Historians suggest that the Korean practice of grilling pre-seasoned meats (gogi-gui) originated from the founding tribes of the Goguryeo kingdom (37BC to AD668). Thankfully, the delicious idea has survived the centuries, with modern descendants introducing it wherever they settle around the world. Kim Sang Wook, general manager at Hyangtogol Korean Restaurant, offers tips on what to do – and what not to do – while dining at a Korean barbecue restaurant.
1. Don’t freak out when the side dishes are served
Those who haven’t been to a Korean restaurant may be overwhelmed by the numerous side dishes, called banchan, served before the mains arrive, but don’t be daunted. Portion sizes are usually small – though you can ask for free refills if you come across any you really like. The side dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant, but some common ones include kimchi (fermented napa cabbage), pickled radish and seasoned soya bean sprouts.
2. Don’t be shy; let the experts help
In most Korean barbecue restaurants, a server will grill the meats for you at your table, so you don’t have to worry, especially if you’re a first-timer. If the servers are all busy and you really can’t wait, go ahead and lay out the meats on the grill; just make sure they are evenly spaced. Bulgogi (thinly sliced and seasoned beef, pork or chicken) and galbi (seasoned beef or pork short ribs) are evergreen favourites.
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3. Do be patient
Flip your meats more than three times, and you risk turning your juicy cuts of beef, pork or chicken into rubbery jerky. The better way to go would be to give each piece half a minute before flipping it, then leave it on the grill for another half minute before plating it. If you prefer your meats well done, you may flip them once more, but that’s it.
4. Do help yourself to the condiments
There’s usually a variety of condiments, from ssamjang (a bean-based dip) to sesame oil concoctions – the server will usually let you know which goes best with what meats. If there are slices of raw garlic, you may place those on the grill to warm and soften them while the meats are cooking. Of course, this is completely optional.
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5. Do feel free to eat with your hands
When the meats are ready, take a lettuce leaf (yes, here’s where it comes in), place it on your palm – you can tear it in half if it’s too large – then place a slice of meat on it. Top it with a slice of garlic and a dab of sauce, wrap it up, then pop the entire package into your mouth for an explosion of juicy goodness (trust us, you won’t enjoy it as much if you take small bites). This style of eating is known as ssam – Korean for ‘wrapped’.
6. Do enjoy the meats however you like
If veggies are not your thing, you’re also completely welcome to enjoy the meats right off the grill or with spoonfuls of rice. According to Kim, not overcooking the meats is the only ‘rule’ in Korean barbecue – everything else is free and easy, which means that diners get to enjoy the grills however they prefer. Just say, “Chal mokget sumnida (the Korean form of ‘bon appetit’)!” before tucking in.
7. Do mind your table manners
When dining with Koreans, wait for the elders to lift their utensils before you start eating – this is a sign of respect. While eating, don’t hold the bowl of rice or soup as you would in other Asian countries. You should also not stick your chopsticks, standing straight up, into your bowl of rice; this resembles a symbolic offering to deceased ancestors and is viewed as inauspicious. Lastly, try to take only what you will consume, as it is respectful to finish all the food on your plate in Korean culture.
– TEXT BY MANDY LIM BEITLER
PHOTO: KEVIN BEITLER
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.