As I sat here wolfing into a streaky bacon sandwich after my short, I mean super intense, workout at the gym, I began to think about what I was going to have for dinner.
Naturally, this thought put me in mind of my faithful readers who, undoubtedly, would love to hear what’s usually on the menu in Korea!
Well ladies and gents, look no further because I can tell you, having now had a full three months experience in the country.
First off, we have to decide what we’re in the mood for because Korean restaurants come in a variety of cooking styles and dishes available. Before any of you get clever, dog is not often on the menu and the popularity of this delicacy is in major decline. However, once I find a place that serves it I’ll report back.
There I go again, putting my readers before my morals. Who am I kidding I’m running low on both of those.
So, our first option is: Traditional Korean
Traditional Korean restaurants are wonderful, often requiring diners to sit on the floor at low tables. This seems mind-boggling to us Western folk as we are used to seating our delicate posteriors on cushioned thrones designed to make us feel sophisticated while shoveling whatever was put in front of us down our gullets.
So once you’ve settled carefully on the floor, and found the least uncomfortable way to stash your knees while sitting cross-legged without upsetting the entire table, it’s time to order.
Now, on my first weekend in Korea my boss took me to such a restaurant with her family and asked “Emmet, what would you like as your main meal?” “Oh. God. Do I make up something and pretend I know even one smidgen of Korean cuisine?” I thought desperately. Luckily for me, Jina elaborated “Rice or noodles? Which do you prefer?” Thank God I didn’t begin to ramble or ask for something Japanese.
I opted for rice which meant the main dish for the whole table was to be rice. “Emmet, are you trying to tell us that rice is a main dish over there? What about the meat??” I hear the screams of shock from the Irish among you but don’t worry folks there is meat involved.
Meat and vegetables all come in the form of ‘side dishes’, which is the Korean way to serve food. This is mostly because food is meant to be shared here. Mealtimes are not the individual plates of food piled high for each diner but rather a communal and social event. I really enjoy the sharing aspect of food here as you get to taste so many different dishes without having to commit to eating the whole thing, which when you are finicky like I am, this is a great boon.
As to what the side dishes are that varies from place to place and depends on what you actually order. There are some staples however, such as kimchi, bean sprouts, and pickled versions of myriad vegetables.
Kimchi, for the uninitiated, is fermented cabbage covered in red pepper sauce which can range from pleasantly bitter to “Oh merciful hour I’ve ingested some lava”.
Honorable mention for tofu soup and just plain tofu which often make cameos on the dinner table too.
Overall, traditional Korean food is only something I enjoy when I have someone to translate the menu and do the ordering.
Next up, we’ve got: Korean Barbecue.
Korean barbecue is one of my favorite types of restaurant here, mostly because usually going to barbecue means drinking, and we all know how wonderfully the two can be paired. Also, barbecue is generally reasonably priced.
Did I forget to mention the barbecue is smack bang in the middle of your table? I was never trusted with so much responsibility in a restaurant in my life, and I’ve worked in a few!
Therefore, barbecue is not just delicious but manly as hell to boot!
Once again we can see the side dishes all around the barbecue. The kimchi is hidden in the background.
In a barbecue restaurant your main choice is the cut of the meat you get to cook, because most places will specialize in only one type meat so you will have already chosen if it’s beef or pork or whatever else on the menu.
Here, we have a pork barbecue that Emma, J and I visited on J’s first weekend in Korea when Emma came to visit from Cheongju. This is also the infamous night of norebanging.
Barbecue is great, but when you eat it too often, the novelty of burning your food to cinders because you were too busy drinking soju, begins to wear off.
Finally, for now at least, we have the Chicken and Beer option, which is a quick and easy option for a lazy Friday evening after working all week.
There’s a bit of the Ronseal effect on this one, whereby it does exactly as it says on the tin. It’s chicken and beer, there’s not much I can explain. I shall try nonetheless, given as I am to the adage of why use one word when you can use one hundred.
The chicken and beer places tend to have small menus with different group options allowing you to cater for a large or small group and an appropriate amount of alcohol for a low price.
The chicken comes battered and served in a basket of greasy goodness with some spicy sauces and probably some pepper power in the batter. Good thing the beer is cold! This is, perhaps, the best there is to be said for Korean beer however.
So there you have it folks: a quick guide to what I’m eating in Korean restaurants. Of course there are other options as Koreans always eat with alcohol so every bar will offer some side dishes, and not to mention the bustling business of street food.
All of which will be seen here at some indeterminate point in the future!