Since the pandemic, South Korean expats Songi Heo and Kev Choi have been unable to visit their families in Seoul.
Heo, a pastry chef, and Choi, an engineer, are Australian permanent residents who have been using FaceTime to communicate with their parents in South Korea for more than a year.
They’ve also missed cultural nuances that are hard to find in Adelaide, which has a relatively small Korean community.
Finding there to be a lack of Korean food offerings in the city, the couple has launched their own restaurant called Mekom – meaning “a little bit spicy” – which opened last week at the former Motorcycle Society cafe on Pulteney Street.
Mekom features a simple menu that heroes the Korean street-food dish topokki, alongside fun sweets and snacks, including a quirky take on corn dogs.
“It is difficult to visit our country right now,” says Heo.
“Other people from Korea are also missing the street food; that’s why we wanted to start the restaurant.
“I studied to be a pastry cook in Melbourne. I would have liked to open a cafe but there are so many cafes around here so we thought we would cook Korean food.”
The couple has updated the shop fitout, while keeping the helmet light shades above the counter – an homage to The Motorcycle Society, which still operates a workshop at the rear of the building.
Found on just about every street corner of South Korea, topokki is a sweet and sour dish that has exploded in popularity and is permeating into other Asian and western countries.
Topokki is made with tube-shaped rice cakes – called tteok – broiled in hot pepper gochujang paste and served with eggs, toppings, noodles and fish cake.
“For so long, we’ve been looking for a topokki restaurant to try, but we haven’t been able to find one. We missed it, so we thought we’d make our own,” says Heo.
“In Korea, topokki is now more popular than ever with young people.
“Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, many people are using Uber Eats and this dish is very easy to deliver.”
In Adelaide, some restaurants serve topokki as one element of a broader menu, but at Mekom topokki is the feature dish.
With a background as a welder and engineer, Choi is a long-time foodie and now head chef at Mekom.
“Kev studied engineering, but he’s very passionate about cooking and he’s a very good cook; he’s the main chef now,” says Heo.
Guests can choose to have topokki prepared for them, or they can cook it themselves at their table using a supplied butane gas cooker.
“We can supply it all in a pot that you can cook on your table yourself, or we can prepare it for you.”
There is also a ‘snack’ menu and a ‘sweets’ menu.
The snack menu features the instant noodle dish jjapaguri, which gained a cult following from a scene in the 2019 Korean movie Parasite.
Mekom’s corn dogs are something else: a sausage encapsulated in gooey multi-coloured mozzarella cheese inside a parcel of dough.
“We have had corn dogs in Korea for a long time and they’re very popular,” says Choi.
“They’re a deep-fried hot dog. In America, they use batter, but we’re making it with doughnut dough.”
There are four corn dog options, including a no-sausage option filled with coloured cheese.
The sweets menu features bingsu, which is a milk-based snowflake ice cream topped with red beans.
“After you finish topokki, you eat the bingsu, which is refreshing,” says Heo.
The alcohol also provides a kick of Korean nostalgia, with Korean beers and soju available. There is also soft drinks and juice to choose from.
“Normally Koreans drink soju mixed with a Lager beer – we call that somac,” says Choi. “It’s a famous cocktail in Korea.”
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