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Dine like a Korean king



The wonderful spread at Soo Ra Sang — Photo: Murali Kumar K.

KOREA isn't exactly Bangalore's flavour of the moment. That's why it's startling when a charming South Korean lady with a doctorate in Sanskrit from Chennai set up Soo Ra Sang (which translates to "king's dinner table") in Koramangala in early August.

All around the sunny restaurant with wrought iron furniture, Dr. Eom Hie Yong has scattered artefacts from her homeland. These include a wooden rice store, paper lampshades with Korean calligraphy, a porcelain tea ceremony set, and even heirloom masks. This muted visual feast allows diners to focus on the little-known cuisine, served without subservience to western culinary diktats of soup-starter-courses-dessert.

A cold towel greets us, a fresh approach to lunch or dinner (12 noon to 3 p.m., 7 to 10.30 p.m.). A complimentary bowl of savoury, carrot-speckled, rice porridge follows, along with Jeon, a maida pancake with juliennes of carrot and cucumber. These tease the taste-buds while your selection is being cooked.

In a stone bowl

We try dol soth bee bim, piping hot in a dark stone bowl, its vegetables and rice topped with a fried egg. We squint at it in puzzlement. Eom deftly tosses the egg into the delectable dish, whose stone-roasted fragrant grains can be teamed with a clear broth or over a dozen side dishes. These include irresistible fried seaweed with sesame, spinach greens, thinly-sliced omelette, and traditional kimchis of cabbage, radish and gherkin, each freshly spiced by hand. Other main course options include thak'han marrie (soup of a full chicken), nok too bin de thok (sprouted green gram spread with seafood/ meat/ kimchi).

The expats

As Eom chats, a clearer picture of Korean fare emerges. Her enterprise came to life in response to the 250-plus Korean students and professionals now based in Bangalore. She was keen to initiate local guests into Korean dining (with chopsticks, forks and spoons), without concession to western etiquette. The cuisine's basic flavours draw upon soya sauce, red chilli paste, and soya bean paste. The preferred Korean cooking medium is roasted sesame oil. Most of the rice or noodle dishes (priced between Rs. 250 and Rs. 300) offer a single generous serving, while the more daring festive fare comes in medium or large servings (Rs. 400 to Rs. 550), adequate for two or three diners. Eom serves beef (remember the famed boll go gi?) and pork only to Koreans or locals on request. Plentiful vegetarian options appear on the menu.

A wok soon appears at our table, atop a single-burner stove. It is filled with chicken, diced potato and carrot, with a chilli-hot paste over it. Eom efficiently stirs it into a fragrant, hearty curry or thak dori thang. Each bite unleashes crunchy natural flavours, as we help ourselves to tidbits from the little bowls around our rimmed, saucer-sized plates. That's the way a Korean family would dine. Minutes later, Eom tosses basmati rice and seaweed into the chicken gravy. It is rich, quite delicious. Koreans would get a sticky rice equivalent, she stresses.

Because she is unable to rustle up the beef boll go gi at short notice, Eom offers a boiled chicken variant, while insisting that barbequing enhances the dish. It is tender, delicately redolent of light soya sauce and ginger. Other unusual dishes on offer include al thang (a fish roe soup) and bee bim guk soo (chilled noodle with hot pepper paste).

We choose not to seat ourselves at the low Korean table with cushion seats and a built-in barbeque. Throughout the meal, we sip on an unusual water boiled for five hours or more with fried corn.

Do Koreans normally have dessert? No. But Eom gives us a bowl full of the old-style cooling summer drink for the elderly (who spurn synthetic fizzy stuff). It is a sugared water rich with cinnamon, ginger, and pepper. Utterly refreshing.

Call Soo Ra Sang on 5130-3435 or 98801-49611 for reservations. It's at 1, Kathalipalya, 6th Cross, 6th Block, Koramangala.

ADITI DE

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