The Indian Food Industry has come a long way in Korea. Long gone are the days when an Indian restaurants were a rarity in the streets of Seoul. Now an Indian restaurant can been found in practically all important streets of this great city. Among the burgeoning Indian restaurants in Seoul, one name stands apart: Dal Indian Restaurant.
In business for the past 12 years, Dal restaurant has been able to make a unique name for itself in Korean society. Considered to be the most authentic, original and pure Indian restaurant in Korea, it counts among its customers many of Korea’s top political, business and entertainment industry elite.
Recently Yong-hee Kwon sat with the general manager of the restaurants, Mr. Jeong-Hoon Hur, for an exclusive interview. Here are excerpts of the interview…
Please tell us when the first restaurant was opened here in Seoul, and why did you choose to work in Indian restaurant?
The first restaurant was opened in the early 2000s. I have worked here since its opening. I have background in Korean cooking, but since Korean and Indian cooking have many things in common it was easy for me to learn Indian cooking. Besides I had great love for Indian culture and its people. So it was natural for me to work in an Indian restaurant. I have worked here for the last 12 years.
How did the idea of opening an Indian restaurant come up?
Mrs. Hee Sung Chung who is the owner of ‘Dal’ is very interested in Indian culture. It was natural to open an Indian restaurant to promote Indian culture and cuisine in Korea. Now she has three Indian restaurants operating in Seoul.
Unlike now, in the early 2000s Indian food was not that popular in Korea. There were few Indian restaurants in Seoul back then. How difficult was it to run the restaurant in the beginning?
When we opened the restaurant we faced many problems such as difficulty with food supplies. It was hard to introduce a new menu. We had to explain about Indian food to customers at the beginning.
We have worked very hard to keep the traditional Indian touch as much as possible. The idea is not selling much Indian food but rather high quality Indian food.
We think that food is not just food, it has a culture. It has evolved over thousands of years. As I have had experience in working in an international restaurant before, I knew the nitty gritty of the foreign restaurant business in Korea already.
What is the concept behind Dal Restaurant?
The concept of Dal is ‘BAR’, or “Back Alley Restaurant”. It’s kind of a secret restaurant. As you can see there are no sign boards and bill boards of the restaurant outside in the street. Our customers visit us because of the quality of the food and not because of the advertisement and marketing. Our business concept is “one hundred percent guest satisfaction”
Dal has two meanings. Firstly it means a bean lentil curry, and secondly it means moon in the sky.
Your restaurant concept is very interesting. How did it help you to attract Koreans to Indian cuisine?
Here I would like to talk about the interior of the restaurant. We made this restaurant in an Art Nouveau style. For example the concept, like St.Familie made by Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain. Also, as I told you the restaurant is in ‘hiding’ format. But once you come in we try to give you the full India experience. So when you enter the restaurant you can see a pink color. Pink in India is a very auspicious color. It is used in marriages and other important occasions. Also, the green color is representative for the Art Nouveau style. The name of this color is Mose Green.
When you come inside, there is a water porch. Water is very sacred in India. In Korea also, we have a water well culture.
So, in the last twelve years, have you seen more and more Korean people like Indian food? Do you think Koreans now accept real Indian cuisine?
The first time when we opened the restaurant, the majority of our customers were foreigners, especially from the U.K. They came here with Korean friends. But now our customer base has changed, and the majority of our customers are local Koreans. So, yes, more and more Korean people like Indian food now and want to dine at Indian restaurants on important occasions of their lives. These days, they prefer strong spice and a spicy menu.
Your restaurant is considered to be the most authentic Indian restaurant in the whole of Korea. What is the secret behind this? How can you provide this level of quality food at such good price?
As I said before, food is a culture. Our deeper understanding of the Indian culture helped us to provide real and authentic food. Besides, we have dedicated experience and a professional team of chefs to maintain high quality standards. We are expecting one new chef expert in traditional Indian cooking from India will come shortly. Then we shall be able to provide more traditional food to our customers.
Since Indian food is becoming very popular in Korea most of the Indian spices should be available in Korea itself?
Yes. Most of the spices and ingredients can nowadays be purchased in Korea. There are many import agencies of Indian food here now. But it is hard to find fresh vegetables.
Is it easy for you to hire Indian cooks here in Korea? How many Indian cooks do you have?
No, it is not easy to hire professional and trained Indian cooks here in Korea. Currently we have four Indian cooks in our restaurant. All of them have three to five years experience here in Korea. As you know, the quality of your food depends on the quality of your chefs. So we are careful in selecting our Indian cooks.
As your Korean and Indian staff work side by side do you face any problems in coordination and management? Are there any problematic cultural differences?
There is no big problem. For our Indian staff they might need some time to adapt to Korean culture. As you know there is pretty big culture gap between Korea and India. But after they get used to it, they work well. That’s why most of the cooks in ‘Dal’ work here for a long time. We get along very well.
Earlier you told us most of your customers these days are Koreans. Specifically, are your main customers mainly young people?
Our customers come from all sections of society. It depends on days of the week. During the weekends we have families. Most customers come here with family, with grandparents and grandchildren. Three generation come to ‘Dal’ together. And during the weekdays, people in the age group of the 30’s to 50’s come here.
How do you see the future of the Indian restaurant industry in Korea?
Very bright. I think it will continuously be growing for the near future. Currently Indian restaurants capture only less than 2 percent of the total foreign restaurants market in Korea. But it has the potential to go up to 10 percent or more in the near future.
So you see a bright future of the Indian restaurant in Korea. Is there any difficulty in this industry here?
Yes. We expect that Indian restaurants will increase. More and various style of Indian cuisines will be available here. The main problem is looking for Indian cooks and getting original Indian ingredients and spices here in Korea itself.
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