Serving food from farm-to-table

October 15, 2013
The “Sobakhan Bapsang” restaurant, in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province, gives customers a taste of home-cooking.  / Courtesy of Sobakhan Bapsang

The “Sobakhan Bapsang” restaurant, in Seosan, South Chungcheong Province, gives customers a taste of home-cooking.
(Courtesy of Sobakhan Bapsang)

By Park Jin-hai

For most people, the word “mother” is associated with the image of someone who wakes at dawn to prepare breakfast for the family. A tableful of dishes is not just food but an expression of love and care for the family.

But times have changed and many modern-day mothers don’t spend as much time in their kitchens as they used to and food is sometimes easier to prepare or instant. As such, people ― especially city dwellers ― miss the warmth of their mother’s tables.

“I wanted to open a diner that serves what our mothers prepared for the family. They might not look as colorful and splendid as Korean classic royal cuisine, but they are healthy and carefully prepared dishes,” said Kang Tae-gap, owner and chef of diner Sobakhan Bapsang, in Seosan, south of Chungcheong Province.

Owner-chef Kang Tae-gap and her mother

Owner-chef Kang Tae-gap and her mother

Her diner, which means “modest table” in Korean, is a family business. Kang, 30, and her mother, 60, cook while her father farms the beans and sesame in a field next to the diner. Located about a two-hour drive south from Seoul, the restaurant is not one of the most driver-friendly sites; a good navigator is necessary. Sitting at the end of a windy country road, without a sign on the road, it resembles a large traditional Korean house. Yet, at lunch time, the only time they serve, it is fully booked and people drive three or four hours just to get a seat.

Only two menus – featuring white rice and lotus leaf-wrapped rice– are served and the food is freshly prepared after the reservation is made. They are open from noon to 3 p.m. and take reservations for eight tables.

Side dishes change every season or day, but they are all locally-grown, fresh and free of any food additives. They include “doenjang jjigae” (soybean paste soup) using soybean paste fermented about two years in pots, and “gulbi” (dried yellow corvina), steamed with fine tree leaves, and salad with perilla seed. All the dishes are sugar free. They use grain syrup instead.

“It all started so naturally. First it was mom, selling ‘gochujang(red-pepper paste)’ and ‘doenjang’ to a limited number of people. Then, I got involved and started selling them online in 2002. At that time, we also ran a program where people could make traditional food and visitors started asking us to serve meals as well,” said Kang, who has been running the business for four years now.

The food comprising of “bulgogi,” “doenjang jjigae” and various side dishes are served at this farm-to-table restaurant.  / Korea Times photos by Park Jin-hai

The food comprising of “bulgogi,” “doenjang jjigae” and various side dishes are served at this farm-to-table restaurant.
/ Korea Times photos by Park Jin-hai

Kang said about 40 percent of ingredients come from the field, and the rest of it from nearby farms. The mother and daughter put the local produce on the table, following traditional recipes. “When mom cooks, she often tries to remember what my grandmother did,” she added.

For Kang and her family, food is something that holds the power to cure or on the contrary harm the people. “Mom wouldn’t let me get in the kitchen, when I got mad. She believes that bad feelings emanating from an angry cook would be transmitted to the food and the people eating it as well,” said Kang.

As for the modern-day foods, she sees that they lack “sincerity.” But, in rural area, she thinks it is possible to keep it. Making sincere and honest food is, in fact, her philosophy. “People ask me why we serve only lunch and said to be money-wise. If we serve dinner, we’ll make money, but will have no time to properly prepare for next day’s customers. Then, we cannot help but get some side dishes such as kimchi from other restaurants. That is what others do, but we don’t want it,” said Kang.

“If you are on a visit to local city, you don’t want to go to a franchised restaurant, do you? You want to go to a trustful restaurant to taste the local specialty. That is what we would like to be,” she added.

Kang is the youngest daughter of the family, who studied cooking at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. She said that she is the only young woman with university degree who has come back to the rural home town to run the farm and family business.

“I didn’t like life in Seoul. The air was stuffy and streets were dirty, compared with here. I think I could succeed by coming back to country, while others all rush to city for success,” she said.

When she is not cooking, she travels to local cities and shares lessons she learned from running the family business. It is a way of promoting the rural economy by the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs.

“Many families lack the manpower to commercialize their local specialties. But, people are starting to rethink their attitudes toward rural areas, and see that it can be a land of opportunities,” she said. “I am happy to see more young faces working with their parents, farming ginger or traditional refreshments nearby. Sometimes parents carry their children to my restaurant and ask for my advice. I say to people who wish to run a family business in rural area that it is rewarding,” Kang said.

For more information, visit its website at Reservations are required.

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