A Korean in Cape Town – Meat the chef
Mama Rota has established a Korean restaurant close to the sea in Cape Towns suburb of Seapoint.
Soju is an exceptional little restaurant, tucked away in the vibrant Cape Town suburb of Seapoint. Since September 2004 it has been a culinary landmark for Korean travellers visiting the ‘Mother City’ of South Africa.
TEXT AND PHOTOS: RUSSEL WASSERFALL
Local gourmands, lured by the rise of Korean cooking in the lexicon of global cuisine, have also ‘discovered’ Soju, becoming a loyal band of ‘regulars’.
Simmering on the worn stove in the kitchen is a culinary tale seasoned with a sense of adventure, the love of family and a passion for cooking.
The year South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup Soccer, 2004, saw a pinnacle of interest in the country from the Far East. Football fans made plans to visit the southern tip of Africa, just as young professionals from South Korea were visiting in their droves to learn English.
Compared to studying in America, England or Australia, Cape Town was affordable. The quality of written English and the neutral pronunciation of native speakers was prized. So it was that in 2003, a young computer engineer, Tae Ahn, came to Africa to learn the international language of business. He discovered a thriving city in a stunning landscape and wrote home about it enthusiastically.
Inevitably, his parents came to visit, curious about Cape Town and missing their boy. Coming from Seoul, one of the 10 most populous cities on the planet, the couple was struck by the space and the beauty of Cape Town draped on the shoulders of Table Mountain and overlooking the Atlantic. Tae’s mom, Rota Yi, was also struck by how badly her oldest son was eating.
Meeting some of Tae’s student friends and seeing all the Korean youngsters far from home and further from proper food, sparked an idea. Mama Rota, as she was to become known, decided these kids needed some decent home cooking.
Back in Seoul, Mama Rota was a housewife who made an intense study of traditional Korean cuisine. Their small apartment was forever filled with family and church members eating at their generous communal table. On a small balcony, she cared for a small pottager with herbs for the kitchen and orchids for the table.
In South Africa, she could have a house with a garden and a restaurant to feed as many people as she could cook for. It was like the promised land, and Google seemed to confirm this. Listed first under ‘beautiful suburbs, Cape Town’, Seapoint was where Mama Rota started looking for her restaurant site.
Seapoint’s main road runs parallel to the beachfront promenade, just a block away from the ocean. In this gorgeous setting, many Korean students rented accommodation because of the easy access to city centre colleges, only minutes away by bus.
In the aftermath of the FIFA World Cup, Asian tourists added considerably to the busy tables of hungry students. As Rota says, Koreans abroad are always curious about the food of their host nation and fascinated with eating local food and ingredients. There’s always a moment though when they miss the flavours and habits of home. That’s when they seek out Soju, named for a rice-based alcoholic drink that all Koreans associate with food in the way other cultures link wine and food.
In her new Cape Town home, Mama Rota pursued another of her creative talents. A big back yard gave her the space for a kitchen garden, and within a short season, she was growing much of the fresh produce needed for the restaurant. Her garden is another way for her to put her heart into her food.
Early every morning, before leaving for Soju, Mama Rota harvest whatever’s ripe and ready in the garden. Different varieties of basil and other herbs join vegetables and leafy greens in her basket. Tae teases her because she talks to her plants like children as she waters or gathers every day. She just smiles though, convinced that her produce is what makes the food and hospitality so authentic.
What Mama Rota created in Soju is a home away from home for the Korean palate. Her menu is full of very traditional cooking, served in the generous, sharing style typical of the Korean table. Her audience of Korean students and tourists has grown to include gourmands seeking authentic flavours and meals from the country of her birth.
Food from the Korean Peninsula is now a global phenomenon. Mama Rota provides her authentic, traditional take on it with a huge smile and the warmth of a mother caring for her offspring.
In Soju Mama Rota cooks traditional Korean meals like Bibimbap (left), Hameul Paejon (middle) and Naengmyeon.