Clearly Barbecue comes to mind. On my first visit to Seoul I committed one of those typical foreigner-faux-pas’ and then tried to cover it up (so typical). I did not have a lot of experience with Korean food before (eh, none). On our first night our local dealer took us out to a beautiful high-end Korean Barbecue restaurants. They brought out that small, round, cast iron grill with one huge piece of red hot charcoal in it (think a small round Weber, just solid, almost stone like). We were all sitting on low chairs around that superhot grill and the staff grilled these awesome pieces of Kalbi and Bulgogi (types of marinated beef ribs) right in front of us. It was so amazing that after they were done, I asked if we could get some more.
All of our Korean hosts faces looked at me as if I am from Mars. Well, I like to eat a lot and it was so amazing that I figured, I could ask for more. So, my first level of ignorance was that I had no idea how expensive the meat was. But hospitality ruled and I made them order a few more plates of Kalbi and Bulgogi. After that round, I was completely full with the most amazing barbecued beef ribs ever.
Of course, little did I know, in Korea, you have a second main course after your barbecue, which is Bibimbap (a rice, egg, vegetable mixture in a stone bowl). Now, I understood why everyone looked strange at me when I ordered more meat. Worst of all, I could not admit my ignorance and now had to suffer through a gigantic rice bowl. Now, I had to make sure I would not lose my face. So, I had to complement the food and show the same enthusiasm as before – which meant I could not just be finished but had to ask for more. So I ended up eating two full portions of ribs and 1 ½ Bibimbap portions. Cultural lessons learnt the hard way.
A couple days later, just before we left, we were invited to a very traditional Korean meal which centered around food from the mountains and forests (earthy dishes with lots of vegetables and mushrooms that created unique flavors). The whole ambience, décor, wait staff, plates and glassware, and even the other guests all communicated this Zen-like, transcendental atmosphere and connection to generations long gone. I cannot remember the exact food we had but I distinctively remember the reverence to the early days of Korean culture. Stepping out of the restaurant and back into the real world made you wish to go back in and stay there.
There are two more pieces to Korean food. The first one was introduced to me by a good Korean friend of mine in, of course, New York’s Koreatown. The fried chicken craze conquered the beer-drinking, after-work-get-togethers-with-coworkers or friends scene in Korea because it just makes sense. The chicken is incredible, the batter is magic and the meat is soft and moist. Since there is salt involved, beer consumption goes up, and everybody wins. This is the best low-brow food I have ever tasted. Okay, one of the best, since I love low-brow food.
The last one is Kimchi. The perfect combination of tartness, spice-heat, texture, and health benefits of pickled cabbage or other vegetables is addictive. And then, the variety served on small dishes allows for comparative tasting, sometimes rivaling the best wine tastings. Just writing about it makes my mouth water.
PS: Yukgaejang soup ended up being one of my favorite go-to dishes, especially for lunch. It helps keep you hydrated and awake for the rest of the day (if you can take the heat). Its also very good for hangovers, not that I would know from personal experience……