SambalxKimchi: Korean-Malay couple starts kimbap business after being laid off amid Covid-19

A tale of two cultures.

Like so many restaurant workers across the country, Yeonhwa Bang (Sophie) and Asriyan Amaran were laid off from their jobs when the Circuit Breaker in place forced eateries to shut down back in mid-March.

So, they did what many other entrepreneurial foodies are doing: They started their own little home-based food business. In their case, they are selling homemade kimbap in both traditional and local flavours.

A marriage of two cultures

Sophie is Korean whilst Asriyan is Singaporean Malay. The interracial romance that these two have for each other not only led them to marriage, but also the beginning of their business together.

The couple call their business Sambal x Kimchi for the simple reason that both condiments represent each of them very well. “I can’t live without sambal and Sophie can’t live without kimchi,” Asriyan explains.

For now, they are running it as an Instagram-based business: Every day except for Sundays, they take orders through a form listed on their Instagram page and payments via bank transfer or PayNow/Paylah.

And then on the designated day, the orders are delivered to customers who get to enjoy up to seven flavours that Sambal x Kimchi offers.

Kimbaps by SambalxKimchi
Photograph: SambalxKimchi

In a city that is hungry for interesting new food options, Sambal x Kimchi is a particularly exciting addition: Singapore has never been known for having very many options for halal Korean food, even as interest in the Asian country might be higher than ever, in this Kpop-crazed world.

Interestingly, Sophie noticed that there were not many places where she could find the kind of kimbap she grew up eating. “Most of them do not use pickled radish which is a main ingredient in kimbap,” she says.

Hence Sophie decided to make kimbap the only way she knows how: the Korean way. At the same time, she is on a mission to correct the misconception that kimbap and sushi are the same thing.

“In kimbap, the rice is usually seasoned in sesame oil whereas the rice in sushi is usually covered with mirin,” Sophie explains. Mirin is a type of rice wine which instantly makes sushi non-halal.

The traditional kimbap is not any safer for Muslim consumption either since it typically uses ham as a key ingredient.

Having learned about Islam, and later converting to the religion, Sophie is more aware of the intricacies of the Malay-Muslim diet, which she now applies in her business.

However, a large part of it also has to do with her chance encounter with Asriyan whom she met for the first time in 2016.

Not a K-drama romance

The married couple, who insists their love story is not romantic at all, met as colleagues at a hotel. Sophie was waitressing while Asriyan was in charge of operations.

According to them, their friendship blossomed due to their common interest and passion for the hospitality industry so much so that Sophie stayed on in Singapore after her internship to continue working here.

They parted ways briefly in 2017 when Asriyan went on to work at now defunct Backyard Kitchen in Jalan Kayu and Sophie returned to South Korea.

Then, in late 2018, Asriyan went to South Korea for a vacation where he reunited with Sophie.

From then on, the relationship became more serious and Asriyan spent some time during his stay in South Korea to get to know Sophie’s parents. It was during this time that Sophie expressed her intentions to convert.

Sophie, who was born Christian, says that “it was very difficult to convince my parents initially.”

Yet, in her heart of hearts, Sophie knew that conversion was the right decision for her. She knew of Islam through Asriyan, who shared with her about the religion, its common practices and beliefs.

“I saw how he prayed and practised Islam, and I find it very warm,” Sophie recalls. Her attraction to the religion led her to learn more about it in her own time.

Sophie and Asriyan, owners of SambalxKimchi
Photograph: SambalxKimchi

“Two to three months after returning to Singapore, Sophie went to Darul Arqam (Muslim Converts’ Association of Singapore) to do her conversion course,” Asriyan says. “She did all this without telling anybody.”

So it came as a surprise not just to him, but also his parents and Sophie’s when she announced that she was going to convert some time in May 2019.

This time, Sophie’s parents were very supportive and understanding of her decision. Whilst they could not be present at the conversion ceremony, Asriyan and his parents were there to witness Sophie recite the Shahadah.

Less than a year from her conversion, Sophie and Asriyan got married in March 2020.

Crash landing on Covid-19

It was also during this time that the Circuit Breaker (CB) was imposed. “We got married on the weekend right before CB,” Asriyan recalls.

Unfortunately, their plans to have a second ceremony in Korea were thwarted due to the pandemic and they had to cancel the event.

Both Asriyan and Sophie could never guess that that was the beginning of a series of unfortunate events to happen to them.

On the third week after their wedding, Sophie lost her job. Asriyan lost his two months later.

Just roll with it

During the two months that follow Sophie’s untimely termination, she cooked food for Asriyan to bring to work every day. And it was always Korean food.

Due to the nature of his work, it was difficult for him to have a proper sit-down meal so he requested Sophie to make him something simple to eat.

Hence, she made kimbaps for him.

The kimbaps were such a hit with Asriyan’s colleagues whom he shared the homemade food with that they suggested the couple start a home-based business.

When Asriyan got retrenched, he started to put more serious thought behind that idea. Sophie was more than eager to start as well.

So they began making kimbaps for friends and family to gather feedback and identify opportunities to make improvements.

For instance, Sophie made her kimchi spicier by adding more Korean chilli powder to mask the sourness of traditional kimchi. She also experimented with familiar flavours like beef rendang and sambal to make it easier for locals to appreciate the kimbaps.

Sophie mentions that these recipes were developed by Asriyan’s mother. Coupled with the traditional flavours inspired by her own mum, the business has rolled out seven flavours in total.

They are:

  1. Original Kimbap ($8.00)
  2. Kimchi Kimbap ($8.00)
  3. Tuna Mayo Kimbap ($10.00)
  4. Sambal Ikan Bilis Kimbap ($10.00)
  5. Beef Rendang Kimbap ($12.00)
  6. Teriyaki Chicken Kimbap ($12.00)
  7. Kimbap Letop ($12.00)

Each roll is cut into 10 pieces, and there is a minimum order of three rolls.

Every kimbap roll is a symphony of flavours, even the basic Original. It comes studded with egg, spinach, carrot, pickled radish, cucumber, chicken sausage, and crab stick, all rolled in rice seasoned with sesame oil and wrapped in seaweed.

Naturally, we appreciate the Beef Rendang Kimbap as it contains ground beef marinated in that all too familiar coconut milk gravy.

The Kimbap Letop is slightly divisive, though. It features spicy rice similar to your typical nasi goreng alongside egg, cheddar cheese and chicken sausage in the middle.

Half the team found it too spicy while the other half could not have enough of it. For those that love it, it is about as comforting a hot plate of fried rice as you can imagine.

What’s next?

Whilst orders have been consistent since they started, Asriyan noted that sometimes business do not turn out the way they expected it to be.

For instance, they expected a surge in orders for the National Day weekend but it turned out to be a lull period eventually.

Another challenge they face is managing the business’ social media platforms. Both of them admitted that it is entirely new for them as they are not heavy users of Instagram or Facebook.

Sophie and Asriyan say they started Sambal x Kimchi mostly just to survive during this pandemic. When businesses reopen, they still expect to return to the workforce, but in the meantime, they intend to continue with the business for as long as they can.

Theirs is one of many stories we hear daily about people who are not spared from the sting of Covid-19. If you can, please support them and all the other small or home-based businesses so that they can continue living dignified lives.

To place an order, fill up the order form on @sambalxkimchi.

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