At Seoul Store in Saidapet, the first thing that catches your eye when you walk in are shelves of Maxim coffee. The bright yellow boxes that have coffee premix sticks are a K-drama staple; Song Joong-ki as Vincenzo in the 2021 show of the same name, downs cups of Maxim coffee and memorably proclaims that he will never forget the aroma of the drink .
“Our Indian customers here prefer the Mocha Gold Mild variant. Most of them come asking for Maxim after having seen it on K-dramas,” says Tamil, a salesperson who shows me around the store.
With the meteoric rise of the Hallyu or Korean Wave that encompasses Korean popular culture, especially over the last few years, there is a demand like never before for Korean snacks, food, and even ingredients. In Chennai’s Korean supermarkets, there is something for everyone — be it their regular Korean clientele, or those from Chennai wanting to get a taste of South Korea, one snack at a time.
“Many of our customers from the city come wanting to buy chopsticks and practise eating ramyeon with it at home, and to stock up on Maxim Coffee and BTS Coffee. Yakult ice cream is also a favourite,” says Anu Mahesh, marketing director, Seoul Store. Chestnut Ice bars, Muscat Grape Ice bars, Corn Ice bars — ice creams that are shaped like a corn cob are new additions to their packed ice cream freezers.
Research and recipes
With a presence in Chennai for over 15 years now, Anu says she has seen an increase in customers coming in to buy things they have seen on shows, and on YouTube videos which include ‘Mukbang’, or eating videos. “Most of them come in having researched well about what they want, and even call in from different parts of the State asking for products they have seen or heard about,” she says.
Ramyeon variants aside, there are many interesting snacks in Korean stores in the city that people can try. At the store. Tamil holds up Nongshim shrimp and squid-flavoured crackers, cans of Bong Bong grape pulp juice, Orion rice crackers, and small bottles of Ginseng root drink, a product much advertised on K-dramas.
“Our customers see videos on how to make dishes like Kimbap, and come here to buy sticky rice, seaweed sheets, kimchi, and other ingredients. We also have frozen mackerel, cuttlefish, squid pickle, and salted shrimps — all of which are imported and used in making Korean dishes,” she says.
At SeelaMart in Adyar, I immediately spot small posters of BTS, NewJeans, and IVE on their glass wall near the entrance. Similar photos of these South Korean music groups dot the walls around the store, and not too far away, actor Park Seo-joon’s smiling face is plastered all over the packaging of Bibigo’s roasted seaweed flakes with Korean-style soy sauce.
Vijaylakshmi Govindaraj, SeelaMart’s Chennai store manager, says she sees fathers buying Korean snacks for their children, students from the nearby schools and colleges , and Korean families who have made the city their home, all come to the store. Many customers, she says, aren’t from the neighbourhood and don’t mind travelling long distances to shop.
“We’ve had customers even ask us how to make Tteokbokki, and what ingredients to buy for the same. Ready-to-eat versions of several Korean dishes such as pancake mixes, fish cake soups, and Tteokbokki are favourites here too,” she says.
Given the number of new arrivals at frequent intervals, the staff at the store are required to try them out once, introduce the product, and explain its taste to the customers. “For instance, Korean diets are governed by seasons and I encourage our customers to try out honey citron tea we have available here in the winter months,” Vijayalakshmi says.
The store also stocks cosmetics, given the increasing demand for it. Tables and chairs in front of the store are to encourage customers to sit there and eat some snacks, and there are plans to make it a space where people can pick up some instant ramyeon and enjoy it at the store.
Some go-to staples including ramyeon, kimchi, rice crackers, gochujang, and coffee premixes are also stocked at Sakura Fuji Mart in Kaveri Plaza at Nungambakkam. Seoul Store’s smaller branch nearby too have these, in addition to more snacks and ice cream.
“People are not just consuming Korean entertainment, but want to be exposed to every part of the culture,” says Sanjay Ramjhi, founder of The K-Wave India , a Hallyu and Korean culture community based in Chennai. “The Hallyu wave has meant an ever increasing interest in Korean food and cosmetics, and over the last few years, there has been a definite uptick in the variety of products available here,” he adds.
Sanjay recalls how when he went to SeelaMart in Adyar after it opened earlier this year, he spotted a middle-aged couple confidently buying ingredients to make Tteokbokki, and a host of other snacks.
“They probably knew of all this owing to either them or their children being consumers of Korean entertainment. Even up until five years ago, I would feel excited if I chanced upon a packet of Shin Ramyun in my local supermarket whereas now, I’m thrilled to see shelves dedicated to this,” he says.