My love affair with Korean culture started when I was around 12. I grew up watching Korean series and films, and listening to Korean artistes. Some of my core memories include waiting every evening for the clock to strike five. Arirang TV would air Pops in Seoul, and we would watch the video jockey play K-pop songs and update viewers with the latest news in the industry. I used to sit in front of our ancient TV set and just watch, enraptured. That show introduced me to K-pop, whilst K-dramas introduced me to Korean food culture.
Sharing food is a love language that Koreans seem to speak extremely well.
Food, for many of them, is associated with either a loved one, a fond memory from childhood, or a special occasion.
On birthdays, the Korean, usually have miyeok guk (seaweed soup) as a sign of respect for their mother’s love. On rainy days, it is almost a must to have jeon (Korean pancake) along with makgeolli (rice liquor). It is said that the pitter-patter of rain reminds them of the sound of oil sizzling on the pan when frying these pancakes. The famous Dalgona candy from Squid Game is a snack full of fond memories for many who went to school in Korea.
Over the years, Korean cuisine has been gaining immense popularity across the world owing to the spread of Hallyu or the Korean wave. From musical acts such as Blackpink to Oscar-winning films such as Parasite, Korean entertainment industry has played a major role in popularising their food and customs, and Tura is amongst the many cities and towns that has been swept by the Korean Wave in recent years.
Indeed, there has been an increasing interest in the culture of the Far East, be it through K-pop, K-fashion, K-series or K-food. Several eateries have started offering Korean food such as kimbap, kimchi fried rice, bibimbap and more. Korean words now are part of the Garo parlance.
“My story begins with Korean dramas”, says owner of Black Bean café Rangme B. Marak. This statement is the undeniable truth for most lovers of Korean cuisine. With the rise in popularity of the Korean entertainment industry, she became fascinated with their food culture. The cuisine is as colourful as the culture is rich. As if destined, Marak met Koreans whilst travelling, who then introduced her to kimchi and ramen. “The flavour was out of this world”, she remembers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Black Bean is a cosy little café in Tura, and it is one of the few upcoming places that offer Korean food. The café also offers other cuisines including French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indonesian and English/British food. Referring to herself as a massive food nerd, Marak says, “If you ask me what’s on my mind, my answer will always be food”. Spending most of her time in her kitchen which she has aptly named her “lab”, she experiments with recipes. She watches dramas and travel and cooking shows which, she says, have given her exposure to the more authentic side of different cuisines from afar. When she had first started experimenting with Korean food, she got her kimchi supplies with the help of a friend. “I tried to recreate recipes and initially failed. However, I kept pushing myself and finally succeeded. This is how I learned to grow as a home cook”.
In its most ideal or traditional preparation, Korean cuisine is healthy. The meals are hearty, centred on rice and greens, which make an almost perfect balance with seafood and meat. With the base ingredients mainly including ginger, garlic, soya sauce, chilli powder and sesame oil, it is also fairly easy to recreate. Most of the ingredients that Marak uses are imported, but items such as gochugaru (Korean hot pepper flakes) and gochujang (Korean chilli paste) are expensive and difficult to source.
The complex flavours of these ingredients add a certain authenticity too, but she makes use of local chilli flakes and recreates the flavour.
“Since I prefer authenticity, I want my customers to also have the full satisfaction of authentic food. Whatever is on the plate, I want to give the best version of me as a cook,” she says. Marak wants to introduce other cuisines to her customers, with her next goal being Mexican tacos.
Similarly, Asta B. Sangma is another home cook who makes foods such as kimbap, kimchi, kimchi fried rice, bibimbap and spicy Korean fried chicken. She became drawn to K-pop when she was in grade VII: “That’s when my cousins, who were studying outside Tura, would bring back mix tapes or CDs of second-generation K-pop idols such as Big Bang, Shinee, Wonder Girls and more. I got hooked after that.”
The dramas she would binge-watch over the years opened up a new world for her. Through them, she was introduced to the colourful palette that is intrinsically Korean cuisine. However, living in a small and isolated town such as Tura, it would take a couple of years before she would get to taste what she had only seen on screen. “With the changing times, I was able to start watching Korean recipes on Youtube and order the main ingredients like gochujang, gochugaru and fish sauce from Amazon to make simple dishes”, Sangma says. She gets most of her ingredients from sites such as Amazon. If an ingredient is hard to get, she substitutes it with what is locally available. “For instance, they usually use napa cabbage for kimchi, but I substitute it with our regular cabbage”, she says.
Sangma claims she is happy there is a growing interest in Korean cuisine and that people in town are opening up to different cuisines in general. “I hope one day Tura will have a restaurant which serves only Korean food, where we’ll be able to experience it to our heart’s content”, she adds.
At the heart of Korean food culture, there is an important philosophy embedded which speaks of reconnecting with loved ones. Sitting around a table full of food that has been crafted with love and utmost patience, meal times offer a chance to reunite and reconnect with people. Food is, after all, considered one of the ways through which humans express their love for each other.