|MUK JA! A CHON-NOM'S GUIDE TO KOREAN BARBECUE.|
Before moving to New York City, I had never heard of Korean barbecue. The first time I heard about it, I thought it was one of those peculiar American concoctions -- an ethnic food mashup -- like the Italian Burger or my mother's famous Chinese Spaghetti. Surely, I thought, Koreans don't have sprawling backyard barbecue parties. Surely the Korean peninsula is not dotted with char-blackened Broil Kings, tended by overweight little league coaches. Surely middle-aged Korean men don't flip burgers between sips of Corona and wipe globs of K.C. Masterpiece on their aprons. Surely, there is no Korean equivalent of the expression "Whoo-wee!"
It was on the subway ride down to Koreatown for my first barbecue that I began to realize how wrong my suspicions were. I'd tagged along with two Japanese friends who spoke of Korean barbecue with a kind of animal yearning, as thought it wasn't simply food to be eaten, but a condition one must aspire to, a gift to be coveted, then ravished. It was the same sonorous growl that I thought could only come from one place: the smoky, sauce-smeared lips of a backyard barbecue eater.
My love affair with Korean barbecue began that evening and has since led me to the far reaches of Koreatown -- from the bustling barbecue houses of 32nd Street, to, well, the bustling barbecue houses of 36nd Street -- always in search of the spiciest Kim Chi and the smokiest grill.
The culmination of my studies have led to 36 Bar and Barbecue (5 W. 36th Street at 5th Ave.), a standout Kalbi Jip (barbecue house) nestled among its more traditional Korean brethren. For the uninitiated, Korean barbecue can seem intimidating -- even downright impenetrable. First there's the obvious barrier of language, not to mention the variations in taste and custom. But 36 has gracefully sidestepped most of these problems with a few important changes to the time-honored formula. The décor is tastefully modern and almost completely fireproof (this will be important later) with stainless steel long tables and exposed brick walls. The staff will put you at ease with their robust youth, fluent English and Matrix-style black uniforms, while the piped-in Korean pop ballads will leave your booty rocking gently in its seat. Most importantly, the barbecue is wonderful and the menu sticks to traditional dishes.
By following just a few simple guidelines, you too can jahl muhguh (eat good) like a wahug (king).
1. Too Many Chefs Spoil The Soondooboo.
There is an art to eating Korean barbecue, not least of all because it's served family style. This means that everybody shares everything -- so leave the only children and high maintenance girlfriends at home.
Like everyday life, sharing demands generous portions of patience, rhythm and grace. In this respect, your skills will be tested at every turn throughout the meal, beginning with the order. Korean barbecue consists of lots of thinly sliced, marinated beef, individual bowls of rice, miso soup, and a dizzying array of small, often spicy, side dishes known as panchan, to be shared alike.
Generally, a single meat order is placed for the entire group, which means an agreement must be struck before the meal can proceed. The bigger the group, the longer this can take and the more frustrating it can be. To avoid any pre-dinner indigestion, it's a good idea to cede power to the most experienced barbecue-eater in the group, dubbing them both kingmaker and spokesperson. However, if nobody in your group has ever eaten Korean barbecue, step up to the plate yourself and bluff. Most Korean menus feature English translations and descriptions of each dish, so with a little finger pointing and a lot of nodding and smiling, nobody will be the wiser. This may seem unfair and recklessly bold, but luckily all of the meat is excellent -- and besides -- once everybody's pie hole is dripping with Kim Chi, the opposition will fall immediately.
One order of Kalbi or Bulgogi for every two people is usually enough, and will end up costing about $20 a piece. Throw in an order of dumplings, and a bottle of Soju (Korea's answer to vodka) and you're looking at about $35 a piece -- not too bad, unless you're a cheapskate.
2. Panch(an) Me In The Stomach.
While placing your meat order requires a consensus among the group, phase two of the Korean barbecue experience more than makes up for it with equal parts rugged individuality and mayhem. You'll begin to notice an explosion of small dishes that you never ordered arriving at the table, four and five at a time. First come the sauces and lettuce leaves used to dress the meat. Then come the panchan dishes. After a balletic display of arrangement by your waiter (if only you could manage space this well in your apartment), you'll find the table expertly crammed with no less than eight varieties of panchan. These vary from place to place, but tend to include different types of spicy and sweet pickled vegetables (cucumber, radish, zucchini) as well slippery seaweed and spinach dishes and a creamy potato salad. Somewhere among these you'll also find the granddaddy of all Korean cuisine -- the spicy, fermented cabbage known as Kim Chi.
If you tend to think of cabbage as nothing more than a soggy plate-liner for corned beef with akin to a pair of dirty sweat socks, then prepare to meet the cabbage that wouldn't settle for being just another side dish. It is exquisite -- crunchy, tangy, salty, addictively spicy and never in short supply at a Korean restaurant. If you've had Kim Chi and didn't like, I suggest you try it again at a better restaurant. But if you tried it again and still didn't like it, please stop reading now, because Korean food is just not for you.
Having all of these dishes on the table at once elicits a primitive sort of hunter/gatherer instinct among the group. Intelligible conversation dwindles to a chorus of humming, grunting and clattering chopsticks. And don't worry about running out; the waiters tend to refill panchan before you have a chance to ask. But don't succumb completely to its charms. This is the time to take stock and prepare -- slide some Kim Chi close, grab a few lettuce leafs and ready your chopsticks -- because once the meat comes out, all hell will break loose at your table.
3. Fire In The Hole.
The barbecuing is a highly choreographed ritual. First the grill itself is brought out. The waiter carefully hoists the sizzling hunk of iron over your head and fits it into a corresponding trough in the table, giving you a ringside seat to the lovely show of aromatic grill smoke and the pop and sizzle of cooking meat. Though many Korean barbecues have made the switch to electric elements, thankfully 36 has maintained the good old dangerous thrill of wood heat. There's something to be said for having a bed of hot embers a foot away from your face. It tends to stoke the inner pyromaniac in us all, and brings a kind of edgy excitement to the proceedings. You may be tempted to touch the grill, or even flick a glob of spit on it. This I strongly discourage, as it tends to anger and/or disgust your fellow diners. Plus, it is extremely hot.
The meat, all beef in this case, arrives raw and arranged in various floral patterns. The brisket is thinly sliced and rolled, displaying its beautiful marbling. The Kalbi -- beef short rib marinated in soy, sesame oil and garlic -- is cut into small rectangles and arranged in a circle bouquet. But don't get distracted, because from now on, events are going to unfold rapidly. Your tong-wielding waiters will cover the grill with meat, expertly flipping, tossing and doling it out to various plates.
I don't know exactly why -- it could be the spiciness of the Kim Chi, or the heat of the grill, or the fact that everybody has been eating vegetables for twenty minutes straight -- but I assure you, once that meat hits the grill, the group dynamic at your table will change again. The heart rates rise, the pupils dilate and any sign of cooperation dissolves as the quaint hunter/gatherers morph into a pack of ravenous dogs. Suddenly everybody is grabbing, slurping and chewing up as much meat as much as possible before the next guy can. But stay calm. It's a common illusion -- at least among Americans -- that since there isn't a 20-ounce steak staring up at you, there isn't enough meat to fill your belly. Soon enough the feeding frenzy will slow down and everybody will schlep back to their senses. That's when you get down to the real business at hand and actually taste the food.
4. The Korean Burrito.
One of the great bonds between Korean and American barbecue is that as soon as the real meal is at hand, utensils are thrown by the wayside. Sure, a plastic fork comes in handy to shovel down potato salad and coleslaw, but when a plump chicken leg or smoked rib comes your way, they're completely useless.
So it goes with Korean barbecue, though, in a slightly more artful and hygienic manner. The process is simple. After you've squirreled away a mound of grilled Kalbi, take a nice, big lettuce leaf in one hand and, using your chopsticks, swab it liberally down the middle with soybean paste. Then lay down a nice big chunk of meat over that, making sure to sprinkle it with a little coarse salt. Top that with a juicy slab of Kim Chi, and repeat this process with whatever panchan catches your fancy. Finally, add a little bit of rice, and if you're really feeling the spirit, throw down a grilled garlic clove and a piece of hot pepper. But be careful with the pepper. They may look like your average jalapeno, but these bastards can be extremely hot. When you're all ready, roll that mother up endwise and prepare to get happy, because once this package hits your taste buds a food-gasm is eminent. Repeat this process ad infinitum, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from your brow.
The Korean burrito has just about everything you want in a bite of food. The meat, whether Kalbi or Bulgogi, is sizzling hot and oh-so-tender, elevating the pungent spice of the soybean paste. The rice fluffs up the whole affair with a little starch, and mingles with the spicy, wicked, awesomeness of the crunchy Kim Chi. The grilled garlic clove and/or hot pepper will give you a nice kick in the ass, while the cool breeze of the lettuce calms everything down. It's perfect, really. Even your belches will taste great, which brings up an important final point.
5. Beware The Evil Kim Chi Burp!
Although your post-Korean barbecue belches may taste divine to you, I absolutely guarantee they will smell like a hot landfill to everybody else, including your girlfriend/boyfriend, fellow barbecue-eaters, the guy next to you on the subway, and anybody else within a ten-foot radius of your mouth. A hearty Kim Chi belch can actually wilt a flower. Try it. This is the great Achilles heel of Kim Chi -- it tastes like heaven but it smells like hell. Several measures can be taken to avoid breakups/ostracism/mugging as a result of Kim Chi burps.
As a preventative measure, don't drink anything carbonated while you eat Korean barbecue. This can be torturous, because Coke is divine with Kim Chi, but it will save you a few dozen belches in the end. Gums and mints may help mask the breath, but they are little help against the cruel onslaught of hot Kim Chi waft. Finally, if you are caught on the spot (this is of particular importance to subway riders) there is a technique I like to call the refried burp. First, trap the belch in your mouth, slowly re-breathing it so as to deplete its toxicity. You must resist the temptation to cough while you do this because it will spoil the entire process. Then gradually begin to ease the noxious cloud out through your nostrils, while casually moving away.
Sometimes the Kim Chi belch cannot be stifled and must be released naturally. It is, after all, the sign of a well-enjoyed meal. If this is the case, don't forget to follow it up with a heart-felt "Jahl-muhguh-sseum-nida!" which loosely translates to "I done ate good, much obliged!"
Brian Bernbaum writes a monthly 'Yokel's Guide' dining column for The Black Table. 'Muk Ja' means 'Let's Eat,' and a 'Chon-nom' is a bumpkin, or yokel.