Korean food is yet to find a place of pride amongst Indian repertoire of mixed cuisines. It is far below the usual suspects like Chinese cuisine and lower in rung than a Japanese joint. It maybe a notch above Burmese or Vietnamese. It still conjures up a queasy sort of feeling amongst Indians, as we find it completely alien; the aroma, texture, visuals also confuse us. Is it worth a try? Off course; can it take over Chinese and Japanese cuisine in India, definitely not. It would remain a niche, but as more Korean companies and the expats come in droves, Korean restaurants have propped up in Chennai and Delhi in particular.
It really takes an adventurous streak to enter a Korean joint in India. Till a couple of years back, most of Korean joints were setup more with a “home away from home” feel or a small club feel where expats came in droves, so it never looked like a restaurant; you come in, the server at times didn’t even knew broken English and didn’t have the time and inclination to explain about nuances of various dishes. Most of guests were in any case Koreans, so it didn’t matter as they knew what they were eating. They drank, smoked, laughed boisterously, thumped the tables, talked of how it was great back home, looked blankly at city dwellers like me struggling with my hot pot.
I had the good opportunity to travel to Seoul and was amazed to find that unlike in India, Korean cuisine boasts of great variety of vegetarian dishes. One gets an array of fermented drinks, one of those was very similar to our own “Kanji”; you remember Kanji? a dark purplish drink made at Punjabi homes. It requires fermenting carrot with mustard, salt & chilli and letting in ferment in glass jars under direct sunlight. It got prepared in a week’s time and I can still remember its taste, it was sour, wasabi like with a pungent kick. If it was too much fermented, it burnt your nostrils. Additionally you bite into those tiny carrot pieces and enjoy their softness and crispness at the same time.
Generally Korean food is oil-free and healthy. Almost all Korean restaurants offer a complimentary range of 8-10 side-dishes e.g. Bean sprout salad, Scallion salad, steamed seaweed, radish cube kimchi, sautéed spinach with roasted sesame seeds, peanuts laced with honey and dunked in soya sauce, dried small fish and shrimps, crunchy anchovy, beef or squid cooked in a spicy curry, braised tofu, squared blocks of omelets, and different kinds of fermented cabbage or radish (“Kimchee”). I for one love the sautéed spinach, omelets and anchovies but don’t eat too much as you still have to eat the main course. All the starters are in small plates (gratis) and unlimited. The starter portions are small but as soon they are over, another one would appear. They are steamed and extremely nutritious. Some would be sweet; others sour, salty, pungent. One finds all tastes. You really feel like a king as all the side dishes are brought to your table one by one. Generally in a Korean restaurant, you would be offered metallic chopsticks unlike the delicate lacquered wooden or bamboo ones at Japanese or melamine ones at Chinese joints. You take tiny morsels of various side dishes and enjoy.
The real fun starts now. Generally there is a burner in the centre of the table for making a hot pot or putting up a grill for grilling beef and other meats. But it also depends on the type of dish that you order. For first timers, apart from the fun of preparing your own dish and getting fascinated by the contraption, it is of not much use as it is advisable to order simpler dishes and be less adventurous. After all, you don’t want this first visit of yours to be your last visit. You need to allow yourself to become comfortable with the aroma, taste, feel and texture first before you jump straight in.
For the first timers, although you could gaze through the menu, order two most popular dishes i.e. Bulgogi & Bibimpap.
In Korean, “bibim” means “mixed” and “bap” means rice. All of the ingredients except the meat (which is optional) are prepared in advance so you can add them at room temperature to the top of hot steamed rice. You then quickly fry and add the meat and a sunny-side up egg to the top. Bibimbap is usually served with a spicy sauce made from gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste) which you can add to your liking – allowing you to control how hot it is. You then use your spoon (Korean food is always served with metal chopsticks and a spoon) to “bibim” it all until it is completely mixed together.
Bulgogi is very thinly sliced beef which is marinated along with mushrooms in a sauce made from pear juice, garlic, soy sauce, sesame seeds and then grilled or stir fried. If you don’t eat beef, don’t try this as you don’t have a chicken or lamb Bulgogi!. Incidentally I tried lamb Bulgogi at home and it turned out to be awesome. The end result is a delicious sweet, savory, and soft slice of meat. Generally, you would also be given large sized leafy lettuce leaf and some dippings. You will wonder; what is the lettuce for. Don’t worry, you could either eat the Bulgogi straight off the plate or you could wrap it with a small amount of rice and dipping sauce in a lettuce leaf. It is also incredibly low fat and very healthy.
Gung- The palace at Green Park, New Delhi is great place to eat authentic Korean fare. It has also recently opened a branch at Gurgaon. At Green Park, it has a non descript façade and chances are that you will miss the place. Inside it’s a two storey restaurant having table sittings and also traditional sittings wherein you sit and eat. In a Korean joint, unlike a Japanese joint, one needs to sit cross legs. The aromas are particularly strong and you need to get used to them.
If you are first timer, then stick to the above dishes. If you are visiting this place second or third time, dive right in. Order a sea food hot pot. Now this hot pot is a tricky concoction and definitely not for guys who feel squeezy. Don’t bring along your vegetarian friends.
A hotpot would be placed over the burner and a broth thrown in. After that an assortment of full seafood goes in. So far so good. Then the waitress would bring an octopus and start cutting it with scissors right in front of you. Off course the octopus is dead. Incidentally, back in Korea, eating a live octopus is considered a delicacy and there is a specific process of rolling the octopus on to your chopsticks and gulping down quickly before its suckers stick to your throat and choke you. Yes, many instances have happened, wherein in a moment of frenzy, the live octopus was not gulped down properly and it stuck to the throat and choked the eater. The waitress would do the same butchery with the squid. The broth would then boil and all the juices of simmering seafood start doing their magic. You can drink the broth as a soup or mix some condiments and eat with rice. It’s a heavenly experience. No oil, healthy; this dish is great.
Kumgang Gonie – at The Ashok is another Korean joint. Serves similar fare but is expensive. Worth a try.
At Yum Yum Tree: although they don’t have a full fledged Korean menu, but they do offer a beef Bulgogi.Worth a try.
Kungbyong (a Korean joint) behind Chola Sheraton, Chennai is a good eating Joint.You can never find this place as it looks more like a residential place than a restaurant.You could find a steady stream of Hyundai executives moving in and out. In earlier times, there used to be a mini-mini golf station, a tennis court.At times you could curse yourself for walking into someone’s house. Incidentally, there are many Korean joints in Chennai and generally serve decent fare.
In Mumbai, there is no single stand alone Korean joint but some dishes are available as part of larger menu at Busaba, Colaba and Pan Asia, ITC Maratha. Dishes are decent but the complete Korean effect is missing.