Unlike many other cuisines, Korean food isn’t about living your life under a rock. You’re going to have to pull up a seat at a communal table, rest your knees on the floor, and maybe even engage in a chopstick war so you can grab the last piece of tender meat being freshly grilled on the gridiron at the centre of your table. You’re going to get pickled vegetables in your teeth, spicy stews trickling down your chin, and some perfectly tender, grilled meats full of rich, hearty flavours rolling around in your mouth. You’re also going to learn so much new vocabulary you’ll be screaming words like “Naengmyeon!” in your sleep as you dream about the meal you lost your heart to. If that description made you want to dive head-first into the next bowl of Korean food you can find, instead of run away screaming, then it’s time to follow us.
Given India’s slightly wary palates, it took a while for restaurateurs to cozy up to the idea of serving us such ‘exotic food,’ and sushi seemed about as far as they were willing to stick their necks out. Then the culinary inflection point hit and suddenly, everyone from our rowdiest friends to our ‘rajma chawal only’ neighbours are ready to sample the strangest of things. Not that we’re complaining. The shift in thinking has allowed a handful of fantastic Korean joints to pop up in particular metros and that’s exactly why we’re here right now—hoping to make this trend a permanent one. Largely run by Korean expats (a sure fire guarantee of authenticity) and most commonly offering home-style dining experiences including that world-famous Korean Barebcue, these places are truly the best way to enjoy an introduction or an expert course in Korean cuisine. It just depends on how experimental you really are. So grab your stretchiest pants and join our little band of Korean food devotees, this right here is your ultimate guide to the flavour-packed cuisine, broken down city-wise.
Gung, meaning Palace in Korean takes its moniker somewhat seriously. Run by an enterprising mother-son duo from Korea, the restaurant languorously spreads itself across three floors, offering three different kinds of seating options and even the opportunity to indulge in some Karaoke at the Gurgaon branch, Korea’s favourite pastime as any full-blooded K-pop fan might know. The overarching result is the kind of elegant-yet-authentic dining experience that allows everybody from business clients to your adventurous grandmother to have a fantastic experience, while Korean food virgins have the added bonus of Meya, the establishment’s extremely knowledgeable manager from Nagaland. Turns out she knows just how to take beginners through all the obscure words on the menu without freaking them out with mentions of ox blood and bone soups.
Of course, this level of authenticity and hand-holding doesn’t come cheap but we’ll get to that later. First, we’re here to tell you what you need to eat.
What You’re Getting: Say hello to the Wang Galbi (Rs. 1700). This marinated barbeque Pork comes in a Ganjang (Korean Soy Sauce) sauce which is usually just a simple but flavourful combination of soy, garlic and sugar, occasionally shaking things up with sesame oil, rice wine and/ or hot pepper paste, all added for variation. The cut of this particular meat is what is referred to as Wang Gabli. Ribs are cut into 2 to 5 inch segments, and the meat is filleted in layers away from the bone to form a uniformly thin layer. In other words, unparalleled deliciousness.
Pro tip: Find a way to make enough money to enjoy their Korean Beef BBQ. There’s nothing else quite like it in the entire country.
Cost for Two: At Rs. 2800 (without alcohol) this is definitely a beginning of the month kind of outing.
Okay, so the place loses a few points for serving up Japanese food alongside all that Korean goodness with purists, but life works out better for people who don’t care for such nuances in the spectrum of Asian flavours. Besides, the mall-restaurant does both cuisines more some serious justice. Inviting and completely unpretentious in its décor, the place is simply a backdrop for what the owner, Oh Sae Jun, probably intended—a chance for his customers to sample what a real home-style meal in Korea might look, feel, smell, sound and taste like. Soul food for Seoul lovers.
What you’re getting: The Samgyupsal (Rs. 1600) is our kind of gal. – A simple Grilled Pork Belly, the dish is crunchy, juicy and begs to be sampled with an array of delicious Banchan (side dishes).
The Baeg Ban (Cost: Rs. 600) is another traditional Korean meal that we can vouch for as the ultimate hangover cure. A simple soup-and-main-course combination that changes daily, it’s a great way to get a feel for Korean cuisine and even better for indecisive eaters.
Cost for two: Kinder to your taste buds than your wallet at Rs 2500
III. The Shim Tur
Despite being situated in the thick of Backpacker haven’s noise and crowd, this rustic rooftop restaurant has found a way to become a haven away from the haven—where locals and out-of-towners revel in the flavours of Korea in the breezy open-air setting. Something of an antithesis to the narrow, dingy paths you have to take to find it. The food is an eclectic journey through the best Korean dishes, which only tends to taste even better once the Soju (a traditional Korean alcohol) starts to flow. And as if all of this weren’t enough, perhaps in a bid to cater to all the DU low-budget students who swarm to their den, Shim Tur even houses a mini library filled with Korean anime comics and Lonely Planet Guides. The busiest spell for them is during winter when they seat over 100 customers a day so be warned, you might have to fight for a table.
What You’re Getting: The Kimchi Bokkeumbap - not to be confused with the one dish we all know, bibimbap - is a simple dish that really encapsulates the diversity of wonderful ol’ Kimchi. It’s essentially a Kimchi-flavoured fried rice that comes with a variety of side dishes such as diced meats and vegetables. (Cost: Rs. 260)
There’s also the local favourite, Hae Mul Pa Jun. On the menu, it’s described simply as a seafood pancake but it is really so much more. Pa means spring onion in Korean and the pancake itself is made from a batter eggs, wheat flour, rice flour, a range of seafood including options like squid, clams, oysters and more, and naturally, green onions all pan fried to a thin, crispy pancake that you’ll probably end up ordering another plate of. (Cost: Rs. 300)
Cost for Two: At Rs. 600 you’ll want to eat there every day.
IV. Heng Bok
Welcome to Mumbai’s only authentic Korean destination where prices surge and authenticity sometimes dips, but it’s still well worth the trip if Bulgogis and Samgyeospals are on your craving mind. Primarily known for its Korean Barbeque, their menu is geared towards carnivores who are feeling more and more belittled in every vegan’s favourite suburb, Bandra. Their menu is geared towards people looking todiscover the cuisine, it includes descriptions and pictures of all the dishesso you’re drooling over the upcoming feast before you’ve even ordered. One way or the other, beggars shouldn’t be choosers so if you live in Mumbai, here’s what we think you need to dig into.
What You’re Getting:
The Samgyeopsal Belgian Pork Belly (Cost: Rs. 1000 for regular, Rs. 1200 for the spicy avatar) is our Korean BBQ favourite, however. Just as it’s seen on TV, pork slices marinated in chilli paste are cooked at the table. All you have to do is wrap it in lettuce, add their special BBQ sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper and congratulate yourself on mastering the art of eating Korean barbeque.
Cost for Two: A bit pricy at Rs. 2500 but it’s not like us unfortunate Mumbaikars have any other options.
From the floor seating to the delicate wall paintings everything about this place makes you feel like you’re in Little Korea, if not Korea itself. It has the sort of gentle ambience and friendly exterior that makes it immensely popular with Korean nationals in Bangalore. But having said that, the menu still caters to newbies as well with helpful pictures and descriptions that make your ordering much simpler. This is especially perfect because they have a really wide selection of dishes on offer and no matter how much of an expert you are, chances are you wouldn’t be ready for this gastronomical assault on your senses. That’s not an exaggeration because even the water is herb-flavoured.
What You’re Getting: Pork Barbeque (Cost: Rs. 480), Pork Barbeque, Pork Barbeque. It tastes so nice we had to say it thrice. Thinly sliced pieces of pork grilled in sesame oil are served up in a crunchy lettuce leaf with hot sauce, sticky rice and all the traditional condiments. Is there anything not to love about that?
Kimchi Stew (Cost: Rs. 400). Even people who haven’t had the chance to experience Korean cuisine know of the country’s devotion to Kimchi and stews. As such, this dish is the ultimate embodiment of everything they hold dear. It’s a spicy stew made from Kimchi, fatty pork and dubu (a type of tofu) with chunks of green onion. It’s served with rice and is the perfect comfort food to binge on.
Cost for Two: One more time...PORK BARBEQUE! So its doesn’t really matter that it’s Rs 1100
VI. Hae Kum Gang
With a truly oriental touch, Hae Kum Gang has proved a favourite in Bangalore’s thriving Korean circuit where it’s all but impossible not to get lost in the crowd. Unlike most of the others, however, this place is actually owned by a Nepali man Mr. Hira Bahadur Karki whose Korean wife directs the goings on in the kitchen. Okay so it kind of is the same as all the others, we take it back. The place is comfortable but not overly flashy, which adds to the comforting experience that comes with home-style food and absolutely delicious soups and meat.
What You’re Getting: Dak-doritang (Cost: 650) does not disappoint. Ever. This stir-fried chicken with potatoes, carrots and onions is exactly the type of meal you want at the end of a long, tiring day. Its spicy edge is cut by the steamed rice and side dishes that are the hallmark of Korean cuisine.
Cost for Two: A very hearty meal at a very hearty price for Rs. 1500.
VII. Hi Seoul
This local favourite for Korean cuisine (Bangalore seems to have an unfair majority of good options) answers a lifelong question for chicken wing enthusiasts—how can you make this godsend of a dish even better? Deep-fry them of course! But before we get carried away with all the culinary delights, a little context. A simple establishment, Hi Seoul may be located in a mall but other than its speedy service it has nothing of the food-court feel. The menu isn’t particularly extensive and that might be exactly what contributes to the high quality of every single dish. It’s a family owned restaurant which prides itself on its relaxed ambience. Perfect for people looking for a quick, reasonably priced meal that just happens to be exotic too.
What You’re Getting: Deep Fried Chicken Wings (Cost: Rs. 300) obviously. These truly heavenly creations are crispy-charred on the outside, tender on the inside and slathered in a sweet and spicy sauce. They’re usually eaten as an appetiser but chances are you’ll want to make a full meal of them.
We’re also big fans of the Bulgogi Deopbap (Cost: Rs. 20). Aside from sounding like a strange new ‘Hanson’ song, this dish is the Korean answer to Sushi. It’s made with stir fried bulgogi (marinated meat), surrounded by sticky rice, wrapped in gim (dried sheets of laver seaweed) and then cut up into bite-size pieces.
Cost for Two: At Rs. 800 you can sign us up for a weekly reservation.
VIII. Soo Ra Sang
The focus here is the best dam Korean BBQ you can find in the country, which means you shouldn’t consider wearing anything but your loosest dress or stretchiest pants to lunch or dinner. Concealed in the tiny back lanes of the airport road this is the place to go for a really special experience on your way in or out of Bangalore. The place is run by Korean expats who are hugely enthusiastic about providing new customers with all the information they need to get the best out of their meal. While you could easily overlook this small, unadorned setting it would be a real shame to miss out on this place that really lets the food shine.
What You’re Getting: Dol Sot Bi Bim Bap. This dish is served in a piping hot stone bowl featuring a mix of chicken, egg and sautéed veggies on a bed of warm white rice seasoned with soy and the inescapable red chilli paste. It’s stirred together thoroughly before eating so don’t even try to avoid any of these ingredients.
Sewoo Dup Bap is also one of the few seafood dishes to make the cut. This dish of prawns stir fried in red chilli sauce will fill your Indian spice quota with a Korean twist.
Cost for Two: Turns out exotic food comes at a price of Rs. 1500, sorry.
Located a hop, skip and a jump away from Arirang and also another family run restaurant, the two are easy to confuse but are both worth their weight in kimchi and barbeque though Thran is a fair bit more expensive. This extra pricing might be attributed to the fact that every single dish comes at you with a small army of sides that guarantee you’ll be loosening your belt before you leave.
What You’re Getting: Chicken Kalguksu. This soupy chicken broth with knife-cut wheat noodles is considered a seasonal dish and is served in a large bowl with aromatic vegetables and spicy Yangnyumjang sauce, which is made of soy and Korean red pepper flakes. It’s considered to be a seasonal dish and luckily for you, Summer’s the season of choice so head over there and order this sooner rather than later.
Pork Bulgogi. This dish is one of the most famous exports of Korean cusine and it’s absolutely perfectly done at Thran. Thinly sliced pork is marinated with gochujang (spicy, pungent condiment made from fermented soy beans and red chilli) and then grilled with to perfection with bell peppers.
Cost for Two: You’re definitely getting your money’s worth here so the Rs. 1200 you spend will not go to waste.
X. Cafe Maroo
Currently Pune’s one and only Korean destination, this cosy two-story restaurant is nestled in a corner and you would probably miss it in a badly-timed blink. The wooden furniture creates a vibe reminiscent of an old family home and is just as welcoming. The friendly staff is knowledgeable about the menu and always ready to make suggestions. As it isn’t very well known, a visit to Cafe Maroo is usually calm and quiet, the perfect way to enjoy their authentic Korean creations and the kind of secret you’ll want to keep when you leave, just so that you can have it all to yourself time and time again.
What You’re Getting: The Pork Jajangmyeon is a noodle dish with black bean sauce, which displays a whole new side of the Korean food spectrum. The diced pork and potatoes make for a particularly flavourful and satisfying meal.
Cost for Two: A happy price makes a happy diner. Rs. 1100.
Research: Meharunnisa Moula Sahib