I am quite fond of food from South-East Asian countries; the probable reasons being that a lot of ingredients used are quite similar to Indian cuisine, a lot of ingredients are super fresh and not processed too much, and the flavors are all sharp and strong, yet mostly balanced very well. My tryst with Korean food however was limited to a single occasion when my South Korean labmate brought me some home-cooked Soba noodles with veggies (I used to be a vegetarian back then), during my Grad school days in the United States.
I did not have a chance to sample the cuisine from this country anytime after that; because there aren’t too many Korean restaurants in India and the one that I knew had opened up in my city, shut shop unceremoniously before I had a chance to sample their fare. Then a couple of months back, my foodie friend Sonal came to know about Arirang Korean Guest House, a residential establishment run by a Korean family mainly for Korean expats; which had also opened its doors for other diners for a Korean meal experience on a limited basis. They do not run a regular restaurant, but do allow diners to come in for a set-course lunch or dinner after pre-booking the meal, to simply try out the cuisine that their country offers. My friend took care of all the logistics of pre-booking and locating the place, and we went in for lunch on a warm Saturday afternoon.
Now this isn’t exactly a regular restaurant, to the whole place has a very warm, homely vibe about it. They have a little kitchen, which you spot as soon as you enter and the fact that it is spotlessly clean, assures you almost immediately that the people who cook and work here do so with a lot of passion for food. They have converted two guest rooms into cozy little dining areas; and while they reserve one dining room for their regular boarders; they ushered us into the other dining room means for outside diners. Since my friend and I were the only people dining there that day, we pretty much ended up having a very special private dining experience with them.
The menu was printed in Korean and the staff speaks very little English, so we didn’t exactly get the Korean names of the dishes we tried (I was also partly relieved that we had opted for the set menu, for it would have been disastrous to order from a menu we couldn’t read!); but one staff member tried explaining what ingredients went into each dish. So based on his inputs, and what I could taste; this is what comprised of my first-ever Korean meal experience:
Cabbage and leeks soup: A hearty combination of meat-stock, bits of chicken, some sort of traditional fermented Korean sauce and lots of cabbage and leeks; it almost tasted like the Japanese Miso soup and turned out to be a delicious start to our meal ; a sign that we were in for a treat!
Crispy octopus relish: Well, it wasn’t octopus really; but our server told us it was a marine creature similar to octopus, which is dried, fried and then combined with sauces to make this relish. The relish had interesting textures; crisp from the octopus, sticky from the sauce; and a great balance of salty, spicy and umami.
Pickled cucumber salad: Had roundels of cucumber, few shavings of carrot and bits of spring onions tossed into a hot and sour dressing. While the dressing gave an instant kick of flavors, the veggies turned out to be a palate cleanser towards the end.
Fried chicken: A basic preparation of chicken marinated in salt and a couple of mild sauces, then batter coated and fried; the chicken pieces (on the bone) had a perfectly crisp texture on the outside, while the meat itself was cooked perfectly and came off the bone easily.
Stir-fried vegetables with rice noodles: a generous portion of super fresh bokchoi, zucchini, carrots and cabbage; quickly tossed into a wok with some sort of a chili sauce, and finished with some roasted sesame seeds; the stir-fry was delicious! The plain rice noodles complemented it perfectly and helped cut some heat from the chili sauce. Give me this as a meal anyday and I would be one happy soul..So healthy and oh-so-delicious.
Kimchi: A lot of Chinese restaurants in India these days serve kimchi, as a complimentary appetizer; obviously it is a very Indianized version at these places and nowhere close to the authentic one. At Arirang, the Kimchi was quite different and had all the components of the authentic version; cabbage, chili paste and fermented fish paste; but the use of fermented fish paste was very subtle.
Mushrooms and potatoes: This very simple side dish had fine juliennes of boiled potatoes and sliced shitake mushrooms that was simply cooked with a bit of salt. As basic as it sounds, it really celebrated the taste of the mushrooms and I loved its soft texture; amidst an array of dishes which had a predominantly crunchy texture.
Korean pancakes: a lovely combination of entire length of spring onions, arranged in a mesh along the pancake, bits of octopus and rice flour; the pancake were crisp at the base and wonderfully soft at the top. It was served with some sort of fermented sauce, which didn’t quite appeal to my palate but went well with that crisp octopus relish.
Steamed rice: They served us with individual portions of steamed, shortgrain rice; but it wasn’t the sticky rice or jasmine rice that we were expecting. Nevertheless, it went quite well with a lot of side dishes.
They served us green melons for dessert; and it was a refreshing end to a equally light and refreshing meal.
Service staff and kitchen staff is very cheerful, and in spite of our little communication issues, they were very keen to help us to the best of their ability. It is people like these which make out meals memorable and my heartfelt gratitude to them for sharing with us, a bit of their culinary culture.
Prices are slightly on the higher side; they charge Rs500 per person and Rs. 800 per person for the lunch and dinner service respectively. However, for the unique dining experience and a peek into a different culture; I would still say it is worth every penny.
For anyone else wanting to visit this place for a meal, you may need to pre-order your meals by calling them at +91-9921916928. Arirang Guest House is located in Lane 6, Sakore Nagar, Next to Ivy Studios, Viman Nagar, Pune.