A winding road from New Dehli to ItaewonSo you’ve been to Thailand. Twice. And Nepal. And oh, yeah, Bali. So now when you’re out with a bunch of friends and someone says he’s going traveling you can steal his peregrinatory thunder by mouthing “Koh Tao,” “Annapurna Circuit” or “Gunung Agung.”
But don’t try that if you’re at one of Itaewon’s best Indian restaurants, New Delhi, and the owner, Ashok Kumar, is within earshot. Mr. Kumar, 46, won’t be impressed. He’s been to far more places than you have, and got to many of them by bicycle.
Think of that tonight when you’re aggrandizing yourself for the 500th time with that story about the “dreadfully long” train ride to Chiang Mai. The one you spent reading 200 pages of Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
Mr. Kumar first hit the road in 1984, when he left his native New Delhi, flew to Kenya and unpacked his bicycle. He wheeled through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. Then Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia. Then up through more of Europe and all the way to England.
By 1986, when his legs and his cash had given out, Mr. Kumar settled in Montreal, where he found work in a textile factory. He found his calling a few months later when a restaurant there, Bombay Palace, hired him. Before long he was learning to master Indian cooking.
After a few years, Mr. Kumar took his new skills to Vancouver, where he opened his first restaurant, a modest place in Little India. Within a few years he’d started his own samosa factory, which supplied most of the other Indian eateries there. In fact, if you ate samosas in Vancouver restaurants like All India or Himalaya in the 1990s, Mr. Kumar probably made them.
By 2000, the travel bug had bitten once more, and Mr. Kumar was again globe-gallivanting ― mostly around Europe and India ― visiting friends and doing business. For a spell he settled in Melbourne, Australia, where he trained cooks at a Sydney Road restaurant called Curry Valley.
Eventually he started making regular trips to Seoul, where he’d replenish his travel funds by selling Indian jewelry on the sidewalk in front of the Hamilton Hotel. He grew to like Korea so much that he honeymooned here in 2002, after marrying a girl he met in Jakarta.
The chance to put down roots in Korea came in May 2003, when the Korean owner of Shankranthi, an Indian place up the narrow road west from Pizza Hut, let Mr. Kumar take over. Business immediately picked up ― so much so, in fact, that Mr. Kumar decided he needed a bigger place. So he rented a space across the road and opened New Delhi, which seats 36 to the 26 at Shankranthi, where the owner’s wife is now running things. Together, the restaurants have become Southwest Itaewon’s Curry and Basmati Gastronomics Hub.
So will Mr. Kumar stay on here or move on? For the record, he says he’ll be in Korea at least another five years, and he wants to open additional New Delhi locations, starting with Suwon.
But only Vishnu knows.
by Mike Ferrin