Visiting Korea is a cultural adventure that's steeped in food. At one stage, after a two-hour hike up a mountain through fragrant pine forests and beside ancient Buddhas carved from the hillside, I reach the peak and discover what appears to be a roaringly successful lunch party. Dressed in neon hiking gear, 15 Koreans are sitting in the sun. On the blanket between them is a feast of 20 or more dishes including rice, steamed beef, vibrantly coloured kimchi and tofu in a dark sauce, which seem to have materialised from their small backpacks.
The group is laughing and chatting and toasting each other with large glasses of soju, the local spirit of choice. It's a scene that typifies Korea: alongside hiking, eating is the nation's favourite sport.
From a culinary perspective, Korea is the Italy of Asia – a nation of foodies dedicated to the pursuit of fresh local ingredients and with a culture of eating together in long, sociable meals. Every region boasts its signature dishes and local and seasonal ingredients are prized.
But unlike its Asian neighbours such as Japan, China or Thailand, Korean cuisine has yet to make an impact in Britain and Europe. That might be about to change. Bibigo Bar and Dining in London's Soho, a contemporary and casual-style Korean restaurant, launched this month. The first in a planned chain of three UK ventures from the Korean-based CJ foods, it aims to introduce British tastebuds to the niceties of Korean cookery.
Meanwhile, the beehived chef Gizzi Erskine is running a pop-up next month called K-Town, inspired by the Korean district in New York, at Concrete in London's Shoreditch, after falling in love with thefood there.
The country's cuisine is not dissimilar to Japanese but flavours are more robust. Chilli plays a bigger role and dishes vary from sweetly spicy to powerfully hot. Doenjang, a fermented soybean paste with a touch of sweetness and gochujang, a hot red-pepper paste are the two key sauces.
"Where Japanese cuisine is soy based, Korean food has a chilli base," says Bibigo head chef Kim Yong Hwan, previously head chef at Roka Canary Wharf, and who worked with Leo Kang, host of Masterchef Korea, to develop Bibigo's menu.
Sesame oil is another key ingredient in Korean cuisine, lending its fragrant, nutty flavour to many dishes. When you walk in the door at Bibigo it's the scent of sesame you notice first and it does the job of instantly transporting you from Soho to the streets of Seoul.
Many of Bibigo's dishes are entirely true to their Korean roots. The pajeon seafood pancake with shredded spring onion is a familiar dish in markets and street stalls across Korea and Bibigo's version is unctuous and satisfying. "Perfect," says my dinner companion, "especially after a beer or two."
We also order traditional chargrilled bulgogi, beef marinated in a sweetened soy sauce, which is served in the traditional way with a ssam basket of lettuce leaves. You simply load up a lettuce leaf with beef and the accompanying grilled mushrooms and bean sprouts to create an über-tasty, burger-style bite.
Naturally, bibimbap, Korea's national dish, is also on the menu. It constitutes an entire meal in a bowl: rice served with nahmul (assorted vegetables), protein (meat, tofu or egg), garnishes (nuts or seeds) and gochujang (hot pepper paste). Give it all a good mix around and then dig in and you'll be emulating an everyday Korean lunch.
But it's kimchi that is the inimitable cornerstone of Korean dining. Spicy, sharp and sour, kimchi is pickled vegetable, usually cabbage, and is served with every meal. Every household makes its own and in restaurants you'll be served kimchi that varies from a mild 10-day fermentation to a tastebud-walloping four-year-old version. At Bibigo we pick at a robust cabbage kimchi ("hints of sauerkraut," says my friend, not entirely convinced) and a more delicate pickled radish that complements the flavours in our main dishes.
It's clear that the kitchen here knows its stuff. Meals are beautifully presented and perfectly cooked: from the asparagus and broccoli side dishes, with their subtle flavour and flawless bite, to the delicate sweetness and meltingly tender meat. Traditional Korean flavours such as ssam-jang sauce, a kind of bean paste with a hint of chilli and soy and a slight sweetness on the tongue, are there to be savoured.
Where the menu falls down a little is in those dishes that cater more to Western tastes. Rather than portions designed for chopsticks and sharing, the baby chicken and black cod come plated as you'd expect with a Western meal and the cod is served with couscous not rice. Both are delicious and Korean flavours are softly in evidence but I'm missing the vibe, the atmosphere and the communal instincts of Korean dining. I want to dip my chopsticks in to a central bowl and break into a chilli-induced sweat.
Korean food is all about sharing and can be best summed up by banchan, the series of side dishes that accompany every meal. For a simple supper you can expect three or four, a more formal meal will see up to 12 served in small communal bowls that clutter the table and tempt you to eat and then eat some more.
Although usually vegetarian – spinach in sesame oil, roasted garlic, fried bean sprouts, any variety of mushrooms – you will also find fried fish, spicy clams and salty tofu alongside your main dish. Not so much a sideshow as the centrepiece of a meal, banchan is the shorthand for Korea's sociable dining culture.
Enter a restaurant on your own in Korea and it won't be long before strangers are inviting you to eat with them, insisting you join their party and share the meal and drink a glass or two of soju. Koreans like to drink almost as much as they like to eat. And what they most like to drink is soju, a rice-based spirit that's a bit like vodka but a lot less potent (about 20 per cent ABV on average).
Good quality soju is delicate, smooth and, if you're Korean, drunk by the bottle. Koreans drink so much soju that it's the biggest selling spirit in the world, with more than 60 million cases sold each year. Cultural norms dictate that every time your host raises his glass and drinks, you have to join in. So it's no surprise that as the night wears on the atmosphere in a Korean restaurant becomes ever more convivial.
In the spirit of this ethos, we order another round ourselves. Smooth, warming and delicate, sipping soju evokes memories of garrulous diners warming up on cool evenings in Seoul's buzzing restaurants. As our glasses empty we begin to emulate their style – talking and gesticulating while rolling bulgogi in leaves, picking at the cod and chicken with chopsticks, inhaling the scent of sesame and savouring this brief taste of Korea.
Bibigo Bar & Dining, bibigouk.com. For details of Gizzi Erskine's K-Town, visit concretespace.co.ukReuse content