It’s not only Koreans who frequent Seoul Asian Grocery Store in the heart of Adelaide. Its prime location opposite the Adelaide Central Market finds many curious shoppers scanning the shelves, though they need help to understand what’s inside the brilliantly coloured packets, bottles and cans. Labels written in Korean can be baffling, many offering no clue as to what’s inside, but asking proprietor, John Lee, for more details results in welcome assistance.
John’s cheery enthusiasm for explaining Korean grocery items belies his relative inexperience in selling foodstuffs. Just three years ago he was working as an electrical engineer in South Korea, but decided to move his family to Australia in the hope of providing a better education for his two daughters. His eldest daughter, Yunseo, is now studying at RMIT in Melbourne, while John, his wife, Inseon Kim, and their younger daughter, Ugyeong, settled in Adelaide after finding a cost-effective business opportunity to run the specialist Korean supermarket.
Taking on the supermarket was viewed by the family as a risk, with the Korean population in Adelaide amounting to only about 300 people, but John embraced the challenge. He even decided to anglicise his name from Jaewoung, for the convenience of local business transactions.
The family’s efforts have brought rewards, largely due to strong demand for the familiar foods that Korean and Chinese students in Adelaide yearn for. Indeed, John is surprised by how many of the goods he imports from Korea are enjoyed by Chinese locals, who make up about 40 per cent of Seoul Grocery’s customers. “They want special things from Asia and they find it here,” he says. “They tell their friends, and they come, too. Then they ask for their favourite products, and I order for them. It grows and grows.”
The key has been providing the full range of essential Korean home pantry items. Foremost among these is kimchi, the spiced mixture of fermented vegetables that is served as a condiment with most Korean dishes. While a family recipe for kimchi would have traditionally been prepared in every home, with earthenware pots buried in the backyard to intensify the fermenting mixture, this process isn’t possible for those residing in multi-storey city apartments. It’s handy then that John has more than a dozen imported kimchi choices stocked in the refrigerator – based on radish, spring onion, cabbage, cucumber and other vegetables.
Similarly, the range of dehydrated seaweed sheets at the grocery store is huge, with each brand having different textural qualities. The same applies to choices of imported tofu, potato starch, tempura powder and Korean soy sauce.
The importance of barbecuing in Korean cuisine is evident by the array of steel hotplates available. There is also a big range of sweets, crackers, noodles – seemingly not so different to domestic varieties for the uninformed shopper, but Koreans find these brands to be a comforting reminder of home.
More Australians are taking an interest in Seoul Asian Grocery Store, reflecting a recent escalation in the number of Korean restaurants throughout Adelaide.
John feeds on this enthusiasm for Korean food, pointing Australian customers to Korean websites for more recipes. His favourite is maangchi.com, which has posted videos demonstrating how to make Korean recipes since 2007. “I want them to cook it right, Korean style,” John says with a grin. “I’m very happy in Australia; I like fitting in. I don’t understand why organising internet communications and transport is so slow compared to Korea. But the eating is good.”
Spicy hand-torn noodle soup (sujebi)
This Korean soup is packed with flavour and has a welcome fiery kick, making it perfect comfort food for cold winter days.
Spicy pork with ssamjang sauce (daeji bulgogi)
This sweet, spicy Korean pork is charred on the barbecue and served with a ssamjang dipping sauce, kimchi and fresh crisp lettuce.
Potato pancakes with spicy sesame sauce (gamjajeon)
A popular type of jeon (pancakes), these crispy potato cakes are the perfect party snack, served with a spicy sesame sauce.
Photography Tom Donald
As seen in Feast magazine, March 2014, Issue 29. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.