Whenever Korean people ask me “what exactly is the national food in Britain?” – I always answer the same way (I’m a fascinating conversationalist that way); curry. Indian food is woven into the fabric of life in the UK in the same way that Mexican food’s DNA has spread through America. There’s not a village in Britain that doesn’t have its own Indian* restaurant and takeaway on the high street, and while they don’t always represent the apex of authenticity any more than a breakfast burrito in Wisconsin does, they are an essential part of the landscape back home; as British as fish’n’chips, rain, and deference to inbred Germans.
[*Short digression: many of the places in the UK that market themselves as Indian restaurants are, in fact, owned and operated by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, or by Muslims whose families were originally from India but no longer identify themselves as Indian, and this is doubtless true in Korea as well. I am always reminded of this when I see the classic Seinfeld episode in which Jerry urges local restaurateur Babu Bhatt to stop dishing up franks n’ beans and instead serve the food of his native Pakistan then, too late, has second thoughts about his advice (“Of course, I’ve never had Pakistani food. How bad it could be?“) No British scriptwriter would ever have written that line.]
Anyway, for any true Brit, our “Indian” food is very, very important to us. Just as Americans line up to bitch about bad tacos in Seoul, so Brits bemoan the lack of quality curry around the city. But the truth is that there is decent, if not inspirational, Indian fare to be had, scattered around in places like Dongdaemun, Sinchon, and, most obviously, in Itaewon.
The street leading up to the mosque in Itaewon, known colloquially as “Halal Hill” to distinguish it from the two streets immediately before it (which are most definitely not halal), has a whole string of places to eat, none of them Korean; a couple of Malaysian places, a large Turkish restaurant, and some smaller tandoori outlets. I haven’t been to them all by any means, but my standard go-to is Little India, which has never let me down, and so when some of my university students expressed an interest, off we went.
The menu at Little India, though not very extensive, has decent variety. As well as the usual starters such as pappadums (above) and onion pakora (below), there are sections for chicken, lamb, seafood and vegetable curries, with around 7 or 8 options for each type. The heat level could be a bit higher for my tastes, but they will add extra green chilli on request, and the cumulative effect is unlikely to leave you feeling you’ve eaten a bland meal.
On my visit this week, we ordered a few different dishes. This masala chicken, below, was my favourite; really flavourful meat and a good, thick, spicy sauce. It doesn’t look like much, but it was good.
Lamb kadhai was also on point, with big chunks of green pepper in the sauce. This is one of my frequent choices when I come here – the photo below was taken on a previous visit. Never disappoints.
Perhaps my favourite new find was the prawn dopiazza, so named because the classic recipe uses two onions instead of the usual one. It was mild and creamy but the flavours were sharp, with the raw onion in the garnish giving it a bit of bite. Might have liked more prawns but nonetheless a solid dish.
We also got some potato and spinach curry, aloo palak, which was less well received by the diners (though it was all polished off, as everything else was). I thought it was a bit meh myself as well, but then I am not a fan of vegetable curries generally.
As this is a Muslim restaurant, there is no alcohol served – painful to those of us who grew up drinking lager with our curries – but you can get plain or mango lassis (yoghurt drinks). To be honest I have found their lassis to be a pale imitation of the real thing, perhaps understandable in a country where real yoghurt is at a premium, but they make cooling accompaniments to the meal nonetheless. And you can finish with some masala chai – perfect for a cold night.
(As you can see, I’m still getting to grips with my nice new camera and lenses. Bear with me!)
The bill for five people, including starters, five mains, and rice and naan, came to 90,000 won – exceptional value, in my view, given that we were all stuffed. My Korean co-diners felt that the portions were much more generous than the more “Koreanised” Indian places they have been in Seoul, which seem to be all sauce and no meat. Suffice to say they had their vistas opened up by this trip. Even the coriander in the food didn’t seem to bother them, as it often does people in this country who are unused to it.
My own personal view is that while this is not the curry you would get back home, it is about as good as you are going to get in Seoul, and on my frequent visits here I’ve certainly seen a lot of South Asians and Malaysians eating here – this restaurant is on the way back down from the mosque and on a Friday lunchtime it is packed with customers.
Indeed, I’m told this street is now on the radar of Korean food bloggers, and I hope the day never comes when the Tasty Road crowd invade the small kebab shops and Middle Eastern eateries of 우사단로10-길, to give it its official name. Somehow I think that’s unlikely in the short term; getting up here means running the gauntlet of one of the last unreconstructed corners of the old Itaewon, girly bars and all, and although even up here the pace of change is fast, it is not the new Garosugil just yet.
But let us appreciate it while we can. It’s not quite the same as back home, and Brits in particular (or Malaysians, or Indians) may find themselves craving a little more heat in the curry and a little more variety on the menu. But go with a group of people, find the dishes that you like, and you’ll not be disappointed. Little India is a pretty good substitute for those of us dreaming of the lamb bhoona in the Ashoka in Glasgow.
- Category: Indian
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Lamb kadhai, garlic naan
- Subway: Itaewon station exit 3
- Directions: Come out of Itaewon station exit 3 and turn right at the first street, going up the hill. At the top of the hill, past the foreign food mart and more dubious entertainments, turn left and Little India will be about 50 metres on the left hand side.
- Hours: Open 7 days a week, so far as I am aware, for lunch and dinner.
Since returning to Seoul a couple of weeks ago from a long break overseas, I have spent most of my time grazing at old favourites – Linus BBQ, Don Charly, Coreanos Kitchen, Vatos, and Firebell burger and Dongin Dong south of the river, among others – and neglected the many changes in the HBC / Gyeongnidan neighbourhood in the last few months. Since I left for South America at the start of September, literally dozens of new places have opened in this neck of the woods, all of which spells bad news for me, my cardiologist, shirtmaker and love life. (Women are using me constantly so far in 2015, but only for my knowledge of foreign food in Itaewon, which doesn’t really help.)
So as we enter mid January, it’s time to try some new things. I started off yesterday with lunch at the new and improved Lobster Bar in Itaewon, which was terrific and recommended to all (though, at 49,000 won for a full lobster, it is expensively – albeit fairly – priced by any Seoul benchmark).
As night fell, I took two Korean friends to the newest addition to the Gyeongnidan scene, Revolución, which is up the hill behind Maloney’s Pub. It’s a little tricky to find, which in my book is a good thing – and, being just three weeks old, its footprint on Korean blogosphere and social media is so scanty that my co-conspirators initially refused to believe that it existed. But it does, and when you get to the top of a steep but short hill, a warm welcome awaits you.
Revolución is fairly small – space for maybe twenty people seated, and a few more standing – but looks really funky from the outside and has a great ambience once you’re in. This is undoubtedly helped by the lovely wood-burning stove in the corner, which kept us warm despite the occasional draught from the door.
Revolución‘s beer selection includes four locally-brewed options – Itaewon Pale Ale, a Red Line Pilsner (my favourite), World Record Stout and a Citrus Hefeweizen – all extremely reasonably priced at or under 7,000 won for a pint. They also carry a range of Belgian bottled beers, which obviously will run you a little more. I believe there are plans to expand and tweak the beer selections in the coming months.
Food-wise, there is a choice of two hot sandwiches and a couple of other bits and pieces. The Cubano was terrific. My first experience of a Cuban sandwich, it contains thinly sliced ham and cheese, salami and chunks of another meat (roasted beef?), anchored with a little pickle and some wholegrain mustard. No idea if it’s authentic, but it was damn good.
The roast duck sandwich was also very tasty, with some greens, brie and tomato in there and a very generous filling of juicy duck. It was a bit too challenging to eat, the duck refusing to come away in the mouth as easily as the crisp bread, leading to a bit of reconstruction of fallen bits of meat and filling in the basket. If this can be fixed it’ll be another winner.
The stars, for me, were the two cheapest and simplest items; the superb Jamaican meat patties, which in Britain I suppose we would call pasties, served piping hot with a filling of spicy, almost curry-like minced beef. Just 4,000 won each, they were perfect with a cold beer. Loved these.
My other highlight was the chips – proper, thick-cut, perfectly cooked chips, not the poor imitations you get elsewhere. Frankly, I could have eaten these all night, if I thought there was a better than 50% chance of making it back home to HBC without a taxi. Perfect.
Overall, I really liked this place. The owners were chatty and friendly, the food and beer was top-notch, and the whole bar had a nice vibe. It’s hidden away enough to have the feel of a secret neighbourhood speakeasy, but was busy enough on a Tuesday night, after just three weeks of operation, for us to be optimistic that it’s here to stay.
Just don’t let the Tasty Road people in here, please! Hopefully the Revolución will not be televised.
- Category: Bar / Latin American
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Cubano sandwich, chips
- Subway: Noksapyeong (녹사평역) exit 2
- Directions: Come out of Noksapyeong station and walk up towards Namsan / HBC. Cross the road and turn right at Noxa and walk up Gyeongnidan street, past the Wellbeing Mart. At Maloney’s Pub, turn right up a short but steep hill and Revolución is at the top, just on your right.
- Hours: 6pm until 12 midnight, 7 days a week. Weekend brunch opening 10am-2pm is planned. See their Facebook page for more details.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2015! I don’t normally post recipes on this blog, on the very sound basis that I think (a) lots of people are better cooks than me, and (b) there is a whole world of cookery blogs and magazines out there where you can find a million different variations on every possible kind of dish. But, truth to tell, since I returned to Korea a couple of weeks ago from a long and amazing break in South America, I have been far too greedy to stop to take any photos of the food I’ve been guzzling, and eating out at old favourites rather than trying anywhere new.
I hope that’ll change soon – I’m very keen to try the new Lobster Bar in Itaewon, the Beastro in Hongdae, and Meatballism in Gyeongnidan, none of which I have yet visited – but for the moment, I’ve no restaurant reviews worth blogging.
So, instead, here’s a dessert I made a couple of days ago. Everyone loves tiramisu – even though, back in Britain, at any rate, it has long graduated from exotic Italian treat to weary food cliché. So when I made dinner for a friend last week, it seemed to make sense to give it a whirl. There were only two problems with this plan: I had not made tiramisu since about 1996, and some of the ingredients seemed to be a little tricky to find.
The first problem was easily solved, since there are almost as many recipes online for tiramisu as there are cat photos. After a bit of hunting, I decided to use the scrumptious Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Irish cream tiramisu. Like many people, I have a bottle of Bailey’s sitting in my fridge which I never touch, so a recipe that used this, rather than the more traditional rum, seemed ideal.
Otherwise it is quite a traditional version: ladyfinger biscuits (more properly called Savoiardi), mascarpone cheese, coffee, and so on. This quickly led to problem number two. Mascarpone I could find – albeit at the usual hefty prices, from any foreign food store in the Itaewon area, and even sometimes in E-Mart these days – but ladyfinger biscuits? Where the hell?
Luckily help was at hand in the form of the very helpful Giovanni, from HBC’s mighty Il Gattino, who advised that they could be found in Lotte and other fancy department stores. But before I could even tread warily into a Lotte food court, I found them in High Street Market in Itaewon – albeit, again, at a fairly eyewatering price.
The recipe itself is reasonably straightforward, if a little fiddly. To start, brew some very strong espresso coffee – at least a couple of times stronger than you would normally drink it (four times stronger, if you are Korean).
Let it cool down in a bowl and then mix in some Bailey’s. You’ll get an unattractive milky brown mixture, but it tastes great. Try not to drink it yet.
Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the tiramisu mixture. Whisk two egg yolks with some sugar, and then fold in some more Bailey’s and the mascarpone cheese. It’ll take a little while to get the lumps out, but persevere.
Then you add a whisked egg white and mix the whole lot gently together.
I added some vanilla extract – the real stuff, full of tiny little black seeds, not the cheaper and nastier essence that is what you normally find here (has anyone ever seen real vanilla bean paste in Korea?) – but this is optional and probably would get me shot in a real Italian kitchen. Whatever.
The original recipe calls for a large glass or Pyrex dish, but these are damnably hard to find in Korea. I substituted these nifty small glass containers from the supermarket, and they worked nicely, each one containing enough dessert for two people, or one Andy-sized person. (They are oven-safe, so you can also use them for individual pasta bakes, or something like that.)
Now, you need to look sharp. Dip a few ladyfingers at a time into the coffee / Baileys’s mix, until they are damp but not soggy. You need to work quickly, because within seconds they will be falling apart in the bowl, so they need to be taken out as soon as they are soaked through. I also suggest giving them a gentle squeeze to get some (but of course not all) of the boozy mixture out of them, because otherwise your tiramisu will end up swimming in liquid, like mine was.
Line the bottom of the dishes with the damp biscuits, spoon on half of the mascarpone mixture between the bowls, and then repeat with another layer of each.
Then all you have to do is cover and whack them in the fridge – these E-Mart dishes came with fitted lids, which makes them even more convenient – and leave them for at least four hours, preferably overnight, but not more than a couple of days on account of the raw egg. Then, when you’re ready to serve, dust a little cocoa powder over the top, and Bob’s your uncle.
Verdict? Well, for my first effort at making this dessert since the days when there were only three Star Wars movies and Manchester City were in the Second Division, not bad. There was a bit too much coffee and Baileys swimming in the bottom of the dish, and I ran out of mascarpone mix on the second bowl (since it’s about 11,000 won for a 250ml tub, I think I can be forgiven) so the second dish looked a bit lopsided. Overall, though, it was a success. Giovanni may splutter into his espresso at the shockingly untraditional addition of Bailey’s – and I’m quite sure his version is a thousand times better – but this makes a great, if expensive, dessert to make for a special dinner.
The full recipe, which makes 8 generous portions, is below. If you reduce the quantities, as I did, make sure you have enough of the coffee mix – these biscuits suck in liquid faster than [redacted – Soju Sunrise lawyers].
- 1½ cups very strong espresso, made with instant powder or beans (cooled)
- 250 ml Baileys
- 400 grams Savoiardi (ladyfinger) biscuits
- 2 large eggs
- 75 grams caster sugar (regular white sugar will do, at a pinch)
- 500 grams mascarpone cheese
- 2 teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)