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When carmakers built factories in Chennai, India, they brought cuisine that is changing the culinary landscape.

  • By Simrit Malhi
12 February 2019

A decade before America discovered sushi, a restaurant in a small southern India coastal city, served sashimi from local whole tuna. This small Japanese oasis, called Akasaka, sat behind a non-descript building on the hot, honking mess of one of Chennai’s most crowded traffic junctions.

Its private rooms and home-made barley teawere diametrically opposed to Chennai’s loud, too-busy-for-chairs ‘standing’ restaurants and fiery breakfasts of savoury doughnuts dunked in spicy lentil soup. Yet back in 1996, when it was one of the only stand-alone restaurants in the city, it was a runaway success.  

“Sometimes there would be a line of people snaking out of the building’s gates onto the main road,” says Ran Takayama, who worked for the restaurant in its heyday. “It was very popular because of the high quality of its produce.”

Hyundai particularly affected the Chennai’s landscape when 3,000 Korean employees arrived to work in the factory

Five years earlier, when Chennai was more of a town than a city, India had opened its market to allow foreign direct investment (FDI). Jayaram Jayalalithaa, then chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, came to power just as FDI was approved, and actively courted auto manufacturers.

Her efforts were rewarded. Mitsubishi, Nissan, Hyundai and Yamaha all set up factories outside Chennai. Hyundai particularly affected the city’s landscape, as 3,000 Korean employees arrived to work in the factory.

There are now approximately 10,000 expats in the city, most of them Asian. These days, the factories are all based within a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) not far from the city.  

‘It was always full’

The Sriperumbudur SEZ is located 50 kilometres outside Chennai, along what is now known as the Automotive Corridor. Signs in Korean start to dot the dusty highway. There are Korean supermarkets, Japanese hotels and even one manga book store, all air-conditioned havens in the middle of south India’s extreme heat.

There’s also Arirang, the first Korean restaurant in the city, which opened 20 years ago. Jo Sanghyun, a Korean expat in his 50s, has found success in India. He moved to Chennai as an employee of a Korean company in the 1990s, and stayed to follow his passion for food. Since Arirang, he has also opened several restaurants including running the in-house Hyundai canteen.

(Credit: Alamy)

A Tamil Nadu-based Hyundai had a big impact on the Chennai’s landscape, as 3,000 Korean employees arrived to work in the factory (Credit: Alamy)

Jo’s Korean food, including the pork bossam (aromatic boiled pork) and duck bulgogi (grilled sweet-and-spicy duck), are full of loud flavours and textures. They are somewhat reminiscent of the piquant rasams (aromatic tomato broths) and red fish curries favoured in this part of the south.

As locals took to his food, Jo became a culinary pioneer in the city.

“InSeoul was one of my early restaurants that really introduced Korean food to Indians,” he remembers. “It was in the center of the city and always full. Lots of Indians came there.”  

As Tamil Nadu has grown to become one of the top 10 automobile hubs in the world, the effect of the influx from Northeast Asia on the ‘Detroit of India has surged, too.

Soju, a Korean spirit, is available in the state-designated alcohol shops, and K-Pop contests are now increasingly popular with the young. Kuuraku, a Japanese restaurant chain that specialises in yakitori (grilled chicken), just opened its first branch in the city.

About 50 restaurants serve Japanese or Korean food in Chennai, employing at least 1,000 local people. The Japanese outposts tend to be more upmarket, but there’s a lot of overlap: some Koreans run Japanese restaurants, and several places serve both cuisines.

About 50 restaurants serve Japanese or Korean food in Chennai, employing at least 1,000 local people

There are still thousands of regional restaurants around the city serving local cuisine. (A spicy deep-fried chicken dish called Chicken 65 won Chennai a place on National Geographic’s list of top 10 foodiecities in 2015.) Yet Ameeta Agnihotri, a food critic for one of India’s leading newspapers and a local Chennaiite, thinks the new arrivals “have made a lasting impact on our culinary landscape”.

“Chennai is a small city in India, so people are always surprised to know how well informed we are about traditional Japanese and Korean food,” she says.  

Fusion future?

Foreign chains like McDonalds have a hard time competitng with Chennai’s home-grown fast-food culture of steamed rice cakes and pancakes.

But Korean and Japanese restaurants continue to flourish alongside native local cuisine, cementing the city’s foothold in India’s growing ‘foodie boom’.

“With the influx of returning expatriate Indians and visiting NRI [non-residents Indian] populations, Chennai’s food scene is growing very fast,” says Rati Shetty, a Chennai resident who is also the CPO of her own financial services company. “Now you can get tempura or sushi delivered to your desk in the office and bubble tea is available in most local teashops.”

“Most people have some miso paste, if not soya sauce, in their homes, available at the many Asian supermarkets in the city now. It is a sign of the market's appetite, logistics and a more open and evolving society in terms of food and culinary expectations,” she says.


(Credit: New Seoul Hotels)

Korean and Japanese menus from New Seoul Hotels in Chennai (Credit: New Seoul Hotels)

There are even signs of a South Indian/East Asian fusion taste evolving: many of the Japanese restaurants that are owned and run by Indians tweak their food to make it more palatable for local people – a kind of spicy Japanese hybrid cusine.

There is less cross-over with Korean food. Jo says there are at least 20 Korean dining spots in Sriperumbudur known only to the Korean community. This is because many expats moved out of the city after the SEZ opened to take advantage of the apartment buildings and supermarkets that sprung up around it. Yet their staff are Indian – which means a growing body of local residents are well aware of Korean cuisine.  

Girish and L.T. Lepsa met working at Jo’s Arirang in 1998. After decades in the business, the two friends started a Korean restaurant of their own, New Seoul Hotels, which is the city’s first owned solely by Indians. Girish started out as a waiter at Arirang, and Lepsa worked in the kitchen.

But the businessmen who come to eat at New Seoul Hotels are from a very different socio-economic world.

After four years in business, the restaurant has a loyal Korean clientele and Indian customers are increasing. “They now make up at least 10% of all our customers and many of them are businessmen,” says Girish. “They are quite knowledgeable about Korean food and seem to have experience with the food from working with Koreans.”

In a nation where economic inequality is striking, that local residents from such different backgrounds come together over Korean food is a sign of the significant and evolving impact of Chennai’s car-making foreign residents.


Ishita Feb 12 · Comments: 6 · Tags: chennai, chennai food, chennai restaurants

I just signed the petition "Hon'ble Minister for Finance: Exempt Senior Citizen Medical Insurance Policy from GST" and wanted to see if you could help by adding your name.

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Taxing the highest rate of 18% on senior citizen’ medical insurance policy premium appears to be punitive. This needs to be waived as most senior citizens are living on meagre pensions and low yielding bank deposits. Pease support the appeal and spread the appeal for more support.


RSMani Nov 15 '18 · Comments: 5
In the old Verdurez there was a suggestion that spirulina and Triphala Churnam will mitigate diabetes. I did a monitored study on my driver. I have to report that there was no effect with the regimen. He is continuing with it for some more time till the supplies last. Has anybody else tried this? With the widespread prevalence of diabetes, a simpler procedure like this would help many.
AVRamani May 6 '18 · Comments: 5
A friend sent this puzzle:

A family I know has several children. Each boy in this family has as many sisters as brothers but each girl has twice as many brothers as sisters. How many brothers and sisters are there?

I know it is trivial. Still as they say in Telugu ‘ Poyindemitti?’ Meaning what is lost?
AVRamani Oct 29 '18 · Comments: 3 · Tags: puzzle
Geetha, our son Krishna, my brother in law Sundaram and I went to see the Hampi Ruins. We added three ruins to them for four days.

A short travel journal can be seen here:


AVRamani Sep 25 '18 · Comments: 3 · Tags: travelogue

WIFE: Honey let's play a game

HUSBAND: Okay. What's the game about?

WIFE: If I mention a country, you run to the left side of the room and touch the wall & if I mention a bird, you run to the right side of the room and touch the wall. If you run to the wrong direction, you'll give me all your salary for this month

HUSBAND: Okay! And if you fail in your turn, I'll have your salary too right?

WIFE: (smiles) Yes darling!

HUSBAND: Okay (stands up ready to run in any direction)

Wife: are you ready

Husband: Yes ready


Its been 4 HOURS NOW... 

The husband is still standing at the spot wondering if she meant the Country or the bird

RamaniSankaranarayan49 Jun 29 '18 · Rate: 5 · Comments: 3
My dear Verduriens.....


I come yesterday after a very long break due to some personal difficulties.....Glad to meet you all again. But here everything has been changed...As it is new for me it may take some time to digest. Ok from now onwards I am one of you I will chat , read and write anything  with you. I started to place my saw upon you....I think you all will accept me.... 

I am so sorry ...First of all I have to thank our ISHITA for giving me this veryrare opportunity for me. Thank you all'''

RamaniSankaranarayan49 Jun 6 '18 · Comments: 3

I had earlier posted a travelogue on a visit to Hampi. We were staying in a resort called Hampi Boulders. The owners were fanatics about environment. They had maintained and enhanced the sylvan surroundings. Near this resort is the Kishkinta of Ramayana. Vali vadha took place here. Hanuman was born here. A lot of rhesus monkeys still abound here. The resort owners leave all the wild animals be.

A short travelogue adjunct to the one on the Hampi ruins can be seen here:


AVRamani Oct 17 '18 · Comments: 2
I made my first trip with friends from Verdurez last October to Bhutan.  It was just a short trip but during that time somehow the lot of us from across the country ended up feeling close and like family.  One couple who stood out in the group were Lalitha and Kalyan, coming up with some group games and talks and Lalitha ready to help with anyone going broke on shopping!!   

So this morning, when we received a message on Whatsapp that our Dear Kalyan had suddenly passed away, we had a dull ache in our hearts.  So sudden and it was all over.  I would personally like to tell our sister Lalitha that our prayers and thoughts go out to her and may God bless her with the courage to bear with her terrible loss.  With such an excellent companion, I am sure this will be hard.  All I can say is that time heals.

This is a picture I took of Kalyan when he was fooling around and making us laugh.  What a lovely background.  

Maria Fatima Pais

FatimaPais May 7 '18 · Comments: 2

Be True to Yourself

It's easy to get caught up in a world in which our attention is focused on everybody and everything else but ourselves. We are often told to be kind, to love, and to speak the truth. Yet, while it is right for us to do so, we are rarely ever told to be true to who we are, to protect ourselves. These valuable life lessons ensure that in doing the right thing, we do not sacrifice who we truly are. 

 Words of inspiration Words of inspiration

Words of inspiration Words of inspiration Words of inspiration Words of inspiration Words of inspiration

Words of inspiration
 Words of inspiration Words of inspiration

KGRD May 5 '18 · Comments: 2
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