Kyung Bok Kung is an absolute gem of a Korean restaurant hidden away behind the walls of the rather dubious Juliana Hotel in Colpetty. To enter, you must first tread through the Juliana’s delightfully seedy lobby. Filled with the gentle odour of smoke and ash trays, the room is a bizarre jumble of mismatched furniture, gaudy lights and tacky wallpaper; on one wall hangs an elevated flat screen TV tuned in to a wrestling channel and beneath it lies a half-broken, half-hearted foosball table. But beyond this cataclysm of kitsch lies one of Colombo’s best restaurants – Kyung Bok Kung. And the only indication of its existence is a Hangul lettered sign set above a pair of tall, frosted doors.
With no other discernible form of advertising or signage, Kyung Bok Kung is something of an insider’s secret amongst Colombo’s Korean community. While the menu is smaller than that of the city’s only other mainstream Korean dining option Han Gook Gwan, what’s served is served well. Really, really well. The food here is undoubtedly excellent, and as close to authentic Korean as you’re likely to get in Colombo.
If you’re unfamiliar with Korean cuisine, the menu may prove a bit bewildering. The angular Korean hieroglyphs, the images of hefty seafood concoctions, the unidentifiable meats swimming beneath clear brothy surfaces – how does this work? Don’t worry – most waiters are Sri Lankan and will happily walk you through your options – and most of what you order is likely to be delicious.
YAMU recommends the Korean bacon. This is served raw, to be cooked on the large hotplate discs that lie at the centre of each table. Served with sauces, garlic and an absolute feast of sides – sesame leaves, spicy potatoes, black beans, lettuce leaves, kimchi and more – the bacon is served best when made into a ‘bite’. Make sure your bacon is first dipped in the little mixture of sesame oil, pepper and salt that they put down before you, and that your garlic suitably doused in the sweetishly-spicy cup of red sauce. Then wrap the cooked bacon, garlic and desired sides snugly inside a strip of lettuce – a couple of chopstick servings of white rice can be added in to pad it further.
Once assembled, your bite can be chewed in one, or consumed in a series of munches. Either way, it produces a delightful firework of crunch and Korean flavour in your mouth. Meaty meals such as this go well with a couple of vegetable soups – not to be mistaken with the large seafood ‘event soups’ that are placed in the centre of the table, forming the main event of the meal.
With such a spread of food covering every reachable inch of the table, Korean cooking is meant to be dipped and dabbled in, passed about and shared; the concept of the individual portion only really works with the bibimbap (a fried rice like dish served in a hot stone bowl). And all of this makes for a highly interactive, social experience. Turning over your strips of sizzling bacon and passing round burnt bits of garlic creates a more drawn out, fun meal that you can really enjoy and laugh over. It’s the perfect venue for a date or meeting new people – all that interaction over kimchi and kongjaban can provide the smoothest of ice breakers.
But if social awkwardness persists, it can be washed away with a few slick shots of soju (Rs. 1300 per bottle). Soju is a clear Korean alcohol, sweeter than vodka and slightly less potent at just 20%. However, be warned, the ease with which it slides down the throat can make for treacherous territory – this is easy to drink, so it’s easy to get drunk. But with a good amount of soju and Hogwarts style ever-replenishing sides, a meal at Kyung Bok Kung is going to be exciting at the most and lively at the least.
Kyung Bok Kung is one of Colombo’s best kept secrets. For a change from the usual chilli paste and fried rice dream team or a standard burger and beer dinner, go Korean and experience a completely new spectrum of flavours and tastes. It’s a whole different genre of food, and a wholly good one at that.