If you cast your mind to Korean cuisine in Australia, your first thought might be of smoky charcoal wafting from Korean barbecue restaurants, or the thumping K-pop soundtrack paired with your Korean fried chicken. Perhaps it's the sizzling stone pot symphony of a bibimbap, or the bubbling cauldron of kimchi jjigae accompanied by dainty dishes of banchan.
But there's a growing voice amongst the Korean-Australian community challenging the identity of Korean food in Australia, offering a unique collision of Australian and Korean cultures.
In Sydney's Surry Hills, Sáng by Mabasa has been flying the Korean-Australian flag since 2018, with Soul Dining and its new offshoot Soul Deli following since. Contemporary Korean diner Jung Sung opened earlier this year in Chippendale's Kensington Street precinct, with others such as Marble BBQ subtly drawing on their Korean roots.
In Melbourne, private dining experience CHAE has quickly become the most exclusive restaurant to book in the country. The Korean cultural wave – or hallyu – has finally crashed onto our shores in a big, big way.
In 2021, the buzz emanating from Korean cuisine in Australia isn't from a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant, but from a two-bedroom apartment in Melbourne's north.
Jung Eun Chae, formerly of Cutler & Co and Lûmé, started CHAE at the end of 2019 from her Brunswick home. Initially running cooking classes, CHAE gradually morphed into private dining, with just six people per seating, showcasing a side of Korean cuisine that Australians had never seen before.
Chae's mother is from South Jeolla, the southernmost province of South Korea, which is renowned for its fermentation, salt and spice. The backbone of CHAE is in traditional Korean fermentation, using organic ingredients and making everything from scratch – and she really means from scratch.
"Because I don't use many spices in my cooking, I produce fermented enzymes to add sweetness to my cooking. Different enzymes create different flavours. It allows me to be more creative and add different sweetness to my dishes. I use different fruits like apples, pears, mandarin or vegetables," she says. "It's so easy to add sugar, but I invest more time to create the same sweetness naturally. I believe it's worth the extra steps and it's reflected in the taste."
Diners step straight into the kitchen of Chae's home, where their six-course meal begins with bugak, a Korean temple food inspired by her teachings from Korean Buddhist nun and chef Jeong Kwan, who featured on Netflix's Chef's Table. It's a subtle dish of dried vegetables coated in glutinous rice paste and then deep-fried. An entrée follows, which could be a jook (Korean-style congee) and then three main courses that marry organic produce with dishes from Chae's childhood memories of South Korea. Recently, it's been a dynamic galbitang – beef rib broth served with chopped spring onion and kimchi.
Another of Chae's reimagined dishes is the busut japchae – stir-fried glass noodles with a medley of mushrooms including enoki, shimeji, king oyster and wood ear. And dessert? Another part of Chae's cooking philosophy is centred on health and wellbeing, with the baesook jjim – steamed pear stuffed with jujube, ginger and fermented rice syrup – which she calls a healthy finish to the meal.
At CHAE, nothing is wasted – the residue from the jarred enzymes is used to make gochujang and balsamic vinegars. "Zero waste is a big part of my restaurant and its identity," says Chae.
Her home, which she shares with her husband, is now packed to the brim with jars of homemade fermented products such as fruit vinegars, makgeolli (Korean rice wine), fermented enzymes, gochujang (chilli paste), doenjang (soybean paste) and of course kimchi. But it's unlike any kimchi you would have encountered in Australia, which is down to the distinct fishy flavour from the dried shrimp and anchovy powder added during the fermentation process.
"I am very proud of the kimchi I serve. It is very hard to come across a traditional kimchi [in Australia]. It is still difficult for me to deliver the same quality and taste of the kimchi [in South Korea]," says Chae. "There are many variables, like the quality of the cabbage and radish, how it's seasoned, the weather, humidity and gochugaru (chilli powder)."
And word about CHAE has definitely spread, with a waitlist of more than 8,000 and counting. Humbled by her success, Chae says it is an honour to represent Korean cuisine in Melbourne.
"There is a high interest in Korean cuisine through the restaurant, so that's where I feel the pressure because I want to set a good example and a good first impression to many who haven't experienced Korean cuisine."
"Cooked with love" is often used to describe wholesome, homemade meals. It might be that familiar dish your grandma always made, which you unsuccessfully try to recreate, never matching the nostalgic deliciousness. Koreans call this son-mat, which literally translatesto "hand taste".
At Sáng by Mabasa, one Korean-Australian family has stood firm in this notion of son-mat, leading the charge of a new breed of Korean restaurants. Led by self-taught chefs and husband and wife duo Seung-kee Son and Jin-sun Son, the restaurant is a celebration of family, with their son Kenny Yong-soo Son and his wife Youmee Jeon running the front of house.
"Son-mat is quite important in Korean cooking. It's like when our grandmothers don't measure anything, so they add a bit of this and a bit of that. It exists in many other cultures, just like the Italian nonnas," says Kenny Son.
Having sold their traditional Korean restaurant Mabasa, which they ran for nearly a decade, Seung-kee and Jin-sun had planned to take a break, but instead took the plunge with a small 24-seat space in one of Sydney's trendiest neighbourhoods. That's when their son (an object designer by trade) and his wife Youmee (who has a background in graphic design) decided to get involved.
"I had a chat with Youmee and said 'let's just help out'. Their food is good – we know it, a lot of other people know it but a lot more people could know it ," he says.
So the couple put all their energy into the design, branding, fit out and plating of the food, not afraid to push the boundaries of what was seen as traditional Korean cuisine in Australia.
"I said I'd work a little bit because I had hospitality experience. Let's help them set up and we'll get out. But we never ended up getting out. It makes Sáng what it is now. A lot of people come because it is a family restaurant," says Son.
Korean side dishes, or banchan, are traditionally served on small plates together with the main course. But at Sáng, they serve banchan on the one plate, partly due to a lack of table space. Sáng's version of yook-hwe, diced marinated raw beef served with an egg yolk, has also been redesigned with the addition of crispy quinoa or mung bean to the tartare-like dish.
Above: Sáng's version of yook-hwe, diced marinated raw beef served with an egg yolk.
"All restaurants have an actual bread or crisp with a raw beef dish. But Koreans don't have crisps, biscuits or bread with yook-hwe… but I do like it to have a bit of crunch," says Son.
"We're not doing anything special, we are just doing our food. We are cautious that we are still doing justice to the culture, tradition and us as a family. The food represents us as a family. It's not just Korean food or culture or tradition, but it's about family. That's what makes Sáng what it is."
It's not just the food that's being handled with care. The tableware, cutlery and design pieces are all meticulously crafted by Son himself, under his Studiokyss brand. But introducing their modern interpretation of Korean cuisine to Sydney wasn't always an easy ride.
"Mum and Dad had doubts about this concept. They were like 'are you sure about Korean food being presented like this?' I said, 'trust me this is going to work'. Now I joke to my parents 'see I told you!'"
Above: Some of the tableware, cutlery and design pieces at Sáng by Mabasa are made by Son himself, under his Studiokyss brand.
With the majority of Korean restaurants in Australia on the more affordable end of the dining scale, restaurants like Sáng by Mabasa and Soul Dining in Sydney have automatically been labelled as fine dining, introducing a new set of challenges.
"Some people get disappointed because they think it's fine dining, but it turns out to be something they eat at home or at the markets or street food. We're just trying to do something we believe in, we love eating and sharing it with other people," says Son.
A similar misconception exists about Soul Dining. "Somehow, we have been represented as Korean fine dining – we never gave ourselves this term," says Illa Kim. "While we do want to give people some form of upscale dining, I think if you use better produce then [fine dining] comes with that territory."
Kim and Daero Lee didn't want to label their restaurant as Korean when they opened it in 2018. "Soul Dining is inspired by South Korea, but we use modern Australian techniques and produce. The expectations around Korean restaurants were so different to what we wanted to do. We didn't want to call ourselves fusion either: it wasn't about fusing cultures, it was just about being us," says Kim. "Our basic concept is taking food that we have in our memories, or our soul, and interpreted in the way that Daero likes to cook in a French, Italian approach. It's a true representation of us."
Kim says Soul Dining's prawn tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes) is an accurate portrayal of the couple's vision. "Tteokbokki is my soul food. We don't always have to do it with gochujang… so how can we recreate the gochujang, the red sauce, with the same depth of flavour?"
Lee improvises by introducing Yamba prawns, using the shell together with capsicum, onion and other spices to make a sambal-like bisque that's used in the final dish.
Above: Soul Dining's prawn tteokbokki.
So what's next for Korean cuisine in Australia? Kenny Son wants to see more young Korean-Australian chefs cooking from their own heritage. "We are making a voice and we are trying to do something but we need a bigger voice. It's for the bigger picture. If there's two or three more restaurants that are trying to do what we're trying to do, what CHAE is trying to do. People are talking crazy about CHAE already and that's fantastic," he says.
David Bae, owner of Sydney's Marble BBQ, says he's finally seeing the spotlight being shone on Korean cuisine since his father opened one of Sydney's first Korean barbecue restaurants in 1992. He believes Australia is ready to embrace the next generation of Korean restaurants and is backing his heritage, enlisting his Seoul-born executive chef Jacob Lee (ex-Sokyo) to open his new eight-seat, Korean fine diner Kobo in Circular Quay's new Quay Quarter precinct later this year.
"Korean food is getting more and more popular. It's always been about who's been brave enough to really express it – I think we're ready now," says Bae.
Borrowing from Japanese omakase, meaning "I'll leave it up to you", Lee says Kobo will be inspired by jung sik, or formal dinner in Korean.
"I always wanted to do the cuisine from my Korean roots. But will Kobo be 'typical Korean'? No. The dishes that I want to make at Kobo are about my childhood in Korea, my experience in Japanese cooking and my life in Australia, that's it," says Lee. "It is a really important moment now, as to how we design and promote what Korean cuisine is in Australia."