You’d probably have seen this scene in a Korean drama: grilling meat over a hot plate, placing it on top of a piece of cabbage, slathering sauce on it, topping it up with raw garlic and kimchi, wrapping them up and then putting the entire thing into your mouth. Yes, we’re talking about Korean BBQs.
Whether you’re a fan of Korean dramas, K-pop or just not into the whole K-entertainment scene, chances are that you still enjoy Korean barbecues. After all, nothing beats the taste of freshly-grilled meat and savoury sauce. Here are some things you should know about K-bbq.
While most of us in Singapore probably wouldn’t head to a Korean BBQ on a whim – a place with reasonably good quality meats would come up to $40-$50 a person even without drinks – in Korea, going for barbecue is about as much as a non-event as going for zichar or supper. Joel, a Korean chef now working at 8 Korean BBQ and Joo Bar, reckons that he and his friends back home would go for barbecue at least once a week. Price is part of the reason: The average BBQ would come up to about $12-15 per person in Korea.
Pork belly (samgyeopsal) is the single most fundamental barbecue cut, though pork neck (moksal), jowl (hangjeyongsal) and short ribs (galbi) are also very popular. According to Chris Kim, a Korean-Singapore who’s now based in Korea, until the last couple of years, beef wasn’t commonplace at barbecue shops in Korea as it was rather pricey. Hanwoo – Korea’s answer to wagyu – specifically, is so expensive that most Koreans would eat that only on very special occasions. These days, however, beef is popping up more at BBQ buffet spots in Korea. There are also some truly upscale BBQ restaurants that even run their own pig and cattle farms.
In Singapore, chicken and seafood are common options, especially at more discount buffet joints but they’re not so widespread in Korea’s BBQ haunts. As Joel puts it, most Koreans would prefer chicken in the form of fried chicken and for seafood to be prepared either sashimi-style or steamed.
Another key difference: Pork belly is always served thick-cut in Korea, unlike the wispy ones that some budget joints here serve, for better chew as well as to attest to the fresh quality of the meat.
For Koreans, hierarchy matters – at least when it comes to eating with your elders, and at company dinners. Chris explains that the youngest or the most junior ones would be expected to take the initiative to handle the cooking, and it would be a social faux pas if you don’t make a point to serve the elders (or most senior staff) first. With friends, of course, it’s every man for himself. And if you’re travelling to Korea, don’t expect the restaurant’s ajumma to come over and help you cook – it’s not a done thing there!
Both Chris and Joel agree that there are very few rules to Korean BBQ – it’s all a matter of personal taste. But there is one unspoken etiquette: To start with non-marinated meats before continuing onto marinated meats. Taste is the main reason; the best way to truly appreciate the natural flavours of non-marinated meats is to have them before the marinated ones overwhelm your tastebuds.
Practicality is another. Most BBQ operators would feel obliged to change the grill, to prevent flavour transfer, but that can get troublesome. That said, it’s not completely taboo if you’re really hankering for more non-marinated meats – just don’t keep switching back and forth!
You’ll usually get two dips: ssamjang, a thick sauce coloured a vivid red from gochujang (chilli paste) and doenjang (fermented soybean paste); as well as a mixture of sesame oil and salt. Again, it’s down to personal preferences.
When it comes to wraps (ssams), less is more to keep it bite-size. A typical way to make a ssam is to dab some ssamjang on the meat, then layer on a strip of kimchi (or some other pickle for acidity) and garlic (raw or roasted). If the leaf you’re using seems too long, go ahead and tear away the bottom segment! Crimping the sides in bit by bit – a little like wrapping a dumpling – also make it more manageable. But as Chris puts it, there’s no way to be elegant when eating a ssam, so stop worrying and enjoy it!
In Korea, restaurants provide a wide selection of greens, but Joel has noticed that it’s almost only lettuce that’s offered here. He’s personally fond of perilla leaves for the herbaceous characteristic that helps to cut through the richness.
Stews, pancakes and steamed eggs are similarly popular accompaniments in Korea. But Koreans would typically supplement their barbecue with either a kimchi stew or doenjang stew, rather than with army stew or sundubu (tofu stew) like we do here. The latter two are considered specialty mains – for instance, Koreans might trek to an eatery that serves only sundubu if they’re craving a fix.
For Koreans, the alcohol of choice for barbecue is always soju. There’s even a pithy portmanteau that celebrates this sacred match: so-sam, ‘so’ as shortform for soju and ‘sam’ as shortform for pork belly (samgyeopsal). Makgeolli is seen as a perfect match for pancakes, and beer with fried chicken. Nowadays, there are a lot of flavoured sojus on the market but Joel finds that Koreans – men and women alike – generally prefer the regular, unflavoured ones.
Soju bombs, however, are part of the social lubricant at barbecues. The easiest way to make a soju bomb is to fill a glass halfway with beer (lagers only!) and to drop a shotglass of soju in. For extra street cred, check out the video above where Joel demonstrates how to make a soju bomb with flourish. Knocking the bottle, he admits, is just for theatrics, though some claim it makes the soju smoother. The more important technique is to jab the spoon down in brisk, forceful strokes (and keep it low to prevent splashing) to create the cloudy effect.
In Korea, soju-fuelled company dinners that drag into the wee hours are still the norm, just like the dramas portray, and refusing alcohol is rude. But for those who can’t hold their liquor well, there are some bizarre contraptions on the market to help. Chris even remembers seeing an advertisement for special shirts that come with hidden compartments in the sleeves for discreetly emptying your glass into!
Scissors, paper, stone and five-ten are also prevalent in Korean drinking culture, but here’s another easy one to try. Twist the dangling aluminium strip on your soju bottle cap, then take turns to flick it. The idea is to avoid breaking it on your watch – unless you’re eager to down a shot.