Going the Korean way

Indians are discovering the joys of Korean dishes that go beyond kimchi and finding that it hits all the right notes with its gamut of flavours that go all the way from spicy to sweet.
Korean food has bold flavours which appeal to the indian palate. Image: shutterstock/tatjana baibakova.
Korean food has bold flavours which appeal to the Indian palate. Image: Shutterstock/Tatjana Baibakova.

The newest kid on the block for those already sated with other Asian flavours is the rich and complex Korean cuisine, tantalisingly familiar yet so far removed from what one has had for years. Interestingly, Korean cravings for many coincided with pandemic lockdowns when people plugged into the far eastern country’s unique culture through Korean TV dramas and embarked on a culinary journey that involved discovering the joys of signature dishes like bibimbap and dakgalbi and mouthwatering Korean-style barbecued meats.  

Korean ingredients and flavours

Intensely flavoured, spicy and bold are the most apt descriptions for Korean cuisine and perhaps that is why it has hit all the right notes with Indian palates. 

As with all cuisines, the roots lie in its geography — seafood is plentiful in South Korea, the climate is conducive to growing rice and a host of fruits and vegetables. However, in a country exposed early to Western influences, beef, pork and chicken have found their way into traditional recipes

The short-grained, white rice known as ‘Ssal’ is Korea’s must-have cereal, which besides being the hero of main dishes also finds its way into soups or stews. Even a traditional breakfast includes this shiny, sticky rice. Besides meats and fish, Baechu or Napa cabbage is the humble vegetable that is joined at the hip with every Korean meal.  

But it is some classic Korean ingredients that give the food it’s crave-worthy Asian twist. There is doenjangthefermented bean paste that heightens the flavours; gochujang, a fermented red chili paste that has tantalisingly sweet, salty and spicy notes; gim that is a dried, edible seaweed; and aekjeot, a heavily flavoured fish sauce.  

Iconic Korean dishes include side dishes

Some iconic korean dishes. Image: shutterstock/alexander ryabintsev.
Some iconic Korean dishes. Image: Shutterstock/Alexander Ryabintsev.

Although a small country, the variety of Korean food will never cease to amaze — it goes all the way from barbecued meats served with a variety of dips to rice and noodle dishes, rice cakes, pancakes and rolls.  

You never ignore the ‘banchan’ or side dishes here — inspired by a culture that over the centuries has fine-tuned the art of preserving food, they occupy more of the table than the main dish and definitely deserve one’s full attention. They often accompany the meat, some are for dipping but the most famous undoubtedly is kimchi, the fermented spicy cabbage that was perhaps the first Korean dish that many of us encountered. Interestingly, soups are served as an accompaniment and not as the first course. 

The classic Korean main dish is a bowl of bibimbap, a hot pot that consists of warm, steamed rice covered with an assortment of vegetables, minced meats and an egg sitting on top with a dollop of chilli paste for seasoning. Michael Jackson is reputed to have put this beloved Korean dish on the global map — his favourite variation was apparently served with shiitake mushrooms and minced beef.  

Korean cuisine has turned pickling into a fine art form. Image: shutterstock/norikko.
Korean cuisine has turned pickling into a fine art form. Image: Shutterstock/Norikko.

Other famous dishes include dakgalbi, a spicy stir-fried chicken whose popularity soared during the Korean war when a struggling economy made chicken one of the more affordable dishes. It is usually cooked in a gochujang-based sauce with rice cakes, cabbage, and sweet potatoes and has found a resonance in India too.  

Gogigui means ‘meat roasting’ in Korean, and sure enough some of the most popular Korean restaurants serve a variety of beautifully grilled protein that has often been marinated to combine sweet, savoury and spicy notes and is served with unlimited sides. Some of the classics are galbi, a beef short rib; bulgogi, thinly sliced sirloin; and samgyeopsal, or strips of pork belly. Traditionally, they were barbecued on charcoal grills giving them a smoky flavour.   

Korean street food is a feast for the senses. Image: shutterstock/ferry tomasowa.
Korean street food is a feast for the senses. Image: Shutterstock/Ferry Tomasowa.

If its Asia can its sizzling street food be far behind? In South Korea too carts in narrow alleyways present a heady, vibrant scene. The offerings go all the way from classics like tteokbokki, a rice cake dish served in a spicy, savoury and sweet red chilli sauce, toa seaweed roll calledgimbap that is stuffed with rice, vegetables, fish and meat. 

The Koreans also know well how to indulge sweet cravings — some of the popular dishes are hotteok or sweet Korean pancakes filled with a sugar syrup and bingsu, a wonderfully cooling summer dessert of chopped fruit, condensed milk, rice cake and much more. 

Popularity of Korean food in India

East Asian flavours have always been a hit in India. After being obsessed with Chinese, people took to Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese with gusto but Korean is now emerging as a clear favourite. As in much of the world, its popularity is directly linked to watching K-Dramas and to K-Pop culture, but in India it was fuelled by the pandemic when people obsessively consumed these shows. 

A report by Euro Monitor says that in 2020 there was a 370 percent increase in viewership of K-Dramas in India and in the same year the import of Korean noodles increased by 162 percent. 

Restaurants in metro cities opened to offer Korean cuisine initially to serve the growing expat Korean community and some even have the menu written in Korean. But Indians are increasingly flocking to them as well.

 “Korean food suits the local palate very well since it’s spicy. It’s easy to make and the ingredients are also not hard to find. People always appreciate new flavours and we will be seeing many more Korean restaurants opening — this is just the start,” says Chef Neeraj Tyagi, Culinary Director of Novotel and Pullman New Delhi Aerocity. 

Gung the Palace is one of the oldest standalone Korean restaurants in the country — it first opened in Delhi in 2007 and following its popularity, another one has opened in Gurgaon. Since then, many have come up and dish out everything from Korean barbecue to kimchi and samgyetang. In Delhi NCR, some of the go-to places for a Korean meal are Hahn’s Kichen, Midam, Busan, Seoul and Kori’s. 

Suggested read: 10 of the most popular drinks you’ll find in South Korea

Left to right: chef neeraj tyagi, culinary director, pullman and novotel new delhi aerocity; parinita samanta, director, marketing and communication, pullman and novotel new delhi aerocity; and chef jiyeol kim from the embassy of korea announce the discover korea food festival.
Left to right: Chef Neeraj Tyagi, Culinary Director, Pullman and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity; Parinita Samanta, Director, Marketing and Communication, Pullman and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity; and Chef Jiyeol Kim from the Embassy of Korea announce the Discover Korea Food Festival.

Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Chennai are also home to restaurants where you can enjoy an authentic Korean food experience. Origami in Mumbai has tatami-style seating and is known for its barbecue, while Sun and Moon became popular since it opened. For those still hesitant to step into a restaurant, Korean food has also found its place in delivery options as well.

If you want to delve deep into the cuisine, head to a month-long Korean food festival being held at Honk, Pullman Hotel, New Delhi Aerocity till May 11th. Organised by Korea Tourism Organisation and Pullman New Delhi Aerocity in association with TravelDine, the menu at the Discover Korea Food Festival has been curated by Chef Jiyeol Kim from the Embassy of the Republic of Korea and features a range of star dishes.  

“You’ll get everything in the festival from traditional stews and stir fries to pork belly, kimchi and gimbap. There are about 10 starters and 12 main courses — so the variety is huge,” says Chef Tyagi, who is overseeing the festival.  

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There’s a month-long Korean feast at Honk, Pullman New Delhi Aerocity