Under my byline

Delhi has Seoul

Posted in Art, Foodie, Profiles by Rrishi on 5 July 2009

Mi Ran Lee makes an Indian success of Korean food

If location is everything, Kumgang’s Gonie Korean restaurant is possessed of a mixed blessing. The good aspect is that it is in the Ashok Hotel in central Delhi, within easy reach of its corporate and diplomatic clientele. The not-so-good aspect is that to get to the restaurant a visitor must trudge down two long corridors, one lined with guest rooms, the other with slightly dingy shops apparently devoid of customers. It’s not an effective appetiser.

But there are counterweighing advantages, chief among which is the admirable lady who owns this restaurant. Mi Ran Lee is 10 years into her India sojourn, and for all of those years she has run an “authentic” Korean restaurant — first in Hauz Khas Village and then at the Ashok. It is an award-winning restaurant.

“First I came here as a tourist in 2000,” Lee explains, “just for 20 days.” Later, when she and her daughter followed her expat husband here, “embassy friends asked me, ‘Why don’t you start a proper Korean restaurant?’”

Her family owns and runs a restaurant in Seoul, so experience was at hand. Even so, doing business in India is not easy. “Of course, it was very difficult,” she agrees, “Of course, it is an Asian country. Still I’m adjusting and surviving here. But the food culture is very different.” She adds, “Living quietly is no sense — a little challenging is good.”

Recently she expanded her menu to include Japanese food. “I think Korean sushi has a better taste than Japanese,” she says — slightly stronger flavours, suited to Indians’ spice-loving palate (her family loves frontier food). Cultural juxtaposition extends to the restaurant’s layout: karaoke rooms and regular tables share space with a hall where guests remove their footwear and sit on floormats at traditional low tables. And the paintings on the walls are by noted artist Park Young Yoon, her brother-in-law. “It’s a combination of Indian and Korean colours.”

Lee is a student of Buddhism. She has a degree in Buddhist philosophy and Pali, the language of the earliest texts, and has studied in Sri Lanka for seven years. She also spent seven years learning Korean temple food. Monks and nuns are strictly vegetarian. “Most Buddhist temples, they cultivate fresh vegetables, collect mushrooms and herbs from mountains,” she says. “It’s simple cooking and very nourishing.” There is thus ample choice on her menu for vegetarians. The most famous monk in the world eats her food: “When the Dalai Lama stops in Delhi I always offer him a Korean meal — and he likes it.”

At one point during our meal, so far prepared by the chefs, a circular steel lid is lifted off our table to reveal a hot griddle — using which Lee elegantly and speedily grills the chicken, Korean mushrooms and onion rings for the chicken bulgogi. This is the only item that isn’t best eaten with chopsticks — read below to learn how it makes a succulent mouthful. If you make it at home and think it doesn’t taste perfectly authentic, this may be because, like many chefs, Lee will give out a simplified rather than a complete recipe.

FAVOURITE RECIPES

CHICKEN BULGOGI

200 gm chicken (thigh, boneless)
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp rice wine
1 tbsp chopped garlic
2 tbsp rice syrup
½ tbsp salt
2 tbsp sesame oil
Fresh green lettuce leaves
Fresh red pepper
Onion rings

Marinate chicken pieces overnight in all other ingredients except lettuce and onion. Before eating, grill marinated chicken on a flat frying pan, lightly oiled. Also lightly grill onion rings at same time. To eat, place one piece of chicken on a small lettuce leaf, top with an onion ring and a dollop of pepper paste (fresh red pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil, ground together), roll the lot up like a paan and put in your mouth.

SOOJUNGKWA (Traditional fruit punch)

2 litres water
100 gm hwangsi (ginseng)
200 gm cinnamon
150 gm ginger
100 gm sugar

Bring water and ingredients together to a boil on high flame. Once it boils, then turn flame low and leave to simmer for at least 40 minutes. Totally, it should be on the hob for one hour. Once done, take off the fire, and add sugar. Boil again for five minutes. Sieve it and cool. When serving, add a few peeled pine nuts per bowl. If you can’t find ginseng root, leave it out.

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