We’re in a basement restaurant of the Seoul Finance Centre.
Every table is occupied by South Koreans tearing naan — a staple in the home of the country’s best-known statesman Ban Ki-moon.
If you take a two-hour flight north of Seoul to Beijing, capital of India’s largest trade partner China, you won’t find an Indian eatery pack such a crowd. An Indian presence is emerging on every major street of the Asian tiger best known for K-pop, kimchi, (pickled cabbage) smartphones and the missiles aimed from its belligerent Northern half.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t know what is tandoori chicken,’’ says Seoul-based journalist Sang-hun Choe.
“Now, it’s everywhere.’’ I spotted the Agra, Mughal and Taj crammed between cafes selling five-dollar grain latte in a gritty neighbourhood housing the US garrison (and Hooker’s Hill).
Chennai native Shanthi Prince, CEO of four Chakraa restaurants, began outsourcing curries from her kitchen a decade ago.
Her business was born on the subway when Indian techies in Samsung complained of hunger pangs. South Korea has 7,500 NRIs though it’s not like a Singapore with its own Little India.
The Indian Chamber of Commerce in Korea opened last year. Asked to name the main barrier to expanding ties, the chamber’s secretary-general Kook Hyun Chang gave a simple answer. “We need more information on India,’’ said Chang. He made an example of the Incredible India branding campaign. Young South Koreans who watched the video were left confused by the sheer diversity.
Tagore for techies
Kim Yang-shik, 81, was preparing to tour India when we met in the only Indian art museum in the country, a year-old exhibit of her art and music instruments. “I wept tears of joy when I first landed in Delhi,’’ said Kim. The president of the 60-member Tagore Society began writing poetry after reading Crescent Moon as a child. Seoul’s latest Indian symbol is a bust of Rabindranath Tagore who is revered for his poem predicting the return of Korea’s golden age.
South Korean women learn kathak at the India culture centre launched last year. “We get many inquiries about yoga, kathak and Hindi classes”, said Banu Prakash, the centre’s director.
Robert Koehler, editor of Seoul Selection magazine put it like this. “Until recently, there was a family crisis if a child wanted to be anything other than a doctor or lawyer.” For a second, I presumed he was discussing the great Indian family.