• As Sydney’s only cafe dedicated to this Korean specialty, people travel long distances to visit Siroo. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
People travel for more than four hours to visit Siroo Rice Cake Cafe, which offers over 40 kinds of Korean rice cakes every day.
Lee Tran Lam

11 Dec 2020 - 8:26 AM  UPDATED 28 Dec 2020 - 7:11 PM

Chef Changhyun Lee has been shaping Korean rice cakes or tteok for more than three decades. At age five, he began helping his parents at their bangatgan (rice cake shop) in South Korea. Today, he makes more than 40 types of tteok every day at Siroo Rice Cake Cafe, which he runs with wife, Kilyang Ko, and their children in West Ryde in Sydney's north west.

Jenny Hwang, Lee's daughter and Siroo's manager, tells SBS Food, "There was only one bangatgan in the suburb that he grew up in, so it was very busy."

Every spare hour outside of school was spent assisting his parents at their store. Pounding and prepping the tteok was laborious and having extra help was especially appreciated during special occasions like Korean New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival. The tteok-making marathons required for these periods meant there was no time to cook for themselves. "His family gathered together to make [an] endless amount of rice cakes and had takeaway food instead," Jenny Hwang explains.

Once, her father produced over one hundred kilos of songpyeon, moon-shaped rice cakes with sesame seeds. "It is our tradition to eat it on Mid-Autumn Festival," says Hwang.

The changing seasons dictated how they spent their hours at the bangatgan. Spring meant gathering the herb mugwort and producing lots of rice cakes from it. It meant creating doenjang (soybean paste) and gochujang (chilli paste), too. Summers were devoted to roasting grain powder (misutgaru), while the following season was dedicated to producing rice cakes for the peak wedding period and the Mid-Autumn Festival. Winter was about fulfilling chilli powder orders and preparing tteok for Korean New Year. 

Lee took on a formal apprenticeship at his parents' store in his twenties. Then he moved on from assisting his family, landing a job at another shop at Daechi-dong neighbourhood in South Korea's capital of Seoul.

His daughter Hwang says, "It was difficult as he started working more for the money rather than the enjoyment of making rice cakes. Daechi-dong is a very well-known area for rice cakes, which put him into a lot more pressure to make countless more different types of rice cakes that are high quality in order to compete with other stores." However, the skills that such competition gave him came in handy when he opened Siroo earlier this year.

The cafe is named after his favourite kind of traditional tteok, which is made with red beans. Although, initially Siroo wasn't meant to be a rice cake cafe. Lee just wanted to make it easy for people to buy tteok — particularly non-Koreans who weren't as familiar with the treat. His wife thought flat whites and lattes could be a good match with his menu, though, and that's how their rice cake cafe was born.

While Siroo offers both traditional and modern Korean rice cakes, much of the menu is devoted to the classic tteok varieties, such as steamed rice cakes flavoured with mung beans, angkko patterned rice cakes, omegi, wind rice cakes and injeolmi. Preparing them is demanding work for Lee.

"He usually wakes up around 2am and on busier days, 12am," says Hwang. "The first thing he does when he enters the kitchen in the morning is turn on all the fans — when the rice cakes just come out from the steam, it is around 100˚C, which is extremely hot."

Stir-fried spicy chicken with rice cakes (dak galbi)

Lee also works with rice that has already been soaked for hours. "He starts with making mochis, rice wine rice cakes and then moves onto the steamed ones. For the glutinous consistency, normally sticky rice is used and most of the pounding is done through a machine now — unlike the olden days!" Hwang says.

"He usually naps during the day after he finishes making all the rice cakes to sell during the day and after his nap, he'd wake up to prepare other ingredients and will go back to sleep around 8-9pm and repeat the process."

One of Siroo's traditional cakes, injeolmi, is a sweet cake flavoured with soybean powder and is typically served at weddings. "Because it is made with sticky rice, which is called 찹쌀 in Korean, it is for the couple to live like 'a match made in heaven', like sticky rice cake," she says. "Also in Korea, after the weddings, they used to send injeolmi to both sides of the parents."

Her father has memories of eating it at every wedding he attended in his homeland.

Siroo's well-decorated angkko patterned rice cakes, made with red bean paste, maybe trending in Korea at the moment, but her dad has always made it. The omegi rice cake, meanwhile, connects him to memories of Jeju Island in Korea's south, where this style originates from.

"Back around 20 years ago, when he visited Jeju, the store that used to sell omegi was in a very corner of the island," she says. "He accidentally came across the store and tried it and it tasted so delicious." The red bean flavour perfectly matched with Jeju's mugwort — omegi's main ingredient.

Siroo's newer rice-cake varieties include their coffee and honey flavour, pumpkin and cream cheese mochi. Hwang says they've recently launched a frozen ice-cream range for summer, including chilled mochi sweetened with raspberries, blueberries and passionfruit. Her father has also created rice muffins for non-Koreans who'd like something familiar to try. "Surprisingly, many Westerners like yakbap, which is [our] caramelised sticky rice cake."

"We had customers who drove over four hours to eat our rice cake!"

As Sydney's only cafe dedicated to this Korean speciality, people travel long distances to visit Siroo.

"We had customers who drove over four hours to eat our rice cake!" says Hwang. Some interstate customers ask about which tteok will last longer, so they can smuggle them back over their home border. Some customers plead for Siroo to stay open for their tteok-loving family members, "so their parents can have our rice cakes as much as they want before they pass away", says Hwang.

But she adds, "One of dad's favourite memories are [of] babies who just turned one, eating our patterned rice cake with those tiny hands and barely any teeth."

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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