South Korean TV channel JTBC made the trip to Oxford earlier this month to film their new show, ‘Korean Lunch Tray’. Accompanied by star chef Lee Yeon Bok, comedians, actresses, and K-pop stars from the group Monsta X, I got a chance to sit down with the stars and chat all things food. And that was before they cooked for hundreds at Lady Margaret Hall the next day…
The programme has a fascinating concept. Celebrity chef Lee Yeon Bok, Monsta X singer Joo Heon, supermodel and comedian Hong Jin Kyeong, comic duo Nam Chang Hee and Heo Kyeong Hwan, and YouTuber Peter Bint form the cast. Together, they travel around the world, reproducing Korean food and school lunches (served in the trays pictured) for different people around the world. So, after Wolves FC the day before, the 75-strong crew took over Lady Margaret Hall for three days of planning, interviews, filming, and an Asian lunch extravaganza!
On the first day I was invited to appear on the programme, conducting an interview with the full cast of stars on a huge variety of topics from fish and chips to how Korean food is viewed in the UK. Over the course of 45 minutes, I was struck by the genuine fascination and interest in British food and culture. All of the team are big foodies and they were desperate to try classic British dishes such as fish and chips.
I wasn’t surprised to hear about the perception of British food in South Korea. Descriptions included ‘bland, flavourless, and boring’, and it was hard to disagree! However, I was also able to provide an insight to them into the ‘new British cuisine’ that is currently flourishing across the country. The plethora of farm-to-table sites and the embracing of different cultural influences was something alien and fascinating to them.
In terms of Korean food in the UK, they had been shocked by how receptive people had been. They found students especially were more than keen to sample Korean specialities and the queue at lunch the next day certainly backed that up! In London and Wolverhampton they noted that people were more reluctant. We also got into the nuanced differences between Asian cuisines and how pan-Asian high street chains such as Wagamma’s and Banana Tree have led to the British market often becoming unaware of just how much dishes vary from country to country.
The next day, LMH dining hall played host to the main event — lunch. The crew got in the kitchen and managed to provide a remarkable selection of dishes for the hundreds of students and staff from across the university. On the menu were many of the Korean classics. Korean lettuce wraps and sticky rice formed the base and the perilla leaves and radish alongside the lettuce made them stand out as genuinely unique. The staple of beef bulgogi came with them and tables had guides about how to wrap and eat for the most authentic experience!
Elsewhere, the handmade kimchi came with cucumber and added a whole different level of flavour and crunch to the normal cabbage. Aside from that was the Korean take on fish and chips — suffice to say I prefer it to the English! Lightly dusted in breadcrumbs the flavour of the fish was allowed to flourish. Tornado potatoes were of course not left out — the new festival food staple crisp and dusted in onion salt, simply perfect.
We did of course reciprocate the favour with a collection of English foods and treats of our own. An obligatory Collin the Caterpillar and a bag of Percy Pigs were far too sweet for the Korean taste buds though! Hot cross buns were slightly better received but the blue cows and goat cheeses from the Oxford Cheese Co. went too far the other way with salt proving a problem.
In all, the few days were a truly surreal experience. It was an absolute pleasure to get so much time interviewing such big stars and I was genuinely impressed by their interest and fascination with food culture in the UK. No doubt the programme will go down well, but in the meantime, the crowd at Lady Margaret Hall certainly enjoyed the show!