Review: Little India, Itaewon
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.
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