Giving Curry a Good Name in Seoul

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Giving Curry a Good Name in Seoul

New Restaurant Offers Real Aromas and Tastes of Indian Food

When a restaurant owner believes that taste is everything, it is only a matter of time before the business takes off. This is what has happened with the Ganga Indian restaurant, which satisfies the taste buds of the most fastidious diners.

Since Ganga introduced authentic Indian cuisine to Seoul in March, enthusiastic diners have spread the good word. Now, unless you have a reservation, you will wait in a long queue. Such is the restaurant's popularity that a second Ganga restaurant is due to open next month.

You will have to convince your friends that the cuisine at Ganga, in Kangnam-gu, bears little resemblance to the dubious fare they may have tried at other so-called Indian restaurants, where the idea of food is to pour yellow curry sauce over sticky white rice or a pork cutlet. At these places, the curry sauce is suspiciously like the cheap three-minute instant curry sachets sold in supermarkets.

For most Koreans, authentic Indian food is still something of a mystery. Diners unprepared for cultural differences may at first hesitate at the unfamiliar offerings. But one taste of the food at Ganga will wipe away all doubts. The food is delicious.

The partners who own Ganga are Lim Jae-seon, Park Chan-man and Lee Duke-hyung. They got the idea of opening an Indian restaurant three years ago. Mr. Lim, 36, was studying in Tokyo, where he met Anja Kumar Mitra, who owned the Oti Indian restaurant there. The Koreans and Mr. Mitra decided to open a new type of Indian restaurant in Seoul. Mr. Mitra is now Ganga's creative food coordinator. Four Indian chefs, who used to work at New Delhi's Astro Hotel and the Tandoori's Junction restaurant, make everything from scratch in the kitchen, the most visible part of the restaurant.

For a delicious starter, try the lassi, an Indian drink made from milk and cultured yogurt. Lassi is a wonderful stomach soother when tackling spicier Indian dishes. The mango lassi at Ganga is sensational. Along with the lassi, try some crisp and spicy samosas, triangular fried dumplings.

The most popular dish is tandoori chicken, a barbecued spring chicken marinated overnight in traditional spices. Or try the chicken tikka, tender pieces of boneless chicken marinated in hot spices and yoghurt. The finger-licking taste comes from a combination of top-quality chicken and the secret ingredients used to marinate the meat, according to Mr. Park.

Besides the Ganga chef's recommendation, JoongAng Ilbo English Edition strongly recommends bhuma lamb curry. The meat, juicy and tender, is served with crispy capsicums or pimentos, onions and roasted herbs. Curry dishes go wonderfully well with rice or nan, an Indian bread baked in a clay oven. You can have jasmine rice or yellow saffron rice.

Ganga's success lies in its concept of catering to the growing number of adventurous and well-traveled diners now living in Seoul. The Korean owners were fashion executives. Sensitive to style and concept, they aimed to create an intimate atmosphere, where diners could enjoy mainstream Indian food.

The restaurant interior is simply decorated with Indian motifs. In the corner of the waiting room, spices and Pashimina scarves are displayed for sale.

"We have all been friends for a long time," Mr. Park says proudly. "Like many young people, we wanted to do something together. We knew how to tackle 'the taste' - the only and the most important thing, but we didn't have much money in the beginning. So we set out to make the place interesting. We spent a lot of time studying marketing and working out why Indian restaurants in Tokyo are so successful. Tokyo has more than 500 authentic Indian restaurants.

"In Seoul we are perhaps the first of a kind, and adapting ideas from Tokyo to Seoul was tough. So we created a symbolically Indian space where people can experience Indian culture. That's why we placed our kitchen in the middle of the restaurant near the front, and decorated the interior with exotic curios from India.

"People can come in and watch the food being made and become familiar with Indian products. In the future, we want Ganga to be a kind of comprehensive center for everything related to India. Food can be the start of a cultural experience that can eventually lead to travel. And Indian culture has so much to offer."

When the Ganga team opens its second restaurant in nearby Chungdam-dong, Dolly Ray, a tea-taster from Calcutta, will demonstrate the correct way to prepare, serve and enjoy various Indian teas. Her equipment is simple - a timer, scales and a thermostat.

Ganga, at 634-5 Shinsa-dong, Kangnam-gu, Seoul, is open every day from noon to 3 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Valet parking is available. For reservations, call 02-3440-3610.

by Ines Cho

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