Monday, March 2, 2009

Santiago Kimchi: Eating Korean

Korean food, and especially kimchi, are literally and figuratively the antipole of Chilean cuisine. Half a world away; north, rather than south; and pungent, spicy, sour, and intense; the food of Korea is about as un-Chilean as possible.

Consider kimchi:  Napa cabbage, ground chili pepper, salt, garlic and brined fish or shrimp; all fermented together and served as a side dish or incorporated into other dishes. It’s crisp, cold, hot with chili, pungent with garlic, acidic, a little salty, and richly aromatic… both before and after ingestion. (My Chilean wife strongly recommends follow-up breath mints.)

So what is
kimchi doing in Santiago, home of subtle (let’s not say bland) flavors, restrained seasoning, only an occasional hint of garlic or chili—at least in the homes and restaurants of the middle and upper classes? It is providing an important flavor of home, culture and identity to an estimated 2,000 Koreans
[i], most of whom live in Santiago’s Patronato neighborhood, across the Río Moapocho from downtown, between Bellavista and La Vega.

Although the first Kroean immigrants came to Chile in 1953, refugees from the Korean War, sustained Korean immigration to Chile began in the 1970s, as the first few dozen families immigrated from Bolivia and Argentina. Direct immigration from Korea followed, and centered on the Patronato garment district, where Koreans began to supplant Arab immigrants in the manufacture, importation and sale of clothing
[ii]. And as their numbers increased, the first businesses and churches opened to serve the community: restaurants, barbershops, and protestant and catholic churches.

Which brings us back to
kimchi:  today there are at least a half-dozen Korean restaurants in Santiago, most in the Patronato or Recoleta, serving the Korean community, but also in bohemian Bellavista and even upscale Las Condes (The Gaon) aiming at a Chilean and international clientele.

My first encounter with Santiago
kimchi was in the Patronato, where I had gone in search of Chinese groceries. Across the street was a Korean restaurant, Sukyne.


Didn't go in the first day; I was a little intimidated by the door-front menu from which all I understood was “Only Korean Food.” But on the next trip to the Patronato I gathered my courage and entered---to find a pleasant, clean and cool dining room half full of mostly Korean (and some Chilean) diners. The waitress, a Chilean, greeted me and provided a menu explaining each dish. On one side were rice dishes and soups, each at 3500 Chilean pesos (about $7 US), and on the other side were more expensive dishes, some meant to be shared. Forearmed by a year in Korea in the 1970s and a refresher via the internet (“Korean cuisine” from Wikipedia and "Korean Menu Guide"), I ordered chab che bap, a stir-fry of transparent noodles, vegetables and beef [top row, middle on the picture menu—click to enlarge]. Very nice dish, not especially spicy, and served with a variety of side dishes: sweet spicy peanuts, sheets of nori (the marine alga sushi is wrapped in), spinach with sesame seeds, and of course, kimchi. Desert was a plate of fresh apricots.

On my next venture to Sukyne, I ordered bi bim bap (below), a stir-fry of vegetables and a little meat, topped by an egg and served with side dishes—and this time I brought a camera.

In the center, with the egg on top, is the bi bim bap, accompanied by (l to r) a light broth, a moderately hot chili paste to mix with the rice, very tasty pickled vegetables of unknown provenience, three slices of omelet with carrots and bean sprouts, kimchi, and nori—to wrap around a little rice. Perhaps you recognize the Heineken, and the chopsticks—I suspect forks are available for the asking. Grapes for desert.

On future visits I’m looking forward to bul go gui (literally “fire-meat,” at 12,000 CLP. for two), marinated beef loin cooked on a table-top grill and eaten with side dishes and rice, all wrapped in a lettuce leaf; and o jing oh bok um, stir-fried squid and vegetables (right). I also want to try kimbop, Korean sushi; mandu, fried dumplings ….and everything else that looks good on the menu.

Perhaps I’ll see you there.


[i] Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile, Noticias
21 Ago 08 | Coreanos en Chile: ¿Cómo ven a los chilenos?

[ii] Comunidad de inmigrantes Coreanos del barrio Patronato, Pablo Rossel E.
Universidad de Chile,


  1. I can't believe it! Bi bim pab a lo pobre! Even Korean-Chilean food comes with an egg on top!
    Veyr interesting... you've piqued my interest! I'm going to have to venture into the realm of true Korean food!
    thanks for this post!

  2. My pleasure, Margaret. You know, Bi bim pab is Michael Jackson’s favorite food.


  3. Many visits later the food is still authentic and the prices are about the same, but today tables of Chileans (&/or Gringos) outnumbered Koreans 11 to 3! Congratulations Chile... your taste for the spicy and international seems to be expanding.


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