South Korea is close to my heart, having lived there. When introducing friends to Korean food, the first hurdle is usually the confusion over where to begin.
Korean barbecue has become very popular, but can still be intimidating the first go-around. Dig into this step-by-step guide, and please forgive any mistakes in translation from this humble waygookin (foreigner).
Table manners are crucial in Korea, and even casual meals should begin and end with acknowledgement of your hosts. Begin by saying jalmukesumneda (I will eat well) and ending with masegaemugusuyo (I ate well).
Your meal will begin with several small dishes collectively known as banchan. The number and variety of banchan will vary. Part of the fun is seeing which ones you’ll get.
Generally, you can expect some form of kimchi, which is spicy, pickled vegetables like cabbage, radish or cucumber. You can’t say that you have an opinion on kimchi until you’ve tried grilled cabbage kimchi. It’s tighter than my K-pop dance moves. Aside from kimchi, you may see bean sprouts, mushrooms or spinach in an array of sauces and styles. You might encounter spicy tofu or small anchovies, but for the most part there will be the vegetables that you know and love, albeit dressed differently.
Korean barbecue is meant to be a shared meal. Start by selecting meats or seafood. There are virtually no vegetarian dishes (sorry, veggie-sauruses). My personal favorites are octopus or samgyupsal, large strips of fatty pork belly that are essentially uncured bacon.
A traditional Korean barbecue will have a grill in the center of the table and an exhaust above it to vent all the smoke and heat. Settle down grill masters, your server will cook for you. So sit back, relax and explore the banchan. Ask for some vegetables to toss on the grill as well. Once the meats are ready to be served, your server will move them to the cooler edges of grill for you to take with your chopsticks.
Mastering chopsticks is not as difficult as it looks. Watch this quick chopstick ktutorial for guidance. Restaurants will happily provide you with forks if you ask.
Many Korean restaurants will serve your barbecue with a basket of fresh lettuce. You can either eat the meats straight off the grill or make a lettuce wrap by filling a leaf with rice, meats, vegetables, sauces–anything you want–then bundling it up and taking a bite. Both ways are acceptable and delicious.
Korean rice is short-grain, glutinous “sticky” rice, much like the kind you find in sushi. Rice is a staple of the Korean diet, and served in individual, metal bowls. If not provided, just ask for rice for the table. And don’t stand your chopsticks straight up in your bowl. It resembles sticks of incense at a funeral and is considered bad luck.
If you want to experience some communal bonding with your fellow diners, order Korean soju. Historically made from rice, modern soju is sometimes made from potatoes or wheat. Soju is like vodka in color and taste, with the alcohol content of sake. It is acceptable for men to shoot soju, while women are expected to sip slowly.
It’s considered rude to refuse a drink, especially from someone older, so prepare to drink up, young’uns. Soju is customarily enjoyed neat, although in Korea yours truly discovered the glorious highs and hilarious lows of mixing soju with lots of beer…
Where can you find the best Korean restaurants in the Washington, DC area? Try Honey Pig, 7220-C Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA. 703.256.5229; and Adam Express, 3211 Mt. Pleasant St NW Washington, DC, 202.328.0010.
Mary was born and raised in New York City where her family owned restaurants. Instead of eating dirt on the playground, she ate duck blood, beef tripe and pork belly. She cut her teeth at The Mandarin Oriental and The Ritz-Carlton hotels, working with Barbra Streisand, Vanessa Williams, Michael Stipe, LeVar Burton, Jane Krakowski and others. Mary founded Girl Meets Food in 2009 as a cover for her debilitating addiction to fried chicken and was named Washington Post’s “Favorite Local Foodie.” After 13 years in hospitality, she started freelance writing for USA Today, The Washington Post, Eater, Washington City Paper, and more. Today, she provides digital marketing for hospitality clients as a content creator who’s contently creating content.