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On Fermentation, Home Cooking and Bringing the Flavours of Korea to Tofino

When modern Korean restaurant, Jeju, opened in Tofino in late 2021, it was the culmination of both fate and careful planning. The Vancouver Island surf town’s resemblance to Jeju City (the capital of South Korea’s Jeju Province) immediately clicked with owners Sungeun “Sung” Kim and Yunyoung “Dylan” Kim – enough to inspire the pair to establish their new home and business there.

In this new interview, Sung and Dylan share their journey from bustling metropolis to small coastal district; and discuss navigating a new culture, and integrating local ingredients into their traditional Korean dishes.

OK, first thing is first: Why Tofino?

After marrying, we thought about starting a business and liked the idea of a small restaurant. We looked at various places in Vancouver, but none felt right. We saw an advertisement (it was actually in Scout Magazine) for lease space in Tofino. We went there, and within seconds, we agreed it reminded us of Jeju City in Korea. It felt right, so we decided to stay and open a restaurant serving authentic Korean cuisine, and we named it Jeju.

Cooking in a remote location can be challenging due to limited access to ingredients. Which local ingredients have surprised you by working well with Korean cuisine?

We discovered organic kelp from Tofino, which has been a wonderful addition, especially the micro-kelp hand-harvested from Clayoquot Sound. Its natural sweet flavour surprised us. At Jeju, we have a scallop dish on the menu that uses local or Hokkaido scallops cured overnight with two types of kelp: one is from Korea; the other is from Tofino. We also marinate Korean kelp with our house-made soy sauce to be used for garnishing, and make kelp salt with Tofino kelp.

Spring is in full force on the West Coast. Is there a foraged ingredient you’re excited to incorporate into your menu?

We are excited about kelp and spot prawn season!

Korean cuisine often requires specific spices that are hard to substitute. Which essential ingredients do you ensure to bring from Korea?

All the ‘Mother’ ingredients – such as chilli, sesame seed, sesame oil, and perilla oil – are from our farm in Haenam. We also get Seaweed from Daecheon, which is well known for having the highest quality seaweed (it is also Dylan’s father’s hometown).

When was your last visit to Korea, and which places did you visit?

Since opening Jeju, we visit Korea annually. We always start in Haenam to see our grandparents and check on our farm, then go to Seoul (we find Seoul to be an extremely sensitive city, especially to trends). We also love visiting Busan, which is known for its beaches, mountains and temples; and of course go to Jeju Island, as we are Jeju, haha.

What is the first thing you want to eat when visiting Korea?

The first thing is always mom’s homemade foods. Even before we get there (as soon as we book our flights) she plans a feast! She tries to grab the best ingredients, such as first-harvested rice (never sold in markets due to its limited availability, it is typically reserved by farmers for family sharing only), and all the seasonal ingredients from our farm and traditional market. In Korea, ‘Jipbap’ (meaning a home cooked meal) is usually made by mothers, with different kinds of side dishes, soup, meat and fish. For us, our Jipbap is always the best meal in Korea.

Did you bring or ship anything back to Tofino from your latest trip to Korea?

We bring back our ‘Mother’ ingredients, as well as plates and furniture (tables and chairs). We’ve also been working on more artworks with our designer, who is based in Korea, and will bring them to Tofino as soon as they are done.

In your photographs, I see an abundance of peppers and what I think are sweet potatoes. Can you describe what is grown on your grandmother’s farm?

Sung’s grandparents, Sangum Maeng and Sunggyu Cheon, farm in Haenam. They grow golden cabbage, rice, radishes, Korean melons, potatoes, sweet potatoes, chilli, sesame, and perilla. Because we can’t import all the produce, they make dried powders and oils to send to us in Canada.

Could you discuss a specific dish at Jeju that exemplifies the balance of Korean cuisine?

We always try our best to put Korean culture into our dishes, and bring that to our guest. One signature dish is Galbi. To make Galbi, we age beef short rib for about 35 days, then marinate and grill it with charcoal. Galbi typically comes with lots of different side dishes, such as Kimchi (we ferment ours for 2-3 weeks), Ssamjang, Jangajji (a dish of fermented pickled vegetables which also takes 1-2 weeks to be fermented), Ssam-mu (pickled daikon), lettuce and salad. Together, the diner experiences savoury, sweet, spicy, and fermented flavours, and soft, tender textures. Jungsung is a word in Korean that means sincerity and with great care. Jungsung is how we approach the lengthy process of making Galbi: true and with great care.

Have you faced any challenges fermenting food in Tofino’s climate?

Tofino’s weather is actually nice to ferment our food in; it’s almost the same as Korea’s temperature and humidity. However, making good kimchi can be challenging in the summer, as the vegetables are too tender. We prepare extra kimchi before summer and store it in specialized kimchi fridges (which provide a more consistent temperature, more humidity and less air moving) to maintain ideal fermentation conditions.

How do you select and prepare banchan at Jeju? Have any local ingredients inspired new banchan dishes?

Banchan is so crucial in Korean dining. We use consistent ingredients like carrots, spinach, squash, mushroom, and daikon. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have radish or cabbage from Jeju Island, and some mushrooms from Tofino (one of our favourites for their rich, earthy flavour, and umami taste).

Can you describe the unique flavour profile of your homemade gochujang?

We focus on the impact of natural flavour – our gochujang gets its gentle sweetness from its fermentation process. It is less spicy than other gochujang, but also has umami flavour.

What dish is best served with your gochujang?

Bibimbap, a specialty of Dylan’s mom, is perfect with our gochujang. It’s a rice bowl with meat and vegetables, seasoned with various oils. Julie (Dylan’s mom) cooks every ingredient in different ways, and seasons each with different oils. We ask our customers to drizzle our gochujang over the bowl and mix everything together.

Are there unique ingredients in your cocktails we should look out for?

Where other restaurants might serve a vodka and tonic, we serve soju and tonic. Sometimes diners expect more familiar spirits like gin or vodka, but our goal is to share Korean cuisine and culture, so we offer Soju and Leegangju. Leegangju is recognized as an official cultural heritage in South Korea, due to its rich history and the precise craftsmanship that has persevered it since the 15th-century Joseon Dynasty. Leegangju is made by distilling a special mix of rice, barley, and Nuruk culture. It’s then left to age for 18 months with Korean pear, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and honey. We have a cocktail that is made with honey-fermented ginger, lemon, and Leegangju – it has become a Tofino locals’ favourite.

If you could have a farmer grow one exclusive ingredient for you, what would it be?

It has to be Korean strawberries! They are the sweetest and softest. People say Korean strawberries have an exceptional flavour, and are too good not to be shared!

Last question: What’s with the orange hat?

Due to the physical landscape and environment, 95% of the Korean tangerines that are enjoyed both locally and internationally are actually produced in Jeju Island! They are especially delicious and popular, an absolute must try for tourists, which makes tangerines one of the iconic staples of Jeju Island. They are so many tangerine souvenirs, activities surrounding Jeju tangerines including tangerine-picking experience and snack-making experience. It’s a big part of the identity and appeal of Jeju Island!

Tofino Best Restaurants | images via Jeju Tofino

You couldn’t find nicer people than Sung and Dylan. They not only cook amazing food, but also respect the ingredients that they use and genuinely care about their community. Small family-run businesses operated by good people with integrity are the ingredients that make our province a more interesting and inviting place to visit and live in. Support the “little guys”!

Region: Tofino
101-120 Fourth St.

There is 1 comment

  1. The Restaurant that Always visit on every visit to Tofino is Jeju, They do beautiful food bursting with Flavour and Love.

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