#10 in the series – challenges & innovations for Korean restaurants abroad
“We’re not interested in carrying the Korean flag, but it’s important for us to give people good, tasty food in a nice, friendly atmosphere with traditional family recipes.”
On my recent trip to Sweden I had the pleasure of chatting with sisters Byung-Hi (the manager) and Byung-Soon (the chef) Lim at Korean restaurant Arirang in Stockholm. Family-owned since the restaurant’s establishment in 1975, it was in fact the first Korean restaurant to open in the whole of Scandinavia. In a very modest way, however, they point out that they didn’t really think of themselves as a restaurant at that time.
Why? Well, when their father, who was a violinist, and his fellow musicians would gather to have food after their late-night performance, there were no restaurants left at such a late hour that would still serve food. The solution? The sisters’ mother, the violinist’s wife, would cook up a wonderful Korean meal at their house until one day the opportunity arose for her to cook in her husband’s friend’s café, which she eventually took over and turned into the restaurant we know today. It was a drastic career change from nurse to chef and restaurant owner, but one that has, as we have been witness to, paid off.
Daughters Byung-Hi and Byung-Soon started working at Arirang around fifteen years ago and I found the next generation lunching in the friendly and cosy restaurant as well. 95% of customers are Swedes, which has resulted in modifications, but not deliberately, says Byung-Hi. “We haven’t made Korean food purposefully Swedish, rather it is our taste that has changed.” One thing that has remained the same since Arirang’s inception is the presence of dishes on the menu that are considered classically Korean worldwide, such as bibimbap and bulgogi. They were there from day one and they’re unlikely to be scratched from the menu. But they’ve certainly changed character since they first started.
When I ask Byung-Hi Lim about the japchae (traditionally a noodle side dish in Korea) in the bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables), she tells me the story of one regular customer who would come every week and ask for some japchae to be put in his bibimbap rather than ordering both separately. When he came with friends who tried his special bibimbap version, they decided they wanted it too, one day leading the sisters to try it as well. They liked it so much that they went ahead and added this unique Arirang bibimbap to their menu. And yes, in my humble opinion it does work together really well, and it certainly helps that the japchae is very rich in flavour too (we ordered both the bibimbap and the also separately available japchae on the day of our visit).
In the early days Arirang even served sushi. Ms. Byung-Hi Lim tells me that because customers at the time were asking for some Japanese foods, having seen them on TV, sushi became one of the many food options available for guests to enjoy at the restaurant. But over the years a have-it-all menu became no longer necessary. In the 90s the sushi hype led to Japanese restaurants opening in the surrounding area, and with an increasingly established reputation, the Lim team decided to really focus on their specialties, in particular for their lunch menu where all the dishes they serve should be quick to arrive and delicious in taste.
Although the sisters are sure to explain Korean food to new guests, – how it’s marinated, what it is, the different consistencies, the way the different foods are eaten – in the conversation I have with them they emphasize that at the end of the day it’s all about giving people “good, tasty food in a nice, friendly atmosphere with traditional family recipes.” They are not interested in carrying the Korean flag, because they recognize the difficulty in doing so when cuisines are constantly evolving – and when it is the guests who play a crucial role in this development. “We don’t own the dishes, the customers do,” Ms. Lim says, pointing at the bibimbap with japchae. It’s the little changes that make the continuous development of a cuisine so exciting – and with it the exploration of Korean food all over the world.
This is part of a series on the challenges and innovations for Korean restaurants abroad. If you’d like to read more, see the Soban article (Krefeld, Germany), or the Gogi Matcha article (Düsseldorf).
Area: Stockholm, Sweden
Closest metro: Rådmansgatan (line 17, 18, 19)
Address: Luntmakargatan 65
113 58 Stockholm
Closed: Sundays and Mondays