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  • Writer's pictureJoanneFoodTsang

Arirang: the Pillar of Korean Cuisine since 1964

Updated: Apr 4

Named after an age-old folk song known to all Koreans, Arirang was the first Korean restaurant to open in Hong Kong in 1964, and the first to introduce odourless barbecues in 1983. In a city that is constantly importing the latest trends and flavours of the Korean Wave, the restaurant - like its namesake - stands as a symbol of tradition. Whether it is the stews ('jiggae'), barbecues, pancakes ('jeon'), or the stone-pot rice bowls ('bibimbap'), Arirang's covers an extensive array of traditional Korean dishes and does them very very well.

Arirang Wanchai

As the oldest Korean restaurant in Hong Kong, Arirang's fame amongst locals, particularly within the Korean expat community, is widespread. Before concept-restaurants were common place in the city, Arirang's stickler to tradition, evident from it's interior design, staff, menu offerings, and style of service, was revered. For many years, when the restaurant was housed in the iconic Times Square department store, dining there always felt like a special treat, reserved for formal occasions only. As a child, the dimly lit, darkly furnished restaurant fronted by an immaculately and traditionally dressed host gave Arirang a mysterious and formal atmosphere that put even the cheekiest of children (me) on best behaviour. The patterned prints of blue, red, yellow, white and black adorning intricate frames, sliding partitions that gave its diners privacy, steady murmur of Korean, and the predominantly masculine and suited clientele back then, made it feel like I was spying into a completely different world and culture.

Cut to 2 decades later - Arirang in it's current, brightly lit location in Wanchai (as pictured). Possibly thanks to its stronger lighting, Arirang has become a family-friendly place to be. For one, the adult me no longer finds it intimidating. The host at the front of house is still immaculately and traditionally dressed, the partitions still intricate, and the staff from its Times Square location are still around and Korean(-speaking). At this point, dining at Arirang always feels like homecoming; the long-serving staff are there to greet you, and the loyal clientele of Korean men (now with their families) can still be spotted. Though, younger and more international diners are now seen filling the restaurant.

There is a reason why such a mixed and loyal clientele visit this establishment.

Arirang bases it's cuisine on the 'Hanjungsik' style, a formal style of dining that used to be reserved for aristocrats and royalty only. This style is noticeable from the number of side dishes ('banchan') that are on the table, the bowls of rice and soup that are served to each individual regardless of what you order from the menu, and the sweet that comes at the end of the meal. Everything is made in-house - a feat worth mentioning considering the selection of 'banchan' available and setting aside the extensive menu offerings. It was this style of cuisine that attracted many businessmen to the restaurant back in the day, and also it's mark of tradition that continues to attract many diners to Arirang.

Though, Arirang endures to this day not simply thanks to its delivery of authentic flavours and tradition. Given the intense competition it faces from the numerous Korean restaurants that have opened since the strong Korean Wave swept to the shores of Hong Kong, Arirang adapts to the modern day and caters to the younger and more international clientele that is passionate about Korean culture and dining. Away with its dimly lit atmosphere, in came more pictures on the menu, and the gradual inclusion of popular dishes featured in Korean dramas such as the army stew ('budaejiggae') and instant noodle ('ramyeon').

Personal favourite

Korean barbecue at Arirang

Amongst the many food options on Arirang's menu, a personal favourite of mine will always be the barbecue beef ('bulgogi'). Marinated in advance, the thin slices of meat brown within seconds on the hot grill. Quick plunge of the beef in the soy-based barbecue sauce and onto a spoon full of soft, fragrant white rice. Now that's a bite I dream about.

As I am savouring my bite, my hands are usually working to brown another slice of meat, and along with it, some kimchi that is always served on the table. The combination of grilled meat with chargrilled kimchi is a wonder. Found beside the kimchi is usually the garlicky spinach side dish 'sigeumchi-namul' and the fragrant beans sprout side dish 'sukjunamul-muchim'. A side of sweet and sticky potato 'gamja jorim', seaweed salad 'miyeokjulgi-bokkeum', or warm braised tofu 'dubu jorim' should also be lying around. Like I said, even if you order just one main at Arirang, you feast like a king. A sip of their beef and radish soup ('seogogi-muguk') and you'll find yourself going through that bowl of rice in a flash.

Arirang is one of few restaurants I am happy to solo dine at. It is all about the food. You are able to enjoy at your own pace a range of flavours and textures with the order of just one dish, and the caring staff will always drop in to check on you. Though, if you come with a group of friends or family, the menu is full of delectable potentials. I highly recommend their seafood pancake ('haemul-pajeon'), stir-fried glass noodles ('japchae'), spicy beef soup ('yukgae-jang'), and spicy stone casserole pork belly ('dolpan samgyupsal'). If not them, there are pages more of options available. Arirang never disappoints, so do be brave and let the pictures on the menu tempt you. Without a doubt, you will soon identify as one of the many loyal customers of Arirang.

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