For the past five years Table 181 has quietly supplied top restaurants such as MoVida and Momofuku Seiobo with high-end, artisanal Korean ingredients. Korean-born Paul Lee and his wife, Idylle, launched the business in Melbourne, but relocated to Sydney last year to be closer to the bulk of the demand. Now a move to Banksmeadow sees the addition of a shopfront and tasting room.
Opened in July, the new retail space marks the first time the public has had access to the boutique goods.
"It's somewhere we can invite anyone who's interested to come and see and taste the products," says Lee. "I can explain how they're grown, made or fermented, and people can take them away and experiment."
Idylle and Paul Lee.
While most Asian ingredients you'd find in grocery stores are made in large quantities, Table 181 imports only Korean products made in small batches or with traditional methods. The products fall into four key categories: seaweed, savouries, dry and semi-dried goods, and sauces, called jang in Korean.
There are numerous jangs at the new tasting room - "all of them living," says Lee - from soy, chilli and fish sauces to sweet varieties made with fermented berries. These are typically fermented in Korean earthenware, called onggi, a process that goes back more than two thousand years."Onggi breathes during fermentation, which is key," he says. Also key is the flavour: "In Korean, there's a word called 'gamchilmat' - it's equivalent to umami in Japanese - and commercial products just don't have it."
Peter Gilmore, of Sydney's Quay, was Table 181's first customer. He'll go to 181 for hand-harvested seaweed, say, the kind that can only be collected for one month of the year. "Koreans eat it as a salad with a little vinegar and oil," says Lee. "Peter applies vinegar, dries it again, cooks it back and uses it with lamb."
From left: two-year agd fish and meat soy, 10-year aged soy, four-year aged black bean soy and two-year aged double-brewed soy.
That calibre of customer comes as no surprise when you browse the shelves. Table 181's tuna soy, for instance (which retails for $75), is made using tuna that's been air-dried for six months (rather than frozen fish), and has kombu, shiitake and citrus peel in the ferment. "Most other stuff in stores would take three or four weeks to make," says Lee. "This takes 12 months."
"It's like comparing wine fermented in steel tanks for a short amount of time to a properly oak-aged wine given time to develop character," says Lee. "There's no comparison."
Table 181, Unit 5, 17-19 Green St, Banksmeadow, NSW, table181australia.com; open Fri-Sat by appointment, 10am-4pm, (02) 9695 7111