We were used to Maggi noodles, we now have the options of ramyun, kimchi and dan muji
BY RUKMA SALUJA
A casual chat with the daughter of a friend about evenings out revealed that Korean food is all the rage now. These are food profiles far removed from our own and so this came as a bit of a surprise. Korean food is largely versions of ramyun, much like Italian pasta, that comes in various grains, lengths, widths and thickness. Paired with an assortment of vegetables and meat of choice—seafood, beef, chicken—and flavours of choice as per the demand of the recipe or personal preference, it is often soupy, sometimes a thick broth, more often a thin clear liquid that has the delicious flavours of all its ingredients. And there you have it. Korean food.
But who could have imagined that we would enjoy marun myeolchi or dried anchovies that add umami flavour to soup stock and braises, that we would enjoy strong or subtle flavours of rice vinegar, rice wine, sesame oil, soy sauce; that we who love our vegetables overcooked with a heavy hand of garam masala would enjoy namul: steamed, blanched, or sautéed vegetables, typically seasoned with sesame oil, garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce.
The meat section is perhaps a tricky one for an authentic experience for us what with the Korean preference for pork and beef, while we remain a nation that finds comfort in chicken preparations. Goat and beef are preferred in parts of the country but that’s not what this article wants to discuss. While it doesn’t move as fast off the menu as other meats, samgyeopsal or three-layer meat, is Korean-style pork belly, cut into strips that are grilled on the table while diners enjoy soju, the preferred alcohol in that country. Then there’s deungshim, thinly sliced beef sirloin popular for bulgogi which is grilled marinated beef. Also popular are ansim, beef tenderloin, kkot deungsim, ribeye roll, and chimasal yangji, flank steak, while galbi are short ribs that are thin strips with the bone at the short end and are ideal for BBQ.
Most dishes will have garlic and ginger in some form. Not ture. It is served with every meal ordinarily. You put rice on it, fold it and eat it. Unlike the Japanese who fold, dip in sauce and eat and then of course there’s the ubiquitous kimchi that comes in various ages and spice levels. Most common and at its most basic, it is fermented napa cabbage seasoned with sea salt, gochugaru, garlic and ginger. Endless variations include cucumber and radish kimchi.
Chef Vadim Shin, Yazu Goa and Mumbai, says, “Korean cuisine is very suitable for the Indian palate, I have many guests in my restaurant who prefer Korean food. I think the spicy and tangy flavours in Korean food are very similar to Indian food. The only difference is that Indian food contains lots of spices and gives a very rich flavour to the food. Korean dishes are simpler with seasonings and spices.”
So what accounts for this trend? Soft power has its uses. Back in the day, it was Indian curry with chicken tikka masala even touted as the national dish in Britain. Never mind that most Indians back home had never heard of it or even knew what it was. And there’s Bollywood that continues to hold sway over the Indian Diaspora. And so it appears with most things Korean. We use their toiletries and cosmetics; we are fans of BlackPink and BTS and know the stories of Jimin, V, Jisoo and all the rest. Jungkook’s single solo Dreamers went viral without an iota of publicity when he sang at the opening ceremony at the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. Did it start when the foot-tapping Gangnam Style took the world by storm in more than the music world a decade ago? And then of course, there are the K-dramas that have brought everyday Korean lives to our screens. Food is a large part of the screenplay in these much-loved soaps where these dishes find mention and have perhaps spearheaded the interest in Korean cuisine.
Kasturi, a college-going student in Delhi, is a typical example of this. She is excited talking about her favourite K-dramas and Korean actors. “I love Ji Chang Wook, Park Seo Jun, IU, Kim Eun Bin and so many others,” she says. She and her group of friends travel across the city to sample the fare at Busan Restaurant in Majnu ka Tila.
Rumi Dhar, manager at Mr K, a Korean restaurant in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village, finds the demographic is between18 and 26 years. “They are willing to experiment and are open to new things,” she says. While Gunj in Green Park and Seoul Restaurant at the Asiad Village have been around for approximately 20 and 12 years, respectively, Dhar credits the heavy footfall in Mr K to more pocket-friendly prices, as also to the simple menu centred around ramyun. The owner, Mr Noh Young Jin, a businessman from Korea whose firm Kama Consultancy has been in India for many years, found the post-Covid lockdown the perfect time to start a Korean restaurant. A menu centred on ramyun and dumplings has proven popular both because the food is light on the stomach and easy on the pocket.
Chef Shin says, “Kimchi is very popular for sure. It is easily available in most Pan Asian restaurants and popular dishes include gimbap (Korean maki sushi), bibimbap, kimchi chiggae stew, bulgogi, kimchi fried rice.”
Delhi-based Malvika Aggarwal and her friends, however, were a tad disappointed after the hype. They didn’t find the flavours different from what they might cook at home because of the use of regular packaged ramyun, easily available in most supermarkets. The dak bulgogi, marinated chicken grilled on an open flame on the table was a new experience and more interesting.
There are enough eateries to satisfy a craving or a curiosity. For authentic versions of popular street foods tteokbokki and jjajangmyeon, however, you might have to travel to that country.