The Women Cooking Their Way to Independence

Oyori Asia CEO Ms. Jihye Lee is posing for a photo in front of Spanish restaurant Teranno. Photo: Yeong Wook Byeon

By Suyeon Kim
Dong-A Ilbo, South Korea

Seoul — South Korean-based social enterprise OYORI ASIA was initiated in 2008 with the aim to “help marginalized women through the restaurant business,” according to founder and CEO Jihey Lee. The company has since trained women across three Asian countries, helping them find their feet again.

“I have been making the broth for twelve hours now. It is not easy to flavor the broth without MSG.”

In the early days of the summer with temperatures reaching 27 °C, Vo Thi Ngoc Nhon (37) was making a broth in a small kitchen. For Ngoc Nhon, who became a single mother after she emigrated from Vietnam to South Korea to marry a Korean in 2006, the kitchen is the only place she can earn an income. After seven years of doing a variety of different jobs while also looking after her new-born baby, she opened a Vietnamese restaurant near Jangsungbagi Station last year. It has been twenty years since the phenomenon of ‘international marriage’ emerged in Korea to relieve the problems of rural men who could not marry. Such international marriage, based on economic interests rather than love, led to a surge in divorce rates. In the last five years, 128,864 international marriages were registered; however, the number of divorces reached 50,853. How does Korean society embrace ‘multicultural single moms’, like Ngoc Nhon, living in economic isolation following divorce?


That’s where OYORI ASIA has stepped in. Jihye Lee, the company’s founder who launched Oyori in 2008, said, “I wanted to help marginalized women through the restaurant business.” The enterprise started its business in a small corner of Sangsu-dong, Mapo-gu, and is now expanding its activities even as far as Nepal.

A cooking license after 19 attempts

Ngoc Nhon became the first entrepreneur produced by Oyori. In 2006, Ngoc Nhon migrated to Korea and gave birth to a child shortly after. However, her marriage did not last long, due to her husband’s gambling addiction and debts. In 2010, she found herself alone with her son, without divorce alimony. Two years later, Ngoc Nhon met the founder of Oyori. She received four years of systematic cooking training from the head chef of Oyori, and finally gained a cooking license in Korean cuisine after 19 attempts.

Last year, she opened a Vietnamese restaurant called ‘Asian Bowl’ on the second floor of a building near Jangsungbagi Station. Her restaurant started with a deposit of 20 million won and a monthly rent of 80 million won. To make profits, she needed to sell more than 80 dishes of 7,000 won. However, this half-year-old restaurant has a maximum of 50 customers per day.

“I do not use MSG. I will find a soup flavor that even babies can eat,” Ngoc Nhon said, as she continued to check the boiling soup. She knows that using a large amount of MSG creates an addictive flavor. However, she prefers to make a homely taste using only natural ingredients. Her principle is to boil the meat broth for twelve hours every day and to discard the unsold portion rather than reusing it.

Her dream is to completely settle in Korea while making food from her homeland with other women like her. She is currently working with another single mother, Pham Thi Thoan (26). Thi Thoan also married at the age of 19, and got divorced in 2011 shortly after her baby was born. The pair collaborate like sisters on the restaurant, which is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“If they had been self-reliant in their homelands, they would not have had to come to Korea”

The ultimate goal of the social enterprise OYORI ASIA is to support women like Ngoc Nhon to become self-reliant and live their lives. Why did founder Jihey Lee, who was once an outstanding marketer at an IT company, decide to set up this social enterprise?

“I felt skeptical about the way I made money with the contents full of sensationalism. As a woman, I did not want such anti-feminist things, so I started a new business”, Lee said.


She opened a restaurant with the conviction that the easiest point of entry for socially-vulnerable immigrant women without educational backgrounds or personal networks would be the restaurant business. Lee is also interested in the development of local franchises of Oyori for women in underdeveloped nations. One such franchise is ‘CaféMitini’, launched in 2013 in Kathmandu, Nepal. It offers free tutoring and internship programs for women who cannot afford barista training due to the high costs. She explained, “The reasons why women in poor countries choose international marriage are mostly economic. If they had been self-reliant in their homelands, they would not have had to come to Korea to marry an utter stranger”. She added, “We should extend the support for self-reliance to women in underdeveloped countries in Asia”.

The efforts of Oyori are bearing fruits. Dawa Dabuti Sherpa, who has worked at Café Mitini for four years and first joined as a trainee, has finally realized her dream. Expect the opening of ‘Café Mitini No.2’ in July this year, she said.  “I dream of becoming a good barista through the program. I would like to open a big café in my homeland, Nepal, in the future.”