Thanks to the presence of 10,000 Korean and Japanese expats, over 50 East Asian speciality restaurants are challenging the dominance of Dosai, Idli and vadai in Chennai.
By Simrit Mahli/BBC Capital
Chennai, February 12:: A decade before America discovered sushi, a restaurant in a small southern India coastal city, served sashimi from local whole tuna.
This small Japanese oasis, called Akasaka, sat behind a non-descript building on the hot, honking mess of one of Chennai’s most crowded traffic junctions.
Its private rooms and home-made barley tea were diametrically opposed to Chennai’s loud, too-busy-for-chairs ‘standing’ restaurants and fiery breakfasts of savory doughnuts dunked in spicy lentil soup.
Yet back in 1996, when it was one of the only stand-alone restaurants in the city, it was a runaway success.
“Sometimes there would be a line of people snaking out of the building’s gates onto the main road,” says Ran Takayama, who worked for the restaurant in its heyday.
“It was very popular because of the high quality of its products.”
Five years earlier, when Chennai was more of a town than a city, India had opened its market to allow Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Jayaram Jayalalithaa, then Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, came to power just as FDI was approved, and actively courted auto manufacturers.
Her efforts were rewarded. Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hyundai and Yamaha all set up factories outside Chennai. Hyundai particularly affected the city’s landscape, as 3,000 Korean employees arrived to work in the factory.
There are now approximately 10,000 expats in the city, most of them Asian. These days, the factories are all based within a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) not far from the city.
‘It was always full’
The Sriperumbudur SEZ is located 50 kilometres outside Chennai, along what is now known as the Automotive Corridor. Signs in Korean start to dot the dusty highway. There are Korean supermarkets, Japanese hotels and even one manga book store, all air-conditioned havens in the middle of south India’s extreme heat.
There’s also Arirang, the first Korean restaurant in the city, which opened 20 years ago. Jo Sanghyun, a Korean expat in his 50s, has found success in India. He moved to Chennai as an employee of a Korean company in the 1990s, and stayed to follow his passion for food. Since Arirang, he has also opened several restaurants including running the in-house Hyundai canteen.
Jo’s Korean food, including the pork bossam (aromatic boiled pork) and duck bulgogi (grilled sweet-and-spicy duck), are full of loud flavors and textures. They are somewhat reminiscent of the piquant rasams (aromatic tomato broths) and red fish curries favored in this part of South India. As locals took to his food, Jo became a culinary pioneer in the city.
“In Seoul was one of my early restaurants that really introduced Korean food to Indians,” he remembers.
“It was in the center of the city and always full. Lots of Indians came there.”
As Tamil Nadu has grown to become one of the top 10 automobile hubs in the world, the effect of the influx from Northeast Asia on the ‘Detroit of India’ has surged, too.
Soju, a Korean spirit, is available in the state-designated alcohol shops, and K-Pop contests are now increasingly popular with the young. Kuuraku, a Japanese restaurant chain that specializes in yakitori (grilled chicken), just opened its first branch in the city.
About 50 restaurants serve Japanese or Korean food in Chennai, employing at least 1,000 local people. The Japanese outposts tend to be more upmarket, but there’s a lot of overlap: some Koreans run Japanese restaurants, and several places serve both cuisines.
There are still thousands of regional restaurants around the city serving local cuisine. (A spicy deep-fried chicken dish called Chicken 65 won Chennai a place on National Geographic’s list of top 10 foodiecities in 2015.)
Yet Ameeta Agnihotri, a food critic for one of India’s leading newspapers and a local Chennaiite, thinks the new arrivals “have made a lasting impact on our culinary landscape”.
“Chennai is a small city in India, so people are always surprised to know how well informed we are about traditional Japanese and Korean food,” she says.
Foreign chains like McDonalds have a hard time competing with Chennai’s home-grown fast-food culture of steamed rice cakes and pancakes. But Korean and Japanese restaurants continue to flourish alongside native local cuisine, cementing the city’s foothold in India’s growing ‘foodie boom’.
“With the influx of returning expatriate Indians and visiting NRI [non-residents Indian] populations, Chennai’s food scene is growing very fast,” says Rati Shetty, a Chennai resident who is also the CPO of her own financial services company.
“Now you can get tempura or sushi delivered to your desk in the office and bubble tea is available in most local teashops.”
“Most people have some miso paste, if not soya sauce, in their homes, available at the many Asian supermarkets in the city now. It is a sign of the market’s appetite, logistics and a more open and evolving society in terms of food and culinary expectations,” she says.
There are even signs of a South Indian/East Asian fusion taste evolving: many of the Japanese restaurants that are owned and run by Indians tweak their food to make it more palatable for local people – a kind of spicy Japanese hybrid cuisine.
There is less cross-over with Korean food. Jo says there are at least 20 Korean dining spots in Sriperumbudur known only to the Korean community.
This is because many expats moved out of the city after the SEZ opened to take advantage of the apartment buildings and supermarkets that sprung up around it. Yet their staff are Indian – which means a growing body of local residents are well aware of Korean cuisine.
Girish and L.T. Lepsa met working at Jo’s Arirang in 1998. After decades in the business, the two friends started a Korean restaurant of their own, New Seoul Hotels, which is the city’s first owned solely by Indians.
Girish started out as a waiter at Arirang, and Lepsa worked in the kitchen. But the businessmen who come to eat at New Seoul Hotels are from a very different socio-economic world.
After four years in business, the restaurant has a loyal Korean clientele and Indian customers are increasing.
“They now make up at least 10% of all our customers and many of them are businessmen,” says Girish.
“They are quite knowledgeable about Korean food and seem to have experience with the food from working with Koreans.”
In a nation where economic inequality is striking, that local residents from such different backgrounds come together over Korean food is a sign of the significant and evolving impact of Chennai’s car-making foreign residents.
( The featured image at the top shows Korean dishes in New Seoul Hotel in Chennai)