My first encounter with Korean cuisine was when I found myself in a dimly-lit restaurant in Paris trying to pick a slice of pork belly off the barbecue grill using chopsticks — a feat I hadn’t performed before. But even with my full concentration on trying to master the art of chopsticks, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the fact that this very popular Korean restaurant was in fact run by a bunch of Chinese immigrants. Which didn’t make much of a difference to the flavours in my mouth, but did put into question the authenticity of the overall experience.B So when I heard of Bebop, the newest Korean offering in Mumbai run by a Korean family that had recently given up a very comfortable life in Ulsan, South Korea — I was bubbling with curiosity.
As I made my way to the third floor of a recently whitewashed high-rise somewhere in Andheri, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And even before I could ring the bell, I was ambushed by the warm, appetising smell of freshly-cooked food wafting from an inconspicuous kitchen in one corner of the house. Bebop, or ‘Bebop Korean Restaurant & Guest House’ as it’s officially called, is basically a Korean bed and breakfast run by S. H. Han and his wife, Jenny. They also have a daughter.
A family of three that very recently moved to Mumbai after voluntarily uprooting from their well-established life in South Korea, Bebop is more than just a guest house that provides a temporary home to Mumbai’s small but growing Korean community. Operating out of two modest, nondescript apartments in Andheri, it’s a slice of Korean life that feels a lot like time travel, especially with Han’s mouthwatering food and hearty conversations to give you company.
As I settle myself on a table at the far end of the room, flanked by rare blue winter skies on one side and a bunch of suit-and-tie Korean men on the other, I eagerly engage in small talk with the man sitting across me. He isn’t Han. In fact, I won’t meet Han for a while as he’s busy overlooking the food preparation in the kitchen. But until then I have another kind Korean gentleman and some delicious banchan to give me company.
A collective name for a number of small side dishes that are often served as complimentary appetisers, banchan at Bebop consists of four small plates – I quickly recognise roasted peanuts cooked in sauce, stir-fried zucchini, and cubed potatoes with an uncharacteristic sweet glaze. However, it’s the kimchi I take a while to understand. A traditional Korean side-dish made from fermenting cabbage such that it’s left with a pickled, pungent flavour, kimchi comes in almost 30-40 different varieties. Immediately after, I’m introduced to a big bowl of sweet and spicy fried chicken called yang nyum, and Han. The former is delicious enough to make me forget my recently-adopted Korean food etiquette and dive in with my fingers instead.
Unlike other cities, Mumbai’s Korean community is very small. Apart from Bandra’s Heng Bok and Worli’s Sun & Moon, Bebop is the only place where you can experience a traditional Korean meal. As someone who has travelled across the country to cities like Agra, Delhi, Jaisalmer etc., Han was always aware of this gap in Mumbai’s culinary landscape. He knew that the Koreans who visited Mumbai often had very few options so it was simply that coupled with an urge to give back to his community that pushed him to start Bebop. “Moreover, in Korea business opportunities are very few. There is too much competition and it’s very difficult for small ventures to survive,” he tells me.
But even in Mumbai, it’s not all that easy. Not many non-Koreans know about Bebop yet and until a few years ago, Korean ingredients were not available that easily. Even today, a lot of what Han uses in his kitchen is imported from Korea. “I have many relatives and friends who keep bringing stuff that I need”, he adds.
Next up, there’s a big bowl of strangely translucent noodles for me. Japchae or sweet potato noodles cooked with assorted vegetables and pork is quite different from the chicken I had just had. Its subtle flavours are just in time to rescue my palette from the heat left behind by the fried chicken. These noodles are surprisingly light (despite the pork), with a mix of underlying sweet and savoury flavours. “In Korea, this is often like one of those typical party dishes”, Han tells me.
As I feast on an unbelievably aesthetic bowl of Japchae, Han takes me through his experiences in India. He first visited the country when he was 23 and fell in love with everything it had to offer. “But during my travels, I was scammed quite often by locals as I was a foreigner. When I first moved to Mumbai, I was quite surprised by the cost of living but then I also realised that people are far more helpful and kind here than those who I’d met during my travels”, says Han when asked about why he moved to Mumbai despite having visited other cities. As he continues to detail his experiences in India, his deep fondness for Indian food becomes pretty evident – specifically tandoori chicken, butter chicken and garlic cheese naan.
Even though the food Han serves me is different from a typical Korean meal which comprises banchan, soup, and rice, he still makes it a point to take me through the age-old nuances of the cuisine. That is until a huge plate of pork belly strips arrives, with a variety of condiments to go with it. Noticing my puzzled expression, Han offers to go first and save me the embarrassment.
A Korean barbecue is an elaborate affair, but a unique experience nonetheless. Unfortunately, owing to lack of space, the meat has already been cooked in the kitchen but I honestly don’t mind. A DIY experience, wherein the smoked pork belly is dipped in sesame oil, topped with onion, sauteed mushrooms, spring onions, sauce, and wrapped in lettuce, a Korean BBQ is a must-try for every-meat lover. The juicy imported pork belly, the heat of ssamjang (a thick, spicy Korean paste), and the smoky aftertaste is all worth the effort that goes into the experience.
Finally, I ask Han the one question that has been on my mind ever since I entered, “What does ‘Bebop’ mean?” After a lot of blushing and some thought, he lets me in on the secret story. The name ‘Bebop’ is inspired from one of Han’s voyages to Thailand where he visited a live bar of the same name. While he’s never really bothered to look into the origin of the word, he likes the almost-Korean sound of it. “It’s similar to ‘bibimbap’, which is a Korean dish”, he says.
When asked about what he hopes from the coming New Year, he quickly responds with “growth”. Currently, his customers are limited to the Koreans who either live in Mumbai or visit the city often. But in 2019, he is expecting more Indian visitors as well. Even though Bebop is only two months old, Han is already thinking of setting up an exclusive delivery kitchen in Bandra very soon.
By now I’m well-fed and ready to bid farewell to this incredible experience of unapologetically gorging on food. Han, however, still has more in his mystery bag filled with authentic Korean experiences. He quickly rushes to the kitchen and brings me a steaming cup of Korean instant coffee. “It’s what almost everyone in Korea has, you must try”, he tells me — and so I do. As the two of us slowly sip on our cuppas, I can see a very earnest expression take over his face. “As a sort of celebration, on New Year’s eve I’ll be offering all my visitors a complementary bowl of tteokguk - which is a traditional wheat and rice cake soup. It’s my way of giving back to the community, which is something I want to do in whatever way possible,” he signs off.
Han is still in the process of setting up a website in English (there’s one in Korean though) so until then, you can get in touch with him on 7304036454. Bebop is located in Andheri and it is recommended that you make a booking in advance before visiting the place.
If you liked this article, we suggest you read: