From viral TikTok videos to Kpop stars plastered across its interior, Bento Bab has been serving Whitechapel authentic and halal Korean food since 2019.
If you have not seen Bento Bab nestled on Commercial Street, you may have heard of the Korean street food restaurant on none other than TikTok.
Open since 2019, Bento Bab saw an influx of customers flocking to its premise since a video of one of its customers reviewing the food went viral on TikTok in October 2020.
One particular video has attracted 262,100 views and a total of 45,000 likes, with the Bento Bab hashtag continuing to generate videos by its restaurant-goers, compiling 287,000 views in total.
Named after its owner, Sun Bab (in Korean tradition, the family name comes first), 45, Bento Bab can be found just a few minutes walk away from Aldgate East station.
Adding to Whitechapel’s cultural melting pot, its menu features a wide range of Korean street foods from tteokbokki (spicy rice cake), kimbap (cooked rice and vegetables, fish and meat rolled in dried seaweed), and the most popular of them all – Korean fried chicken.
Having worked as a chef for 30 years from a young age, Sun explains that he curated the menu by himself. For this chain in particular, he explains that he made it specifically to tailor to Muslims that eat halal food, inclusive to the big population of British Bengalis in the area.
Walking into the restaurant will have you welcomed by the warm atmosphere and friendly waiters. Styled with an open kitchen, the flavours fill up the entire room, causing your mouth to water as your tastebuds anticipate the food.
Their style of ordering is a new normal for a post-lockdown world, which seems like the most convenient way to go about it from now on. You scan a QR code that can be found on your table and it takes you straight to their online menu. The menu can be shared with the number of guests that scan on their own devices, as the menu syncs everyone’s orders together in real-time.
When looking at the menu, it’s not easy to choose only a single appetiser and one main meal. Famous for its multitude of side dishes, a traditional Korean table will feature several plates from marinated greens, sautéed vegetables, and fried meats.
In the same fashion, I ordered enough to fill a table that serves two people. As each plate arrives, I’m made to rearrange my plates as if I’m playing Tetris, but the food disappears into my stomach instead.
There is no Korean food experience without the ordering of kimchi. The salty fermented cabbage soaked in seasonings of gochugaru (Korean chilli powder), spring onions, garlic, ginger and jeotgal (salted seafood) creates a refreshing yet inducing taste for my tastebuds, opening up my palette to devour more of what’s to come.
Kimchi is a very prominent side dish that can also be used in multiple Korean dishes from its soups and stews. On the Bento Bab menu, it can be found in kimchi chips, kimchi kimbap and kimchi pancakes, which I’ve ordered the former two.
The fries come with kimchi glazed all over the crunchy potatoes, accompanied with the mayonnaise that contrasts the orange dressing of the extra kimchi sauce. The combination of mayonnaise with the kimchi creates a creamy yet savoury flavour, as the kimchi’s sourness boldens the taste of the mayo.
The power to intensify a meal’s taste with kimchi is made clear by my side-by-side ordering of the tofu/vegetable kimbap and the kimchi kimbap, as the kimchi draws out the flavours of the vegetables by enhancing its freshness and crisp taste.
A particular favourite from the feast before me is the fried seaweed rolls, made up of minced glass noodles wrapped in seaweed. Biting into the crunchiness of the batter unearths the texture of the soft noodles, which has been immersed in a delightfully sweet sauce.
Having a craving for more hearty deep-fried food, ordering the vegetable dumplings is a must. Accompanied by its usual soy sauce, the vegetable stuffing fills my mouth with its fresh aroma and succulent taste.
They also offer Korean table barbecue at the back of the restaurant, allowing guests to grill their own meat and vegetables. Korean barbecue is very prominent in its country of origin and is iconic in the Korean restaurants found overseas from its home. However, vegetarians may wish to miss out on this experience as it’s made to specifically grill meat.
Not only is Bento Bab the hotspot for Korean street food, but another attraction to its thousands of visitors is also its infusion of Korean pop music (kpop) to its decor and theme. Plastered across the walls of the interior you will find posters of the world-famous Korean boyband BTS (Bangtan Sonyeondan) and their discography containing record-breaking albums and multiple #1 Billboard Hot 100 singles playing in the background.
The Grammy-nominated band is made up of seven members, RM, Jin, SUGA, J-Hope, Jimin, V and Jungkook. Each of their portraits feature their smiles watching gleefully over you as if you’ve taken a seat at the table with them to enjoy a meal together – don’t we wish.
Curious about why the owner decided to hang their pictures on the wall, Sun tells me it was actually thanks to his wife, who identifies as an ARMY (the name of the BTS fandom, which stands for ‘Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth’). “I wasn’t a fan but my wife introduced me to them and I started to really like them,” he explains. It’s not difficult to guess why, as their songs have the powerful impact to appeal to people of different ages, ethnicities, races and gender.
Having become a cultural ambassador for South Korea, BTS has played a huge role in introducing Korean music to the world, and alongside this, they have brought its culture further into the mainstream. First debuted in 2013, their growth in success within the kpop industry has generated an estimated $5 billion to the South Korean economy on a yearly basis. An interest in the band brings tourism to the country, sparking intrigue in learning the Korean language, and curiosity in consuming Korean movies, television, fashion and food.
As recent as the 76th UN General Assembly in September, BTS were designated as the special presidential envoy for future generations and culture, where they delivered a speech to promote coronavirus vaccines and celebrate young people for their resiliency in the face of the pandemic and climate change, in front of multiple heads of state.
The pictures of the young men hung proudly on the wall and their internationally adored songs blasting in the background is a reminder of just how far the journey of the South Korean identity has come, known as the ‘Korean wave.’ Since the 1990s, the growth of the internet and social media has played a huge role in paving the way for Korean media to become more accessible.
The success of streaming services such as Netflix has also played a big role in this, with their wide selection and production of kdrama (Korean drama) TV shows for their platform. The most recent example of this is the global success of the show Squid Game, which went on to become Netflix’s most-streamed original TV series to date (142 million household views).
With South Korea on the world stage, restaurants like Bento Bab allow people the opportunity to explore and immerse themselves in its culture. Serving their authentic and traditional foods will have you feeling like you’re actually there, nestled in a restaurant in one of the streets of Seoul. The taste of the food and the atmosphere of Bento Bab is evidence of its owner’s effort into bringing a piece of his home to the welcoming arms of Whitechapel.
If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read Thai N Pie Review: The Whitechapel restaurant bringing two worlds together.
Please support local journalism.
As a not-for-profit media organisation using constructive journalism to strengthen communities, we have not put our digital content behind a paywall or subscription fee as we think the benefits of an independent, local publication should be available to everyone living in our area.
We are powered by members. Hundreds of members have already joined. Become a member to donate as little as £3 per month to support constructive journalism and the local community.