Exploring Paharganj is like entering a kitschy bubble full of backpackers’ hostels, Hebrew bookshops and shabby eateries which offer croissants to Europeans and hummus-pita to Israelis. From Lasagna Verde to Chateaubriand Steak (rare, medium, or well done), delicacies are priced cheaper here than in the peppy restaurants in Defence Colony and Vasant Vihar. Most of this food is prepared by Nepali cooks who have picked foreign recipes from tourists homesick enough to teach their cuisine to the daal-bhaat professionals. Some such ageing hippies opened their own joints—the owner of Dokebi Nara, a Korean restaurant, is perhaps one of them.
This little place, accessible only by foot through narrow streets and rickety staircases, was an accidental discovery. Like a smuggler’s den, the mood at Dokebi Nara was suffused with mystery. Chinese-style lamps shone faintly on the backs of the metal chairs. There was no air-conditioning, no fan, only warm, fetid air coming up from below. The diners were silhouetted in darkness. Behind a bookshelf, stuffed with Korean paperbacks, sat the owner busy playing a card game on his laptop. He had long strands of soft hair jutting out from his chin. He exchanged my greetings with a miffed silence. I decided to call him Kim Jong-il, after the elusive North Korean dictator.
The unfriendly steward asked disbelievingly if I really wanted to have Korean food. I nodded, spotting an empty table. Several hostile eyes peered at me. There was only one menu in English on which was boldly printed—“We make the food with mineral water.” The most expensive dish was priced at a mere Rs150. Glancing through the list—Kimchibokumbab, Soojaebi, Jeyook Bokkum and Yachebokkum—I ordered the first one.
Everyone looked Korean. On the next table, loutish boys roasted fish on a hot plate. Their bare-chested dress code and loud hee-haws conjured up images of what I imagined would be Seoul’s low life. Soon a hip young couple joined me. They started smooching as soon as they seated themselves. Haa Kumi was travelling in India with boyfriend Kim Gabdol. She conversed in broken English, while Kim smoked Shim Te cigarettes. They were not pleased with Delhi, but liked Dokebi Nara, which they had first heard of in Seoul.
“The food is like back home.” Kim said. “But kimchi is strange.” Kimchi, a fermented vegetable and fish relish, is eaten with every Korean meal. They complained there was no Chinese cabbage in it and that it was not spicy enough.
Haa glanced eagerly when my Kimchibokumbab arrived. It was fried rice tossed in Kimchi with a sunny-side-up egg. I clumsily picked the steel chopsticks as the couple suspended their lip-locking to observe me. Even Mr Jong-il stared anxiously as I concentrated on the sticks. Ah, it was something new for my taste buds. Kim tried some rice and declared it similar to his mother’s cooking.
The grains were sticky and soft, he said, and a little sweet. It seemed unreal that I was savouring authentic Korean home-cooking in a discreet Paharganj shack. That the eccentric owner appeared hostile to non-Koreans, adding to the thrill. Of course, the best thing was the price.
While leaving, curious about his life story, I requested Mr Jong-il for an interview. “I don’t understand English,” he said, in perfect English.
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