Strictly speaking it’s Part 2, but I didn’t actually write much about Seoul proper in the travel post.
We have crammed a lot into the last couple of weeks, and there has barely been a spare minute to write. We have eaten lots of food, explored lots of places, and met some interesting people along the way. But most of all, Evie has gathered fans everywhere we’ve travelled.
Rather than a day by day account of what we have been up to, it’s probably easier to group things together into themes. The first of which is barbecue.
Korean BBQ: Throw another squid on the barbie!
Koreans love barbecue, but it’s not grilling as we know it. Korean BBQ generally involves sitting around tables containing gas hobs or braziers for charcoal and a Noo-Noo-esque extractor. Depending on the level of expense, you manage the cooking yourself or an attendant handles it for you. The types of food on offer vary from establishment, but you can expect cuts of pork, premium beef and even tripe and intestines. Seafood is also an option in other places.
Believe it or not, you can even barbecue outside on rare occasions. On a trip to the countryside we had food cooked over a charcoal grill overlooking beautiful hillside farmland.
The quality of the meat here is excellent, but you do end up eating an enormous quantity which doesn’t exactly mesh with an attempt to increase the amount of plant-based foods in our diet. Luckily meat isn’t the only thing on offer. Banchan, or side dishes, accompany pretty much every meal in Korea and consist of different varities of kimchi (fermented and salted vegetables, with and without chilli), pickles, sauces and often rice. Relatively few fresh vegetables are served alongside the meat, with the exception of perilla leaves (ggaenip) and lettuce leaves for ssam or wraps. The traditional method is to wrap meat in a leaf alongside any combination of ssamjang (sauce), garlic clove (Korean garlic is somewhat milder than the average UK clove), banchan or whatever you want really. Some meats are better enjoyed with a little sprinkling of seasoned salt, or dipped in a different sauce.
Although they are quite popular, tripe and intestines are not really our thing. Having to deal with organs in your day job doesn’t help, but there wasn’t much to like about them either. I found them both exceedingly chewy and somewhat tasteless. The beef shortribs (galbi) are delicious and hard to beat, although some of the sirloin was also excellent. Korea is not a good place to be vegetarian.
Be careful what you ask for in Korea, as words can be tricksy things. Despite an abundance of spectacular-looking layer cakes in evidence at every coffee shop (I’m looking at you, A Twosome Place), dessert in the context of barbecue is a completely different beast. It might be a bowl of iced soba noodles in one restaurant, a plate of fried rice with melted cheese, or even Army stew (budae jjigae) which carries it’s own interesting history. A bizarre concoction fusing spicy Korean ingredients with spam, frankfurters, processed cheese, baked beans, and instant ramen (ramyuen in Korea) noodles, it’s surprisingly tasty and was offered after high end meat in a restaurant we ate at. So for dessert, don’t expect a cheesecake.
Although I enjoyed my original 2015 barbecue experience, it didn’t quite live up to the hype. The problem was I went to eat by myself as I was travelling alone, and that’s not the best way of experiencing the meal. The process itself takes time and it’s a way of being able to slowly graze while catching up with people, and drinking plenty of soju. Even a bunch of people could struggle to finish the sheer amount of food on offer at a modest barbecue meal, so trying to do it singlehanded was never going to work.
I do not envy the poor people who clear tables and do the dishes in Korea. By the time you factor in plates for meat, banchan, and other sides, they are legion. Not only plates, but glasses for water, soda, and soju too. There is very little space to spare at the end of an evening.
I hope you enjoyed that brief explainer about the great barbecue tradition in Korea. These restaurants are on every corner, and to be honest, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be successful in the UK other than unfamiliarity with the experience. If there’s an authentic Korean restaurant near you, it’s definitely worth trying out.