For many people familiar with Korean food, nothing beats being greeted by the aroma of Cheongyang chilli peppers and fermented kimchi from a pot of spicy Kimchi jjigae, or meltingly tender short ribs served with a series of banchan. These warming, flavourful soups and stews are often a reminder of childhood and family.
This feeling hits close to home for Regina Park who grew up watching her umma (mother) and eonni-deul (older sisters) host family gatherings and cook for all kinds of occasions.
It's no surprise that the traditional South Korean made with local produce at restaurant Hangang in Strathfield by Mama Park is like a home for all who come to dine there. Cook-owner Regina Park, loved and known by many as Mama Park, is a huge part of why Hangang is successful. Partly because her star dishes, the soy sauce marinated raw crab and beef rib soup, are so good that you will come back wanting more. But mainly because of the effort, detail and individuality that comprise Park's food.
Cooking wasn't always a part of Park's life. She began her career working as a banker, a career she had for seven years in South Korea. After she got married, she migrated to Australia and ran her own clothing retail business for another 23 years before entering the culinary world.
Being the youngest of five siblings, Regina didn't even cook much when she was younger. Instead, she attentively watched her mother and elder sisters organise banquets for traditional Korean ceremonial occasions known as gwanhonsangje. Food was meticulously prepared and offered as an expression of sincerity and respect during rites such as the coming of age, weddings and funerary processions.
But through observation, Park immersed herself in generations of family recipes and techniques passed down from her mother. What she currently makes is an interpretation of what she ate throughout her childhood, adulthood and all her travels around South Korea.
It was only when Park experienced a longing and homesickness in Australia that she put them into practice. To feel connected to her family again, she began cooking for the first time and leaned into the rhythms of generations before her.
"The style of my cooking resembles my umma's. She learnt to cook from my halmeoni [grandmother], so everything I know is from them. For me, it's about continuing on those family traditions," says Park.
"I was fortunate enough to grow up with an abundance of food. Times were tough during and after the Korean War in the 1950s. Food was scarce and meat was very expensive, but my umma ensured I could eat all of that. I would often have healthy hearty soups with meat in it. I was very lucky," she says.
The poverty-stricken country was left in turmoil after the war, and over time Korean cuisine adapted to changing tastes. For some, dishes became a symbol of devastation and darkness, and a collision of cultures from the past such as the cultural icon budae jjigae (spicy sausage stew).
At the end of the day, Park just wants to share with others what she knows best: home food.
"It really is all about home food and that's what everyone comes here for."
"What I cook for my guests and family at home, I cook for anyone who visits my restaurant. It really is all about home food and that's what everyone comes here for," explains Park.
Modern fusion cuisines make up a substantial part of the food scene in South Korea. However, Park is far more interested and immersed in the rich flavour profiles of natural ingredients and strict traditional preparation techniques. This includes her extensive beef rib braises, 20 ingredient marinades and several batches of fresh banchan with jangseasoning (fermented soy products).
"I grew up eating umma's and halmeoni's healthy food. Nothing was overly sweet and salty. It was all about the produce. It's why I don't like using any sugar, salt or any food additives. I don't think it's necessary," says Park.
The flavours of her childhood are complex, versatile and full flavoured that feature honey-sweet sauces, in-depth broths, seasoned vegetables and intensely refreshing chilli peppers. When added into one bowl, she believes they create a sense of togetherness.
Park says, "People ask me why I go through all the trouble of making every element of my dishes from scratch. I tell them that there is creativity behind making this fresh food and that alone gives me energy. Inspiration comes from every corner of my life and I like to come up with recipes from that.
"When I see customers getting curious about how my dishes are made, I get excited. It makes me feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile," she explains.
For her, home dishes provoke such nostalgic feelings and fond memories that are layered with so much meaning. While her more elaborate food is equal to this, the way it tastes is still something so honest and simple.
Beef rib soup
Regina Park shares her secret beef rib soup recipe that reminds her of her halmeoni's special cooking.
- 1 kg short beef ribs, cut into pieces
- 2 large onions, peeled
- 1 cup rice wine (Chong ju)
- 2 Korean white radishes, about the size of large onions, peeled
- 1 spring onion
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 L water
- Small bunch Korean Potato noodles, cut into 15 cm pieces and soaked
- Extra radish, peeled, cut into thin 3 cm square pieces
Seasoning marinade for serving
- 1 tbsp minced garlic
- 2 tbsp Korean soup soy sauce
- Black grounded pepper to taste
- Salt to taste
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- Finely chopped spring onion
1. Place short beef ribs in a bowl of cold water. Cover and leave for 30 minutes. After, throw out the water and remove blood from bones.
2. Boil a pot of water and add the short ribs. Once the water reaches boiling point and wait for 3 minutes then turn off the heat.
3. Drain the water and rinse the meat under flowing cold water.
4. In a clean pot, add the beef bones, whole onions, spring onion, whole garlic, radish, water, rice wine.
5. Bring it to a boil under high heat. Once it reaches boiling point, reduce the heat.
6. Cook for another 1-1.5 hours on very low heat (less than a simmer) until the meat is soft and tender to the point it falls off the bone.
4. Drain the broth in to clean pot, throw out all the leftover ingredients and remove the meat into a clean bowl.
5. Add seasoning marinade to the cooked meat.
6. Boil the broth on high heat and add seasoned meat and thin slices of radish. Boil the radish until it is cooked through.
7. Add the soaked potato noodles once the broth reaches boiling point.
8. Add chopped spring onions and minced garlic once it reaches boiling point again. Add extra pepper and salt to taste.
9. Turn off the heat and serve.