Not a week goes by for New Delhi-based event planner Neha Sharma without her ordering Korean food in from a restaurant or rustling it up in her kitchen. The 28-year-old attributes her food obsession to the Korean dramas she’s been bingeing while working from home during the pandemic. “I ended up watching a lot of Korean content on Netflix where food is always a highlight. The characters bond over food, cook it and have so much fun assembling dishes in big brass bowls, which makes you want to eat them instantly,” she says with a laugh. What Sharma particularly relishes is bibimbap, a dish that features in two of her favourite Korean shows: Strong Woman Do Bong Soon and My Lovely Sam Soon. “It is a yummy dish made from sticky rice and topped with meat, spinach, carrots, bean sprouts and kimchi. Everything is combined with sesame oil and spicy red pepper paste called gochujang,” she says. “I loved its look so much that I learnt to make it from a YouTube video and now often invite my friends over to enjoy it with them.” Different ingredients, new techniques add spice to Indian cuisine There are hundreds of Indians like Sharma for whom Korean food has proved invaluable over the long pandemic months. Experts attribute this to the influence of Korean culture through K-dramas, K-pop, the availability of Korean fashion and skincare products, as well as a burgeoning number of online Korean food stores selling Korean noodles , spices, pastes and meats. According to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry of India, there has been a dramatic rise in the consumption of Korean food in India after the 2020 lockdown, with Korean noodles alone witnessing a growth of 162 per cent in terms of volume in 2020 and 178 per cent in 2021. Mumbai-based engineer Pankaj Aggarwal, 38, says what appeals to him most about Korean food is that it encourages communitarian dining in a world where people are increasingly lonely and crave company. “That’s why my favourite are the Korean barbecues . They’re not just a meal but a fabulous way to connect with your near and dear ones. They’re especially great for Indian joint families where three generations often live together under the same roof, but don’t find time to eat together due to their busy schedules.” Fuelling the craze for Korean cuisine in India further is an explosion of Korean stand-alone eateries in cities like Chennai, Delhi , Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai. Owners of Korean speciality food outlets like Daily Sushi in Bangalore, and Sibang and Hahn’s Kitchen in Gurugram, a satellite town bordering Delhi, say their customers have grown exponentially in recent years. “We’ve seen our number of customers spiral upwards with the fame of K-dramas in India,” says Anurag Rouniyar of Seoul Restaurant in New Delhi, who co-owns the award-winning eatery with South Korean national Rani Lee. “Most of the customers that we get at our restaurant are youngsters – college students who particularly love our noodles and ramen.” Both Indian and Korean incorporate many similar ingredients … dishes like kimchi are very similar to flavour-charged Indian pickles which work well for Indian palates that crave heat and spice Akshay Bhardwaj, head chef at Andaz Hotel, Delhi The restaurateur adds that Korean food is promoted so beautifully through its movies that it’s been a big influence on young Indian consumers, especially those who are buying all sorts of Korean products. “So great has been the demand for our restaurant’s food that during the pandemic, our buyer profile changed completely. From the pre-pandemic era, when we had mostly Korean expats coming in, the ratio has now changed to 70 per cent Indians and 30 per cent Koreans.” Other Korean eateries report a similar surge in business. “Footfalls at our eatery are even better than pre-pandemic levels and we’re currently operating a full house on most days,” says Neha Bajaj, manager at Master Koii’s, a three-year-old Korean restaurant in Gurugram. “On weekends, reservations are a must, or else you have to wait for a long time,” The restaurant’s most popular dishes are Bibimbap , crunchy Korean chicken and bulgogi (grilled beef). According to leading Indian chefs, another reason why Indians have taken so well to Korean food is that it ticks all the boxes of flavour, taste and texture for them. “Both Indian and Korean incorporate many similar ingredients like rice, vegetables, meat, chilli, pepper and spices,” explains Akshay Bhardwaj, head chef at Andaz Hotel, New Delhi. “Also, dishes like kimchi are very similar to flavour-charged Indian pickles which work well for Indian palates that crave heat and spice.” In addition, adds Bhardwaj, increasing exposure to global cuisine and a peripatetic lifestyle among Indians is making them far more experimental with food. “The Indian foodscape had been dominated for decades by Chinese and Japanese cuisines. But Indians are now ready for newer tastes, so Korean is offering them a fresh and novel alternative. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life,” he says. According to Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, culinary director of three multicuisine restaurants across India, Indians have now pivoted to idolising Korean pop stars and celebrities from American ones, which has also contributed to the growing popularity of the country’s food. “We want to experience these new idols’ culture through their food. For as much as we enjoy continental and other types of food, Korean is the only one that offers so many similarities with Indian cuisine, including its inventive and predominant use of chillies ,” says Gorai. In Korea, everything from noodles to sauces to pastes has an overtone of chillies which not only adds character to the dishes but appeals greatly to Indian taste buds, he adds. Market players say that easier access to Korean ingredients has also played a pivotal role in the popularity of Korean cuisine. A representative of Korikart, an India-based online marketplace for imported Korean products that launched in 2018, said the company has been reporting a 40 per cent growth month-on-month since March 2020. Korikart’s success has spurred other Korean brands to break into the Indian market. Popular Korean noodle brands Nong Shim and Samyang are currently targeting tier 1 Indian cities because of increasing demand and customer awareness. Korean noodles are also being sold across big e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and Big Basket. South Korean packaged food giant Orion is also betting big on India. In 2021, the company announced an investment of US$26 million in a manufacturing facility in India’s western state of Rajasthan and is looking to scale up its India business through distribution expansion. The company’s India portfolio comprises Choco-pie, O’Rice cracker and Custas Cup Cake. Given the Indian appetite for Korean food, fast-food restaurants are also jumping on the bandwagon. McDonald’s introduced themed meals in South and West India to celebrate K-pop boy band BTS as part of its global campaign . The company has also launched exclusive BTS X McDonald’s merchandise on the Weverse shop app – a Korean mobile app that allows users to engage with music bands and artists. The goodies include hoodies, bathrobes, socks and sandals.