The Art of Barbecue
Korean barbecue is serious business. We’re introduced to this essential truth inside Sopung (소풍), a restaurant that is more of a small room squeezed down a Gangnam side alley. A single window faces out towards an evening cast yellow by the neon glow of the city; a cluster of wooden tables and a few low stools; the air thick with smoke and the staccato rhythm of beef hitting charcoal. A television plays Korean baseball while two men in black t-shirts scurry between the kitchen and the dining room. Jet-lagged, a bit delirious and a long way from home, it’s a revelatory experience.
“Welcome to Seoul,” says Jae from Drake’s Dosan above the whir of a copper extraction fan as more kimchi, shiitake mushrooms and marbled beef appears at the table. “It’s a tradition to bring visitors here for the first meal.”
No complaints from us.
You very quickly learn that, when it comes to food in Seoul, more is always on the way. “We like to eat,” says our colleague Christina, which seems to be an understatement equivalent to implying that Ernest Shackleton got a bit of a kick out of wandering around the Antarctic. Rice comes at the end of the meal. It makes sense in the context.
At Majang market, north of the Han river, a row of plastic-fronted restaurants sit shoulder-to-shoulder away from the butchery and bartering of the main covered space. “We’re going to the second best one,” says our friend Ken. We decide not to ask about the first. It’s called Jeonbotdae-zip (전봇대집), and it turns out that second is more than good enough. Already-full in the early approach of evening, groups crowd around stainless steel tables, bottles of soju and plates of beef being passed back and forth. There are laminated photos of the food hung from the ceiling and a kitsch painting of flowers that has long since wilted behind us. JP shows us how to make a Somaek — beer and soju combined, which is about as lethal as you might expect.
Drifting around Seoul you see countless barbecue restaurants, all seemingly full of friends and colleagues eating communally — through steamed up windows and translucent flaps of plastic it’s easy to spot the designated barbecue master flipping and grilling with studied concentration. Don’t fill up your glass of soju yourself, someone will do that for you. At Gilmok (길목), it’s BYOB, there’s wine and champagne on the table and pork (it’s pork in this one), being seared by the team from Drake’s Dosan. We swap seats, the soju comes out, a restaurant experience that doesn’t involve your own personal fire-pit begins to seem like a wholly alien and unacceptable concept.
It feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface, and we haven’t, but it’s a great introduction.