In the liminal space of Safdarjung, which has been home to migrants–both students and workers–from the Northeast in Delhi for decades, an unseasonal spell of September rain failed to dampen the mood at Cultured Café, which hosted a Korean food pop-up event on a Friday afternoon.
Whenever an order for a Korean item was placed, 26-year-old Ronmi Risom, or Ron, from Manipur, who was at the event’s helm, briskly blended in with the regular kitchen staff to put it together, replete with kimchi and pickled carrots on the side.
After the strong imprint of Korean dramas and K-pop music, the original drivers of the Korean wave around the world— the food—seems to be the next big cultural import into India. However, Indians aren’t just satisfied with eating at a Korean restaurant or a pop-up event, their affinity for the cuisine has propelled them to try making it at home—from India’s small towns to big cities. Some even sell it. And when it comes to popular Korean food, there is only one winner in this soft power game – the ubiquitous kimchi.
The national dish of South Korea, kimchi straddles between being a side dish and being a supporting ingredient in several Korean dishes, but it’s never eaten on its own traditionally. It was traditionally made to increase the longevity of vegetables after the autumn harvest to ensure food lasted through the harsh winter of the Korean peninsula.
Rooted in simplicity, a New York Times article said, “If you can make a salad, you can make kimchi.” Indians are doing exactly that.
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Kimchi in Indian jars
Breaking down the kimchi-making process, Korean chef Lee Ju Been says it is made by pickling the main ingredient – cabbage or any other vegetable – with salt. Next, they are mixed with supplementary ingredients – ginger, garlic, red pepper powder, green onions, and pickled seafood. Finally, the mixture is allowed to age in a jar or box at a low temperature.
Perhaps it is the ease of making kimchi that allowed Ron to easily replicate the steps when he first started making it as a hobby in 2015. After seeing it appear often on Korean TV shows, he looked up YouTube videos and procured the necessary ingredients from Delhi’s INA market and took off on his kimchi-making journey. But to come up with a taste that clicked, “It was a lot of trial and error,” he confessed.
During the Covid pandemic, when he was at home in Manipur, Ron started selling kimchi. Once back in Delhi, he started supplying his kimchi jars at the café where he hosted the pop-up event.
“I make the Napa cabbage kimchi (baechu kimchi), the classic one, at least once every two weeks. And in each batch, I make anything between 5 to 10 kgs,” he said.
For 30-year-old Namrata Tripathi, her kimchi quest began in 2020 during the Covid lockdown when all her “favourite Korean restaurants were shut for business in Bengaluru.”
Kimchi is now a constant in her fridge that she relishes with most of her meals. When the Napa cabbage isn’t readily available, she even makes kimchi with cucumber (Oi kimchi) and radish (kkakdugi kimchi).
However, both Ron and Namrata agree that Kimchi is an acquired taste for the Indian palate.
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What do Indians like about kimchi?
Indians eat a lot of fermented foods—most common being the pickle—but Kimchi took time to take over the Indian tongue.
“I’ve had a lot of Indian friends turn their noses up to it because of the fermentation odour,” Namrata recalled.
That, however, hasn’t put a dent in kimchi’s popularity in India. Those who love its taste vouch for the complex flavour. “I think it’s spicy, sour and umami taste make the perfect blend,” she said.
For Nitin Gandhi, the owner of the Mumbai-based Bombucha, a company that makes and sells kombucha, kimchi fell in line with his brand as it is also a fermented product.
First introduced in late 2017, Gandhi says kimchi is now among “one of their best sellers” across India. Although the cold chain logistics limits them from supplying to all states, it doesn’t stop Bombucha from processing at least 500 kgs of cabbage in a week to make kimchi. In a month, Bombucha goes through 2,000-3,000 kgs of cabbage.
“I know the amount of cabbage I order every week,” Gandhi laughed while sharing some figures.
He believes it’s the flavour and texture of the Kimchi that strike a chord with Indians. “We aren’t afraid of spice and, in fact, consciously add it to our meals often in the form of pickles or sometimes directly as a chilli on the side,” he said.
Gandhi recalls that a lot of their first-time customers were surprised at the flavour of the traditional napa kimchi as they expected it to be hotter. “That is probably why our latest variant, the fire kimchi which has the Bhoot Jolokia (dubbed to be one of the hottest in the world) added to it, has become an instant hit with customers,” he said.
Kimchi and parathas
Chef Ranveer Brar, who is known for his easy-to-make home recipes, recently released a video on veg kimchi fried rice. It was a sign of the times—the kimchi was now competing in Indian kitchens with potato curries and paratha.
There is no limit to the combinations that can be tried with kimchi, its versatility is part of its popularity.
“It can be a condiment, an ingredient and a side dish. There are so many simple everyday dishes where you can add a bit of flavour and spice just by adding kimchi,” said Gandhi.
So, fried rice can become kimchi fried rice with a dash of fermented vegetables. “Add kimchi to regular savoury pancakes makes it a completely new dish, add them to your sandwiches, eggs, salads, veggies… the list goes on,” he said.
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Same, same but different
Kimchi is a labour of love, painstakingly made by hand. The closest equivalent to kimchi on an Indian food plate would probably be the achar (Indian pickle). Although, culturally the significance of kimchi far eclipses its Indian counterpart. There is a Korean Kimchi Day, which is marked on 22 November, and the community activity of Koreans gathering to make kimchi – Kimjang – was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. Koreans have also made special kimchi fridges.
“There are about 200 kinds of kimchi according to the local produce of each region. Various flavours are embodied depending on the ingredients, the use of red pepper powder and the type of salted fish available in the region,” said 42-year-old Chef Lee, who will be visiting New Delhi in October for a culinary contest that is being organised by the South Korean embassy.
In her 10 years of living in India, Cho Eunae has never skipped making the staple food that her family of four, including two small children, eats every day.
“I usually follow the same authentic way of making kimchi when I make it in India. But sometimes, rough salt is not available, so I preserve cabbage using refined salt. That’s the only difference,” said Cho, who makes a batch of 15-kg cabbages around 3-4 times a year.
Bombucha’s USP is that their kimchi is vegan. Owner Gandhi says the only way their product strays from the traditional is they supplement fish sauce with their “own recipe” made using seaweed. “Many times, people want crunchy kimchi, the kind that is offered at Chinese restaurants, which is made using vinegar and ketchup. But we stick to the traditional method,” he said.
Is there a universal kimchi recipe?
Chef Lee, who works at the Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation, explained how a minuscule shift in the elements used in kimchi can affect its taste.
“An important part of making kimchi is cabbage and salt used for pickling. The feel of the ingredients is different from country to country because of the difference in the climate. Kimchi might end up tasting bitter rather than salty depending on the salt used to pickle the cabbage. Even the use of refined salt or sea salt makes a difference,” she said.
The time of rinsing and the process of removing moisture can also determine the taste. However, these factors are not impediments and haven’t pinned down kimchi or Korean food culture to a geographical location. It has travelled far and wide like its other cultural peers – Korean dramas, pop music and movies.
In a way, each element of the kimchi-making process becomes a window to achieve a “levelled taste”.
“Since India is a hot country, locally sourced cabbages have high moisture content, so they can be pickled with less salt. But if it is too bland, it is necessary to realise a levelled taste with an accurate recipe considering salinity, temperature, and the season when it is made,” Chef Lee said.
Back in Safdarjung, as the evening grew deeper, more and more people flocked in to try out the special Korean food menu at the dimly lit cafe. Ron seems to have found the right Kimchi recipe as he got busier in the kitchen: “When it comes to the spices, I definitely make it spicier.”
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)