Indian home cooking, from north and southHearing the stories behind food only whets my appetite. The story behind the Chakraa restaurants in Korea ― the fifth of which just opened in Itaewon ― begins with a dozen hungry Indian businessmen.
Jacob Prince, an Indian-born businessman in the IT industry, brought the men home one day in 2001 for a home-cooked meal prepared by his wife, Shanthi, a native of southern India. Mrs. Prince was immediately sympathetic to the plight of these newcomers to Korea. “For us Indians, Korean food is just too different,” she says.
Before long, she was packing meals for Indian businessmen in Seoul on a regular basis, charging 5,000 won ($4.30) for a meal whipped up in her own kitchen. This led to the first Chakraa restaurant, a tiny, five-table establishment in Haebangchon, near Itaewon. “I just put all the dishes that I made at home on the menu, in a modestly decorated space, and charged very reasonable prices, and through word of mouth, it worked,” Ms. Prince said. Shanthi now boasts 3,000 membership cardholders, Korean and non-Korean (cardholders get discounts of 5 or 10 percent).
The new Chakraa in Itaewon is a modest, 50-seat, second-floor restaurant that offers lunch and dinner buffets (11,000 won and 15,000 won). The regular menu is extensive, ranging from a light chicken-and-vegetable soup (3,000 won) to tandoori chicken marinaded in yogurt and herbs (7,000 won) to various kinds of nan, the Indian flatbread (about 2,000 won), and curries. Draft beer is available for 3,000 won (2,000 won with the buffet).
A plate of tandoori chicken turned up beautifully charred, its skin bright orange, on a bed of shredded cabbage, onion, carrots and cucumber. The meat was packed with complex layers of spices, and the meat was moist, tender and surprisingly lean down to the bone.
Chicken makhani (10,000 won) is chicken in an aromatic, dark sauce. Kadai vegetable (10,000 won) is a pan-fried mixture of fresh tomatoes, bell pepper, onions, potatoes and green peas, cooked with a mixture of spices. Both dishes were powerfully flavorful in the mouth but light in the stomach. Together with two kinds of nan, butter nan and “chef’s special,” they made for a kaleidoscopic array of spices.
Mutton biryani (12,000 won) is made with long-grain rice, aromatic spices and meat on the bone. Ms. Prince described this as a special dish served at festivals and wedding banquets. There was something subtle in the taste ― cinnamon, I was told later ―which seemed a bit unusual at first, but the light, refreshing yogurt-and-cucumber sauce complemented the taste.
Many of the foods most commonly identified as Indian (and served by most Indian restaurants in Seoul), such as samosa and nan, are specifically of northern Indian origin. Except for the two branches in Haebangchon and Hannam-dong, which specialize in southern-style cuisine, Chakraa restaurants, including this one, serve northern-style. I visited the Hannam-dong branch to sample some southern-style cuisine.
The chef’s special salad (4,000 won) was a nicely garnished plate of sliced cucumber, shredded coriander leaves, chopped onion and red chili peppers with vinaigrette dressing. Another popular salad, chopped pineapple and cucumber, mixed in a creamy mayonnaise-based dressing, complemented the main dishes.
A typical daily meal in the south of India would include sambar, a lentil and vegetable soup, according to Ms. Prince. She said the soup can be made with just about any available vegetable, such as okra, eggplant, tomato or pumpkin. The brown, medium-thick soup she served me had chunks of fresh tomato, bits of string bean, carrots and onion.
You get sambar when you order dosa (6,000 won), paper-thin rice crepes served plain and sprinkled with Indian cottage cheese and red chili pepper powder, or vada (6,000 won), which resemble donuts, and which are also made from rice. Three kinds of chutney, made with mint, red chili pepper and yogurt, arrived. A spoonful of sambar, rice bread and a chutney or two combined to burst with delicious texture and spices; the meal was filling but surprisingly light.
At the end of the meal, Ms. Prince served me a cup of hot marsala tea (4,000 won) and gulab jamun, a kind of sugar-and-flour dumpling soaked in hot, mildly aromatic syrup. I don’t usually like Asian sweets, but I found this soothing.
She explained that the same syrup is sometimes given to children with upset stomachs. That explained it. It was this comforting hominess that I liked so much about Chakraa’s Indian food, a cuisine I’d always thought was too exotic and too heavy to be enjoyed every day.
English: Spoken. English menu available.
Location: Behind Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon.
Subway: Itaewon station, line No. 6, exit 2.
Tel.: 1588-7270, (019) 270-1911.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. daily.
Parking: Paid parking nearby.
Dress: Smart casual.
by Ines Cho