JEDDAH: A Saudi restaurant in South Korea has proved so successful that its owner has been forced to find bigger premises.
Alaa Mandora moved to Seoul seven years ago. The 33-year-old from Saudi Arabia graduated from the city’s Sogang University with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, and worked for an information technology company for a year before launching her cafe, All in a Cup, in 2016.
It is the first venue in South Korea to offer customers authentic food and drinks from the heart of the Saudi desert, according to Mandora.
“All in a Cup embodies the dining culture of Saudi Arabia, where people leisurely enjoy each other’s company around a cup of Arabic coffee, sweets and a meal in the same establishment and in no particular order, which is quite different from the Korean dining culture,” she said. “Our cafe style represents this culture, offering a variety of home-cooked dishes meticulously and lovingly prepared by the Saudi chef and owner. Most of the dishes we offer come from the west side of Saudi Arabia, Hijaz. A few of our popular dishes are Aish Abu Laham, Kabab Mero, Saleeq and Kabsa.”
Mandora had long dreamed of opening a restaurant, even before she traveled to South Korea to study on a scholarship.
“After obtaining my MBA, my dream only got bigger, and I started seeing business opportunities in what had become my second home at this point,” she said. “I had noticed just how little variety and few options Saudis working and studying here had when it came to halal dining options.
“I understood their concerns all too well and knew that I could do something about it to make their lives a little easier. I wanted to give them a little taste of something closer to home when homesickness hit, as it often does for expatriates.
“However, I didn’t just want to cater to Arab people, I also wanted to inspire greater curiosity for Arab and Saudi culture among Koreans, starting with something people can always agree on: great soul food.
“We’re proud that we created a place not only where Arab people could relax, socialize and have fun, but we also created a welcoming and open environment where Koreans could also relax and mingle with other cultures, all around something as simple as a cup of coffee.”
Many of the Koreans who had never tried Saudi cuisine, and thought the flavors would not appeal to them, were pleasantly surprised.
“We had a number of Korean customers who were so impressed they became regular customers and would make it their goal to try everything on the menu,” said Mandora. “What really touched us was how curious they were; every time they’d visit, they’d come armed with more questions about Saudi spices, the cooking methods and just Saudi culture in general.”
She added that interacting with Saudis in such a relaxed environment allowed Korean customers not only to build friendships, but also learn about Saudi culture from a local’s perspective.
“It helped foster more understanding about Arabic culture and Islam as well; for example, understanding why we shut off the cafe’s music during prayer times,” said Mandora. “Quite a few customers also showed interested in learning simple Arabic words such as shukran (thank you) or lazeez (tasty), and were quite happy to use them with me.”