South Korea, Day 1, Lunch

Glowing charcoal in a stove in the middle of the table, with a venting pipe above. Banchan dishes of pickled scallions, seaweed, radish, cucumbers and kimchi are around.

You may think Samsung or Hyundai are some of South Korea’s biggest exports. But, you’re wrong: It’s barbecue or “Gogi-gui” (meat roast).

The term Korean barbecue is the “Korean” method of roasting meat, typically beef, pork, and such dishes are often prepared at the diner table on gas or charcoal grills, built into the table itself. Some Korean restaurants that do not have built-in grills provide customers with portable stoves for diners to use at their tables.

The most representative form of gogigui is Bulgogi, usually made from thinly sliced marinated beef sirloin or tenderloin. Another popular form is Galbi, made from marinated beef short ribs. However, gogigui also includes many other kinds of marinated and unmarinated meat dishes and can be divided into several categories. Korean barbecue is popular among Koreans but has also gained popularity worldwide.

Bulgogi is the most popular variety of Korean barbecue. Before cooking, the meat is marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and pepper. It is traditionally cooked using gridirons or perforated dome griddles that sit on braziers, but pan cooking has become common as well (don’t be coaxed into a pan-cooked bulgogi dish though. It is a mere shell of the glory that is actual roasted meat).

Galbi is made with beef short ribs, marinated in a sauce that may contain soy sauce, water, garlic, sugar, and sliced onions. It is believed to taste best when grilled with charcoal or soot (숯, burned wood chips).

Jumulleok is short steak marinated with sesame oil, salt, and pepper. It is almost similar to unmarinated gogigui and one thing that distinguishes it from other kinds is its steak-like juicy texture. Spicy pork daeji bulgogi is also a popular gogigui dish. It is different from beef bulgogi in that the marinade is not soy sauce-based, but instead, is marinated in sauces based on gochujang and/or gochu garu (Korean chili powder).

Gogigui comes with various Banchan (side dishes). A green onion salad called pajeori and a fresh vegetable dish including lettuce, cucumbers, and peppers invariably accompany the meat dishes at restaurants. A popular way of eating Korean barbecue is to wrap the meat with lettuce and add condiments such as – pajoeri (spicy scallion salad) and Ssamjang (a spicy paste made of Doenjang mixed with Gochujang).

By the time we hit the restaurant, we were all tired, hungry and dehydrated. The curious thing about Korean restaurants is, (seemingly) universally, small beverage glasses. Tumblers, actually. Maybe 3-oz. After the third water pitcher refill, our harried server took an extended break sight unseen, leaving us to surreptitiously pilfer water from the server’s station.

Further adding to our server’s consternation is how we treated the greens used for wrapping the meat. If you’ve been to a P.F. Chang’s, one of their best-selling dishes is their chicken lettuce wraps. Wrapping a protein in a leafy green is a common theme in Asian cuisine and extends to Korean barbecue as well. The roasted meat is picked off the grill by each person, placed in a lettuce leaf (or kale or some other leafy green) and topped with whatever else seems tasty (e.g. garlic, onion, chili paste) and eaten. The wrapping lettuce came out in individual bowls with raw onion and a light dressing of vinegar, sesame oil and soy sauce (just like a salad!). In our relative naivety, we treated it like a pre-meal salad and munched down post haste. When our server saw our bowls empty before she had even brought out the meats, she brought out a large communal bowl of the lettuce (salad!) and pantomimed how to use it. We nodded in mock understanding and wolfed down that bowl of greens, too, plying her for another bowl to actually use the lettuce as intended.

In our (very limited) experience, Korean barbecue joints tend to specialize in certain meats (often just beef and pork) and limit the variety of dishes as such. This is different from some of the grills I’ve been to in LA’s K-Town having the ability to get a range of chicken and seafood along with your typical beef and pork choices. In our haste to stave off The Hangry, we chose a restaurant with scant few options for non-red meaters. The last resort was a couple of seafood pancakes – squid and crab meat in a fried egg and flour batter. They weren’t bad, but very oily and made for several longing looks at our table with obvious wishes that it was some chicken on that grill.

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