortable men in collared shirts gulp at glasses of ordinary wine and eat crisps from a tube.
Whether you go to UK or USA for your BBQ fix – both of these forms of ‘al fresco feasting’ relate directly to the sole discovery that has allowed homo-sapiens to develop from knuckle-dragging Neanderthals to the shiny I Pad poking examples of evolution we are today. The discovery of cooking meat on a fire was vital in transforming us from the king of the swingers to jungle VIP’s.
Before we had harnessed the power of ‘mans red flower’ we spent a huge amount of time chewing. Meat needed to be broken down to digest it and our early ancestors were well designed to do this with a large and powerful jaw that dominated our skull. Bring on the miracle of flame and meat was now tender, juicy and succulent. Instead of having to chew all day with our mouths full we now had time for other pursuits. Tool making, communicating and animal husbandry to name a few. With our powerful jaw now redundant it wasn’t too long before evolution delivered us with a smaller jaw and bigger brain to help solve all the problems we had now created for ourselves. Humans ability to cook meat over fire has been integral in our evolution and making our way through the A to Z of World Food in London it has been clear that grilling meat is still prevalent in many culinary cultures.
I havn’t been to North or South Korea but walking into Jee Cee Neh it felt overwhelmingly authentic. Busy with locals (New Malden is home to London’s largest Korean community and the largest outside North & South Korea) who were hunched over generous bowls of steaming soup. Seated at a long table with what looked like a two potholes in the middle, the female manger, who spoke no English, assertively directed us through the menu which thankfully had pictures. Like a children with a touch screen we prodded at what looked good and a kind man to our right insured us that our choice of a selection Korean BBQ followed by sea food hot pot would give us a true taste of his homeland.
Having taken our order Mrs Cee disappeared under the table with a box of matches before reappearing and ordering us not to touch the now warming hubcaps in the middle of the table. As the temperature rose tidy bowls of different kimchi arrived at the table. Lightly spiced and fermented cabbage, courgette, carrot and bean sprouts that were surprisingly cleansing and delicate eaten in steel chopsticks. Bowls of glass noodles salad followed next before Mrs Cee returned with platters of translucent raw ox tongue, strips of fat-striped pork belly and marbled beef sirloin.
The hubcap grills in the centre of table now came into their own. Lighting a gas ring under the table they quickly warmed. Mrs Cee wiped them with oil and then began cutting at the meat with a heavy pair of scissors. With meat layered onto the piping-hot metal the restaurant restaurant filled with the odour of grilling meat and a violent cacophony of hissing and spitting. Spring onion and garlic were added while Mrs Cee, gave a matriarchal lesson in Korean BBQ etiquette.
Carefully pincer a grilled sliver of ox tounge in chopsticks. Dip it in lemon juice, a little pepper, sweet chilli, a pinch of seared spring onion and then wrap in a lettuce leaf and devour. Easy when you know how. We didn’t, but this didn’t hinder our efforts at this enjoyable interactive way of eating. With all the meat finished and after an unusually strong plum wine digestive it was the time for the seafood hot pot.
A deep earthenware pot brimming with seafood and rich soup was lowered onto the grill and it quickly evolved from a gentle simmer to a furious bubble. Rosy crab claws, coiling tentacles, meaty whelks, squid, shrimp and white fish surfaced and submerged along with a tangle of glass noodles, spring onion and hunks of white tofu. Mrs Cee lowered the temperature and began working with her scissors again (I must use scissors more in the kitchen!) Ruthlessly disjointing crab and amputating octopus she then ladling out deep bowlfuls of this hearty seafood stew and we began slurping, laughing and chatting like the locals around us. If there is anything better than sitting around a table with friends sharing good food, it’s sitting around a fire with friends sharing good food and at Jee Cee Neh you get to do just that.
Jee Cee Neh, New Malden KT3 – 020 8942 0682