Lessons from the Grill: Korean Barbecue

Six months ago I discovered a great Korean BBQ joint near my usual hotel in Seoul. In a week I ended up there three times alone or with friends, at one point closing the place down while the owner, a funny 40-something guy with a baseball cap, got drunk with us and broke out a guitar for a bit of Scorpions and the apparently internationally classic John Denver. I walk in and sit down and when he sees me, without even a second’s hesitation he blurts, “KEVIN!!”

Really??? I had to consult an old business card where I had scrawled out ee-HAK-chu. Which gave me some indication of my condition at the time. His name is actually LEE HokJu. So much for drunken note taking.

I’m a junkie for these places. I love grilled meat, which I rarely have at home other than bar hamburgers, and the kimchi and other sides allow me to believe I am actually keeping a very healthy diet as I lean over the sizzling grease of centimeter thick strips of fatty pork. This is samgyeopsal, meaning three layers of flesh, essentially. Some places offer the real BBQ of heroes, ogyeopsal, the five-layered version. I keep forgetting how to say “five” (rather pathetic since it is really just one letter – o) and so when I try to order it I just say samgyeopsal (takes them a moment to understand my bad pronunciation) and when I see they are with me now, I say sam-gyeopsal no! Hold up five fingers and say gyeopsal. Sometimes they understand. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they rush around the room in a panic looking for an English speaker.

But tonight I order the beef which is conveniently pronounced “beef” by Mr. Lee. The waitress starts the process of cutting it apart with scissors and then setting it on the grill under the little vacuum tube dangling from the ceiling to catch the smoke. She returns from time to time to flip the meat or set it aside when it’s ready and say a lot of instructions that make you wish like hell you knew at least a little Korean.

The prices are figured only for the meat you choose and its amount, plus your drinks. The tangy salad, house kimchi, pickled radishes, raw garlic, spicy soup, bean paste, and peppers for grilling (some of these items changing according to what’s in the kitchen that day) are automatically refilled if you finish them.

Mr. Lee turned me on to a blackberry wine, bokbunjajoo, that is sweet and delicious. Soju, a common Korean distillate often made from rice, is not nearly as sweet or flavorful (though essentially a staple at the Korean tables). I like it OK, but the wine has me hooked.

So I ordered beef and a bottle for myself. Later, however, Mr. Lee came over to instruct me how to drink in Korea. The eldest (him) gets served first and no one should serve themselves. It is also tradition to spill the last few drops – onto a plate or napkin. The floor in some places I imagine. I asked him why and the best he could muster was “Korean polite, not Impolite.” I told him in Guatemala the first “drink” out of the rum bottle was “para los santos,” the saints, and poured onto the floor. (The saints had a helluva year when I lived in Xela thanks to a very, er, devout group of friends.)

Whatever was in these little 375 ml bottles of Blackberry Wine, was kicking me around like a schoolgirl. We exchanged multiple shots from a bottle that magically appeared in a way only the owner can make appear. And suddenly I was quite silly. We touched our own elbows as the other poured with both hands. Then turned aside, patted our chests and dumped back a shot of the wine, with a few drops left behind of course. Mr. Lee, who is 48, teaches me the words for “big brother” and “little brother”. I remember something like “zhong” and that little brother has two or three syllables, possibly involving a “z” and a “t”. So much for my drinkin and thinkin skills. Sheesh.

Things you learn drunk that you wouldn’t need to learn sober:

* Metal chopsticks (standard for Korea) when held for a long period of time in an open flame, are really friggin’ hot. Ouch. It may take about three experiences to get this point across, and if you wait longer than five minutes, you may have already forgotten the lesson.

* Long green peppers will actually flip themselves on a grill over a bowl of hot coals if you leave them long enough. How convenient. Not quite as convenient is when they explode soon after the Mexican jumping bean maneuver. I still had seeds stuck to my shirt when I got back to the hotel. I think there are still some on the wall next to my table.

* Drinking while at a Korean BBQ may drastically reduce the amount of hair on your fingers or hands. Or eyebrows depending on how far you go with this model.

Ceremonial wine spillage and green pepper shrapnel. Not pretty, I know.

Mr. Lee has to leave early and after I finish my food, I call for the check. A guy comes over and takes my credit card. I am already turning around in wine-slow motion to look at him at the cash register and when he steps to his right and disappears behind the air conditioner to his right, I comment to myself, perhaps aloud, that he has “disappeared.” Really good wine, no?

The credit card print out for 25000 won comes back and he says Thank you in Korean (kamsahamnida) – that and hello are the only things I consistently get. I stare at the bill. Where do I sign? But he indicates we are done here. I look at the slip and he points to my signature. Huh??? I look over at the wine bottles with a new respect, but then he indicates that it is HE who as signed this. Really? I look so incapable of signing this myself??? Considering that all Korean credit card purchases have a touch pad to sign and I hadn’t managed to get my sorry self up offa that stool, he was probably completely in line getting it done for me. If MasterCard asks, that was TOTALLY my handwriting.

No tip? Nope, not in Korea. I almost gave the guy at the hotel a heart attack when he carried some boxes up to my room and I tried to hand him a couple bills. A sudden panic, bowing, flustered gasps of No, backing to the door without turning away from me – keep an eye on that American, he’s crazy.

Crazy for Korean barbecue anyway.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the Grill: Korean Barbecue

  • September 18, 2011 at 2:03 am
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    It is such a great story! I am impressed that the owner remembered your name even though you go to Korea once a year 🙂

    Reply
  • September 20, 2011 at 4:02 am
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    I love Korean BBQ, it’s the best part of living in Korea!

    Reply
    • September 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm
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      Seriously, I am pretty sure I could eat it daily. Do you think loads of kimchi balance out a half kilo of five-layered pig fat??? My sources say Yes.

      Reply
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