Susan Wong is thrilled to revisit some fond childhood memories sitting at the bar of the newly opened PoCha 254 in the New Village Market Food Court.
One of my favourite childhood memories is sprinting home for afterschool snacks. Just like the paperboy, I had a route plan.
First, I’d pass by the Lombardis for my favourite type of stuffed rice ball – a hot Arancini with strands of mozzarella hanging as you pulled it apart. Next, I’d go to the Coxs for Poutine with some Roast Beef shaved on top. Finally, I’d run past the Ichimoris where Ken’s mom would always invite me for Japanese and sometimes Korean snacks. My favourites were her Inarizushi, seasoned fried tofu pouches with sweetened vinegared rice, and Tteokbokki, a popular Korean street food.
Since then I’ve been dreaming of eating these snacks on the streets where they originated from. Recently, I found myself booking an unexpected trip to Seoul because my sister decided to volunteer at the Pyeong Chang 2018 Winter Olympics.
When I finally got to stare down a steaming cauldron of Spicy Rice Cake known as Tteokbokki in Seoul’s Gwangjang Market, I was instantly transported to when I was 10 years old and diligently watching Mrs. Ichimori simmer her rice cakes on the stove in Toronto.
I had another enrapturing food experience at the beginning of May, when the owner of the recently opened PoCha 254 Bar in Nairobi served-up a plate of Tteokbokki garnished with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Addictively chewy but soft at the same time, the rice cakes are simmered in a sauce reduced from stock and a combination of Korean chilli paste, chilli flakes, sugar, soy sauce, corn syrup and sometimes some closely-guarded secret ingredients.
Located in the new food court of the revamped Village Market, PoCha 254 Bar is an intimate stall meant to evoke the tented carts and makeshift taverns in South Korea called Pojangmacha meaning “covered wagon” or referred to as pocha for short. Its concept is simple: small sharing plates of street eats from Korea and Japan. Part of the appeal for me is the limited seating. With only four chairs looking right into the kitchen, you get to enjoy the theatrics of the cookery whilst you engage the chef in conversation. The menu reads from hanging handwritten wooden signs and changes depending on what’s available. There’s a box of chopsticks that you can help yourself to when the chef serves dishes such as Calamari Tempura, Menchi Katsu, Pork Kimchi Ramen, Gimbap, and Dakkochi – all mouth wateringly good.
The Calamari Tempura arrived extra crispy and very light. You could tell that the squid was expertly cooked until tender. Next came a deep-fried Panko-breaded beef and pork patty. Apparently popular with Japanese school children, I imagine this would’ve easily been a favourite of my childhood if I had grown-up in Japan. The hot bowl of Ramen arrived with thick and chewy Japanese Udon noodles. The broth was flavourful and light at the same time. Personally, I would’ve preferred more heat from the chilli and kimchi, but I understand not everyone is a kimchi aficionado… well, not yet at least. Gimbap, which is often confused with Japanese Sushi Rolls, is usually sweeter and more fragrant with sesame oil. The seasoned steamed rice is rolled together with different fillings with dried seaweed.
Served with pickled daikon radish in beetroot juice, the Gimbap was filled with fluffy egg, Kenyan ham, sautéed spinach and carrots. Popular with Korean school children, a serving of Gimbap is a great way to inspire some to relive their childhood. For others who may be trying Gimbap for the first time, according to a friend of mine it is apparently also a great way to cure a hangover. Skewers of Dakkochi or Spicy Sweet Chicken, a famous Korean street-eat, were glazed with a sticky sauce and accentuated with the smokiness from charred scallion whites and some added onion flavour.
The experience at PoCha 254 Bar is casual, delicious, fun and very unique in Nairobi. To me, this new eatery almost perfectly embodies the same energy, aromas and tastes of the pochas I walked past in Seoul. It’s a great place to sample some Japanese and Korean street-eats and to get acquainted with the tunes of eyeliner-wearing K-pop boy bands that help transport you to the streets of Hongdae and Gangnam.