Aug. 28 2014

How to Barbecue Like All The Cool Kids Do In South Korea

And the not so cool ones, and everyone. Everyone loves Korean Barbecue. It’s a great time to sit around and chat with friends while grilling marinated meat and drinking alcohol. Man’s timeless source of joy.

Gogigui (a.k.a. Korean barbecue) is beloved in Korea (and abroad) for many reasons. My personal favourite is the endless side dishes. Those little white plates you see decorating the table are filled with yummy goodness like kimchi, Korean radish (a.k.a. ‘mu’ in Korean, or what you might know as ‘daikon’ in Japanese), bean sprouts, garlic bulbs, seaweed salad, and many other delicious things, depending on the venue. Although the meat supply is finite, servers will keep bringing you more side dishes ad infinitum. It is impossible to leave hungry.

Rob reading up on Korea over duck bulgogi in Suncheon-si, South Korea.

Korean barbecue is also a fun place to get to know people better. For example, Porum and Yuri (two teachers in training from Danielle’s school) taught us about Korean age differences! In Korea, you are considered ‘1 year old’ when you’re born, and your age progresses on the lunar calendar year, instead of the year you were born. So while in Canada (and most of the world) I’m 24, in Korea I’m actually 25. Happy quarter century!

Also, if you’re having gogigui in Korea, you’ll probably observe Korean pouring/passing etiquette. At a gathering, the younger person always makes sure the senior person’s glass is perpetually full. Also, it’s customary for the younger person to turn their head while drinking, so the older person can’t “see” them, out of deference and respect. Although it’s usually all done in good fun, and less out of strict social necessity.

Yuri demonstrates a perfect pour.

Koreans pour with the left hand rested lightly against the right forearm. This is also polite to do when giving and receiving items. Even at the convenience store when the clerk is passing your change, you’ll see this custom observed. You should always pour for everyone else at the table in Kora before yourself. It’s good manners,  and if you remember to start with the oldest person first, you’ll look pro.

I’m not going to say this incredibly flattering picture wasn’t the product of too much soju.

If you’re eating supper in Korea, you’ll probably come across soju at some point. It’s a colourless alcohol traditionally made from rice, with an alcohol content anywhere from 16-45%. It’s traditionally consumed neat, but often times you’ll see Koreans mixing soju with beer to give it an extra kick. You should always accept any soju you’re offered, as it is a sign of friendship. Come to think of it, just accept anything you’re offered. It’s extremely rude not to, kind of like saying, “Oh no, I don’t want to be your friend.” Just eat anything you’re given. Korea is not a haven for picky eaters.

During the entirety of our travels, I found that Koreans are extremely generous and thoughtful with their food. When we were on the ferry to Jeju, a group of ajummas (middle-old-aged-auntie-type women in Korea) was sitting next to me, making the crossing and playing cards. These were complete strangers, yet as soon as they took out their food, they offered me some manju cakes (red bean filled pastries – yummy!) and a yoghurt drink.

In western society, as soon as we’re school-aged we’re taught never to take food from strangers, but that mentality don’t fly in Korea.  There, it’s a sign of friendship, and totally great! Sometimes it can be culturally awkward unless you’re really adventurous.

For example, Rob and I were at a market near our friend’s house in Suncheon, a suntanned old man who looked like a farmer/vendor walked up to us with a spoonful of mysterious greyish-brown, cubed, opaque jelly, with what looked like chill peppers on top. He motioned for us to ‘eat, eat!’. We both ate it, and I remember the look of desperation and panic on Rob’s face very clearly. We were also in the fish-area of the market, leading us to be very skeptical as to what we might have just eaten. My boyfriend, who is an especially picky eater, tried to talk his way out of it, but the farmer was persistent. We imagined it might have been something like fermented stingray (which is a thing, in Korea).

Later on, we were relieved to discover it had been acorn jelly. There was an audible sigh of relief.

Back to our barbecue – Beautiful Porum was our pro meat searer. She said that because she’s the youngest in her family she’s used to doing the barbecuing for everyone else. She was awesome. Never once did my chopsticks reach for a piece of meat and come up empty handed.

Those long metal pipes over each table are vents that take up the smoke form the charcoal grills.

The place we went for barbecue was packed (see above), and it was the third place we had tried that night. If I remember correctly, it was a weeknight and we’re in a university neighbourhood, so just about everyone and the students had come out of the woodwork for barbecue. Price-wise it’s pretty affordable, and a good investment for your money since the food is so fresh and relatively healthy. Since bbq places are so ubiquitous, you’re usually looking at anywhere between $15-$30 per person.

Remember: it’s impossible to leave hungry, and the service you get for your money is exquisite. Even at the $15 places, we were still treated to endless refills of veggies and water, and could sit, relax and grill for as long as we wanted. I should mention too, that the traditional way to eat at these barbecues it to grab some grilled meat, some sauce (made from ground sesame and this vinegar-based chili sauce) and whatever veggies you like, then roll it all up in a lettuce leaf and shove it in your mouth, like the best little flavour-packed leafy taco ever.

One more tip for Korean restaurants: never tip! (it’s a pun – see?).

Tipping in Korea is considered an insult (although I think most Koreans understand that foreigners have this quirk, and will excuse you for it), and it will never be an option to select on the paper bill or debit card machine, so don’t even bother looking for it. Just thank your host, and enjoy not having to calculate an extra 15% on top of your bill (I feel like as a Canadian, I found this particularly hard not to do).

Happy Canadians in Korea.

Some other BBQ Places we tried: The restaurant next door to Gordo and Danielle’s apartment building (as seen above), which has amazing duck  bbq. We called it “The Duck Place”. They do a great bibimbap as well. I should mention – once you’re all done eating your barbecue, and there are just a few pieces of meat left, it’s common for the waitress to come by and ask if you want to bibimbap it all. Then they’ll take your leftover veggies and meat, add some rice and mix it all together to make bibimbap. I reiterate: you can never leave hungry.

Another place we tried. Black Pork BBQ on Jeju Island (seen above). They’re famous for black pork belly there. Down the street from our hostel was an area called ‘Black Pork Alley’, which featured about ten or more different black pork bbq restaurants, ranging from low to high in price. The pigs are tiny and adorable. Also delicious.

Bonus time! The Korean habit of always pouring for others first, or always offering to share your food is connected to this really nice Korean concept called  jeong (정), which doesn’t translate exactly in English, but kind of encompasses love, empathy, kindness, sharing, attachment, compassion, all a general feel-good-be-nice-to-others-ness. does a really good short video explaining it that you can check out here.