OF all the Korean restaurants I have ever visited in Singapore, the one I like best is Manbok, a 40-plus-seater Korean barbecue restaurant along Cheong Chin Nam Road, just 15 minutes away from my home by foot. I’m there frequent enough that the fresh-faced, twenty-something waitress can read my mind.
“Kimchi soup?” she’d always ask.
Yes, of course. It’s what I have all the time, whether I’m there alone or with my cousin, Theeruth, or my best friend, Wei Ling.
The stew-like soup, called kimchi jigae in Korean, is three parts spicy and one part sour. Served in a black Korean-styled sandpot, it is hot, boiling hot. I’ve burned my tongue several times, stupidly sipping the soup too voraciously, paying little heed to the bubbling amber broth filled with kimchi, slivers of pork belly, cubes of tofu, all garnished with a sprinkling of chopped scallions.
What’s special about this soup is that the chef has also tossed in plain napa cabbage. Don’t expect the unpickled cabbage to have a more crisp texture than the kimchi. In the soup, both end up having the same soft, tender bite. This is not a bad thing. What the kimchi does is to enrich the already wholesome soup, spiked with kochijang—a spicy bean paste that’s devilishly hot and gives the jigae its distinctive color.
There’s another reason why Manbok’s kimchi jigae scores high among all the other soups in this genre: you wouldn’t find a bunch of raw enoki gracing the soup. Texture-wise, the crunch of semi-cooked enoki doesn’t work with the wilted softness of the kimchi and the tofu. Aesthetically, the enoki does little by way of color contrast against the white of the tofu and the cabbage.
In this regard, the chefs at Woorinara and Kim’s Family, along Lorong Kilat not far from Manbok, aren’t as enlightened as Manbok’s chef-owner, Madam Kim. I suspect she’d agree with me that adding enoki as a finishing touch to kimchi jigae is like tossing in beansprouts into fried rice.
Besides my favorite jigae, Manbok has the requisite offerings of any Korean restaurant: bibimbup, bulgogi, ginseng chicken, and black bean ramen. What sets Manbok apart from other Korean BBQ joints, though, is that their wait staff are always hovering over tables doing the hard work of barbecuing for you. The wait staff, for instance, would sizzle a whole piece of pork belly, then snip them right in front of you.
This is where Madam Kim has got her service philosophy right. She wants her customers to enjoy the beer and the conversation, instead of fretting over their meat. Talk too much, the meat could get burnt. Focus too intently on the barbecue, the conversation would likely suffer. This touch of pampering makes sense particularly because Madam Kim is serving up a prime cut of pork. One serving of pork belly costs $15, versus $15 per head for a Korean BBQ buffet at a lesser restaurant.
While I may be a fan of meat, I will confess that most of my visits to Manbok is never about the meat, unless I have a dining companion. Alone, I’m always there for my one and only kimchi jigae—it’s warming not just for the body, but the soul. Best of all, the serving is good enough for two.
Manbok Korean BBQ and Seafood
19 Cheong Chin Nam Road
Jiji Setavoraphan, Secondary Three