Often finding myself disappointed by the overpriced but unnecessarily dense sushi and cold Chinese platters outside Asia, Korean cuisine is my safe bet – one that doesn’t usually disappoint. Self-evidently, it’s almost impossible to mess up Korean food – get your gochujang right (or just buy it?), soak your meat, stack the kimchi and you are set to go with some quality Korean food. Sounds easy, right? At least, that’s what I’ve concluded from my Kfood haunting in a few cities, from Chicago, South Bend, Toronto, Taipei, London and, finally, to Seoul. There is a downside to this, however: it is equally difficult to make outstanding Korean dishes, be it bibimbap, bulgogi, or jjigae.
Curiously, Oxford, with such a high density of Thai restaurants, really only has two places that do Korean. I guess three if you include Pan-Pan, but I am suspicious of anything fusion – to put things in perspective, it’s like seeing a European restaurant that does Spanish style ravioli or Lyonnaise
tapas. Bamboo, with somewhat of a negative reputation despite being well hidden away in Cowley, has a suspiciously Chinese feel – an unfair impression, perhaps, after the owner’s wife decided to converse with me in fluent Mandarin. So that left me with Jeong’s Dosirak in the Covered Market.
I’ve been there for a few times because I love Korean food. It is tasty and spicy – not your wasabi spicy, your salsa spicy, or even your Sichuan spicy. It is our Korean spicy: kind of sweet, kind of hot, glides on the tongue, burns in the throat and sits in your stomach like a dying, gasping volcano.
For the first time, I got a Bibimbap, the Korean equivalent of pasta in Italian cuisine. It was standard: a well-mixed rice bowl with assorted vegetables and marinated beef. But since it didn’t come in a burning stone pot and hence was without the rice crust, I would say I still prefer the Bamboo version which, by the way, also comes with a fried egg on top. Always a win.
Then on a cold depressing day in January, I got the Kimchi Jigae (tofu and pork stew). A no brainer, right? The steaming soup and all that spiced up kimchi and tofu really warmed me up. Be careful not to dilute the stew with your tears because you will not stop guzzling even as you cry. The stone pot
also looks adorable.
On my third visit, I discovered my favourite: the Dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken) Dosirak. Think marinated diced chicken smothered in a gochujang-based sauce with cabbage, sweet potatoes, and scallions in the hue of a flame, tenderly bathing in rice. Smells like heaven and tastes like devil. It is
attended by a multitude of sides which often include kimchi, japchae (glass noodles), eggroll, kimbap (sushi roll), each sitting in their tiny cells if you’re into the perfect aesthetic. There is a reason why this place is called Jeong’s Dosirak and not Jeong’s sweet chilli fried chicken, which I found way too soggy.
Although slightly pricier than the other eateries in the market, Jeong’s Dosirak comes with the best, though remarkably unkorean, wallpaper and (wooden!) tables; for less than 7 pounds, you can get a decent lunchbox or rice bowl. It is nutritious too: fibre, protein, carbs, no macro gets left behind. Did I mention you also get the good old kimchi, which, by the way, can prevent ageing and assist in weight loss? A downside, however, is that even when sitting inside, food is served in plastic containers. The portion, like the cute family business itself, was more petite than I am used to but
hey, less is more right? And as a Covered Market establishment, of course, it is only open until 5pm six days a week. Oh dear, do I wish I could enjoy its wholesomeness on a Sunday night in good old England.
Jeong’s ordinariness is what makes it so special, and I always find myself going back just for another hot spoonful of chicken or tofu. It’s the kind of restaurant we need: a little spicy, a little cosy.