Whenever heading out for a night in PNU, I usually suggest dinner at Wazwan to my cohorts. Much to my surprise, many of my friends, even those who claim a Busan-dae zip code, don’t even know it exists. I often get to bring along newbies, which allows me the privilege of seeing the look on a dinner companion’s face when they take the first bite of their Samosa or lick the spoon after the last bite of Palak Paneer.
My first experience in the place that is now one of my staples wasn’t a pleasant one. Nearly three years ago, a friend had heard about the opening of a new spot called “Indian Village,” and a gang of us ascended the stairs into a gaudy lair that had rows of movie theater seats in lieu of chairs. The food wound up being as unappealing as the décor. I crossed Indian Village off my list at about the same time that Ali Shawkat added it to his…to purchase.
Mr. Shawkat moved to Seoul in September 2002 to open a textile business with his brother. Several years later, he endeavored to bring the traditional cuisine of his home to Korea. When I learned he was from Pakistan, I threw out the obvious line of questioning. His reply, “Though our countries were separated by politics, Pakistan and India share the same culture, the same food. And people can identify Indian food.” Ali knew that the only way to do this right was not only by importing the right ingredients, but also by importing a proper chef. “Sure, I can cook the foods I grew up with – but I am not a professional. I cannot do it as well as someone with training.”
Mr. Shawkat wasn’t the only one who sought a chef with credentials. According to him, Korean immigration laws require ten years of professional experience in order for a foreign chef to secure a work visa in Korea. With an authentic Indian chef on board, the first Wazwan made its debut in Itaewon during August of 2006.
When Ali moved to Busan to open a second location two years later, he hired Kirti Singh, and soon after, his brother-in-law, Pratab Singh. Not only did the both of them hold the requisite experience, (Kirti has cooked in Germany, Tokyo and Dubai; Pratab in Thailand and Singapore) but they hail from a New Delhi family whose ‘thing’ is to cook Indian food abroad. There are brothers and cousins sprinkled around the globe, serving up authentic Indian fare.
When asked what their personal specialties were, Kirti and Pratab engaged in a lengthy and serious discussion in a language I didn’t understand. After a minute or two, Ali turned to me and simply said, “Everything is special. And everything is common.” It was reminiscent of that scene with the director in Lost in Translation.
It is apparent that the cooks put a lot of love into their food – from the texture, flavor, and down to the very vessels they are served in, each dish rings true to its intent. With a vast selection ranging from an above standard Chicken Masala to a tangy Alu Gobi (potato and cauliflower curry) to tender Kadhai Gosht (lamb with capsicum and onions) to the variety of Biryanis (rice dishes), you will find yourself needing extra orders of the perfectly fired Garlic Nan to sop it all up with.
An added bonus is that Wazwan is vegetarian (and vegan) friendly, a rare find in this meat loving country. But for the booze loving expat community, be forewarned that Wazwan does not serve alcohol. However, they will allow you to bring in your own wine and they will provide the glasses. In that respect, Wazwan certainly lives up to its name — which means ‘red carpet’ hospitality. Make sure you top the meal off with a cup of Chai. It is not to be missed.
Getting there: Walk from McDonald’s going towards the PNU Gate. Turn left into the alley at the Baskin Robbins. 051-517-1947