“Tetsuya Wakuda said it best when he noted that with fusion, you often get confusion,” muses Frank Lin, co-owner of Surry Hills’ Ko & Co. This is something Lin was keen to a void when he decided to open a Korean-Mexican restaurant with his wife, Sarah.
Although the concept is familiar overseas, where famous food trucks such as Roy Choi’s Kogi in Los Angeles have championed the idea, for Sydney locals it is something new.
The restaurant couldn’t have launched at a better time, though – in the last five years, a Mexican tornado has run rampant through the city and left us awash in a sea of tacos and tequila. Then, in the last year, Korean food emerged as the next up-and-comer. It seems a fusion of the two was just what Sydney had been craving. “If we opened [Ko & Co] four or five years ago, it would have been much harder,” says Lin.
So how does one begin when attempting to create harmonious dishes from two very different cuisines? Start with what you know best. Sarah, who is Korean, has always cooked at home using traditional recipes passed down through her family, such as the kimchi from her North Korean grandmother. Sarah and Frank started with the Korean aspect of a dish, perfected it, then introduced Mexican elements, tweaking them until the whole was perfect. They experimented for a year before opening, trialling new recipes, flavours, and ingredients.
We asked Lin to break down the process of creating three dishes on the current menu.
The Pork Belly Taco
“Spicy pork belly (samgyeopsal) is a typical Korean dish, and we started with the marinade. We had to figure out the coarseness of the chilli, how spicy and how sweet to make it, so it would work with the Mexican ingredients. We ended up using Korean chilli paste (gochujang) and dried chilli rather than the fresh chillies usually used in Mexican cuisine but it took a long time to get the amount right. Then we matched the salsa to the marinade. It has an American influence with lots of capsicum, but we ended up switching from tomatillos to tomatoes because the umami (savoury taste) in them worked better with the Korean flavours. In the slaw, we ended up with a bit of red cabbage for colour and white for texture. On top of all of that is our homemade kimchi, then lime, which is non-existent in Korean cuisine. It works surprisingly well – it cuts through the fat and spice and adds the freshness of Mexican cuisine to the dish.”
The Beef Burrito
“For us, the rice element was really important because we wanted to differentiate ourselves in the market, so we decided to try kimchi fried rice. It’s quite a common dish in Korea, and we used a traditional recipe, but we added butter, which gives it far more flavour. Instead of the traditional day-old long grain rice, we settled with a mixture of brown and white, for the nuttiness from the brown and the softer texture from the white. We chose wheat-flour tortillas instead of corn, so the flavour didn’t compete with the fillings. The salsa is the same one we use in the taco. When we started visiting Korean butchers, and they heard we were doing street food, they steered us towards the cheaper cuts because that’s what the market demands for street food. We had to go through quite a few butchers – many of them didn’t understand our vision for high quality street food. We ended up sticking with short rib but one with a decent amount of marbling so it wasn’t too tough and dry. We use mozzarella, which we found was just as good as the Mexican cheeses, which are actually quite hard to get here.”
“The quesadilla is an interesting dish to have on the Sydney market – locals are a bit reluctant to try kimchi and cheese together, but we get Americans coming in and ordering it at least four days a week. Kimchi and cheese is actually quite a common pairing in Korea. After the war, there were many American GIs based in Korea, and Koreans were dependent on US army rations. They would get things like spam and cheese and we ended up with a fusion cuisine, where you’d have a kimchi stew with ramen noodles, spam and cheese, which is called Budae Chigae, or ‘soldier’s stew.’ Our cheese combination is top secret; we experimented for six months with Mexican, Australian, Italian, Spanish and English cheeses before settling. One cheese is the melting element; you’ll probably guess what that is. Another is for sharpness, we wanted something with a bit of a bite to it. A third cheese is to mellow the sharpness and add a layer of complexity and flavour.”
Ko & Co
6 Hunt Street, Surry Hills