We’ve all witnessed the breakthrough of imported food from around Asia in KL, and Korean food is no exception. We love our barbecued meat, bulgogi and pretty much anything tossed in kimchi. There are several enclaves dedicated to Seoul food around our city, from Little Korea at One Ampang Avenue to the neighbourhood joints at Mont Kiara or Hartamas. But mention Korean dessert and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. Unlike sweet bubble teas and icy treats from Taiwan, or even cheesecakes from Japan, Korean desserts have yet to tempt the Malaysian sweet tooth.
But why is this? According to Yuni Kim, manager at Korean restaurant Onsemiro, it can partly be attributed to the richness of a Korean meal. A diner typically begins with a range of barbecued meats, usually beef, before moving on to other spicy protein and vegetable mains. This means that dessert is more an indulgent option than a requisite. “Most of the time people order fresh fruits after their meal”, Yuni says. If you’re not inclined to eating raw fruit, however, Onesemiro offers other desserts such as persimmon sorbet, plum tea and a specialty iced drink of blended boiled rice and honey.
I decided to dig a little deeper, starting with my spoon. Apparently, the rice cake is one of Korea’s more traditional desserts, often enjoyed during harvest seasons and holidays as a way of celebration. Though they come in many forms, one of the most recognised is the yaksik, made of steamed glutinous rice and rolled with honey, sesame oil, soy sauce and pine nuts. Picture it as a sweet version of lo mai gai. Yaksik was invented as a portable snack and commonly noted for its nutritional properties. The sweet rice is great for digestion and for those who suffer frequent heartburn whereas the jujube is said to be an anti-aging agent. Its taste is difficult to place a finger on; though indulgent and fully sweet, yaksik also leaves a slightly medicinal taste.
As well as rice, other Korean desserts are made up of sweet potato, honey, pumpkin and other wholesome ingredients. But healthy and traditional as these desserts may be in Korea, there is nothing particularly hip about them. More recently, there has been a new dessert trend in Korea among the younger generation towards ice based desserts, which are – quite literally – cooler. It was as part of this new dessert revival that KL’s Namoo on the Park was born. The quirky joint at Publika has seen crowds appear to sample their range of desserts, with a menu that combines updated versions of traditional sweets like yaksik with more modern icy creations.
Among the more popular iced desserts is bing soo. Shaved ice is heaped onto an insurmountable mountain of kiwi, strawberries, banana, red bean paste and milk before multi-grain and green tea powder are sprinkled generously over the top. A scoop of vanilla ice cream melts comfortably atop the spectacle. You could pick the ingredients and eat your way down quite daintily but why do that when you can mix everything into a sweet, milky mess? Only half as sweet as its Malaysian counterpart, the wholesome yet luxurious bing soo at Namoo comes in a generous portion for three.
Namoo’s Owner Kim Sung Yong has been residing in KL for six years and was restless at the lack of modern Korean cafes here. “Before I opened, I found many Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Japanese, even Thai shops. But no Korean dessert cafes,” he tells me. Even other Korean restaurants in the Klang Valley served either a very limited menu of desserts or no desserts at all. Despite the lack of an existing niche, however, Namoo on the Park seems to have found its feet. They serve about 200 customers a day, and Kim estimates most of these to be locals, not Korean expats.
A little later, the conversation takes an inevitable turn. “You know about this Gangnam style?” Kim Sung asks me. I unashamedly nod. Sung Yong explains that Gangnam is an area that can be compared to Mont Kiara; chock-full of young high-flyers. “You can get a lot of modern Korean dessert in Gangnam,” Sung Yong says. He tells me that he plans to franchise Namoo so to educate KL diners about Korean dessert culture. And maybe, just maybe, the lines at Chatime will slowly move to a counter selling glutinous rice balls instead. If a rapper called Psy can get over 400 million YouTube views and spawn a new dancing style around the world, then maybe this day isn’t as far away as we think.
Photography by Stacy Liu
Namoo on the Park, Lot 4A, Level G3, Publika, 1 Jalan Dutamas 1, KL (03 6411 6698)
Onsemiro, Lot 206, 2nd floor, DoubleTree by Hilton @ The Intermark, 182 Jalan Tun Razak, KL (03 2161 2461)