For the initiated, Korean barbeque is a unique way to enjoy good food, cooked over a grill, at any time of the year. It is extremely popular, and many people enjoy a weekly trip to a Korean barbeque restaurant. For those unfamiliar with Korean barbeque, it is a style of eating different to anything else. The meat is served raw, with a table-set grill with charcoal for guests to cook their own meat. It is normally made up of both marinated and non marinated beef, pork and seafood, and extremely occasionally includes chicken. Also included in the meal are panchan (sometimes referred to as banchan), which are side dishes, often comprising potato salad, vegetables or soup.
It is incredibly easy to enjoy Korean barbeque food, while maintaining the cultural etiquette expected. There are slight differences between eating as a guest of an individual, or at a restaurant. However, the general principles of good manners and etiquette remain for either case, as they do in any other condition.
When eating in a restaurant, you will more often than not find that panchan is free of charge and all you can eat. Panchan when served in a private residence will most often have been prepared freshly, and so you should make every effort to sample everything on offer, as refusal may cause offence. None of the panchan should be added into the meat sandwiches; this is poor etiquette and detracts from the flavor of both the meat and the panchan.
With panchan there are usually four sauces provided. A salt and sesame oil mixture is for use with non marinated meat, a sweet soy sauce for marinated meat, and a bean paste and hot sauce for any use. While intended for anything, the soybean paste is especially used when topping lettuce in a bundle.
Along with the panchan will be a selection of salad, or simply lettuce. This is intended to be eaten with the meat. Lettuce leaves should be torn off, held face up, and a piece of grilled meat inserted, topped with sauce, and closed over, to create a lettuce-meat sandwich. This should not be rolled to create a burrito style tube. In addition to the sauce, it is usual to add a jalapeño slice or slice of roasted garlic, which will usually be available.
Rice / Noodles
On the whole, rice is not eaten with Korean barbeque. By ordering or requesting rice, you are likely to either be met with disappointment or simply outlandish looks. Noodles, on the other hand, are often eaten. However, these are usually very different to how they are usually eaten in Western culture. One style is mul-naeng-myun, which is served in a salty, icy broth. Another, slightly more conventional serving is bibim-naeng-myun, which is served in a spicy sauce. Noodles are not usually served until the end of the meal, therefore it is necessary to ask (and break general etiquette) if you wish to enjoy them with your meat.
Meat is brought to the table raw, together with a hot grill. It is cooked by the diners, at the table. If you are new to the methods, more often than not your host (or server in a restaurant) will help to get you started and offer advice along the way.
Meats are divided into marinated and non-marinated, and each has different styles and flavors:
Galbi: Marinated rib beef. This is the most popular form of Korean barbeque.
Bulgogi: Thin slices of marinated beef.
Chadol: Thinly sliced non marinated brisket
Deungshim gui / Anshim gui: Non-marinated sirloin and tenderloin respectively.
Dweji bulgogi: Marinated spicy pork. Often not served as standard in restaurants, more common in diners.
Samgyeopsal: Non marinated, salted, thick bacon.
Chicken is not served on the whole; it is seen as “non-Korean” and is very much the equivalent of eating burger and fries in a high class restaurant.
Standard etiquette rules for drinking apply, in that drunkenness and excessive drinking are extremely poor etiquette. However, it is important to know a few other points regarding drinking at a Korean barbeque. The first is the well known rice liquor “Soju”. Extremely common, and similar in taste to vodka, it can very quickly catch up with a drinker and lead to embarrassment. When a guest at a private barbeque, it is quite common to be offered lots to drink, and to take part in a drinking ritual. This involves the host emptying their glass, handing it to you and filling it. At this point you are expected to drink it, and continue the movement of the glass.
When eating in a restaurant, you will find that you will not be allocated a specific server, nor will this server return to the table to check everything is ok. This is considered impolite, and because of this, a bell is normally provided to get the attention of any server. It takes some adjustment to overcome the traditional Western impoliteness of ringing for assistance, but it is expected and preferred.
When eating at a private barbeque, depending on the company, you may find yourself in an extremely cultural experience. You must always wait for the host or hostess, or if applicable, the oldest person or the guest of honor. Usually, the host will take the first bite, but sometimes will nominate another. Once this first bite is taken, all other guests may begin eating.
While a Korean barbeque is a very different way of eating, ranging from cooking your own food, to age old traditions held for generations, it offers an opportunity to eat exceptional food, experience great culture and generally enjoy a first-class dining experience.