Twenty-two years ago, while living in Sapporo, Japan, I nearly made it to Seoul. There was a week where it looked as if a visa run was necessary but in the end the trip never eventuated. In the ensuing years, I've barely given the place a thought. That's not entirely true; I thought about it twice - once, just before I started blogging here, my old mate in Saigon mentioned another blog, the now defunct Fat Man Seoul. The other time, more recently, was when I was reading Barbara Demick's depressing re-telling of the lives of North Koreans in 'Nothing to Envy', many of whom escaped to Seoul. Then, in a random moment of 'let's go somewhere', the god and I found ourselves with air tickets and accommodation booked.
We landed in Seoul at the end of March and at the airport in Hanoi before we departed, I was working out how we'd get from Incheon (Seoul airport, the name of which I'd just learned) to our accommodation in Jongno. That's how we roll with those kind of details. What we're going to put into our mouths, however, is of paramount importance and much less likely left to chance! With little knowledge of Korean cuisine, we had a big city food landscape to get across in six days.
I want to write about some of the dining experiences we had in Seoul in a series of short posts, starting with perhaps my only point of familiarity, Korean barbeque. Cliched as it may be from the outside, there are charcoal grill plates all over town giving colour and flavour to pork and beef, from modest street eateries in clandestine alleyways to sizeable indoor halls equipped with space-age silver or copper siphons that are lowered over each grill to hoover up the meaty smoke. It's a communal style of dining where grog is sipped or skolled during cooking and eating, a factor that panders to my tendencies.
At times, we were sampling from draught beer taps, soju and makgeolli bottles all at the same time. Makgeolli is a very quaffable liquor fusing rice and wheat, milky and pleasantly sweet and a couple of percentage points above beer in alcohol content. Normally drunk from dented tin bowls and originally the drink of choice amongst Korean farmers, it's rustic appeal is apparently gaining favour with Korea's youth. Though clearly not part of that demographic, at every barbeque joint I continued to drink it. One night, we were persuaded to neck a cocktail the locals call 'Sweet after Bitter', the make up of which is two shot glasses (one filled with soju, one with coca-cola) submerged in a large glass of beer.
These days I'm much more fond of boozy ambience if there is also commensurate amounts of food on the table. While it's mostly about meat (at any barbeque), around the Seoul griddle there is also an abundance of side plates containing vegetables, leaves and condiments. Button mushrooms and garlic cloves join the protein over the fire. Kimchi is present in many guises. Rich red pastes of fermented soy bean, glutinous rice powder and chili can be dabbed at and lettuce and perilla leaves are used to wrap. It's a busy table.
Beef rib meat and skirt steak, along with pork belly - sometimes marinated, sometimes not - are what we gravitated towards when selecting from the menu but there are many other cuts on offer. And at Seoul barbeque tables, the serving staff help with the lighting of fires, the replenishing of fuel, the changing of grill plates as well as setting the meat over the flame and its occasional turning - all of the tasks with the potential of mishap.
I'm grateful for that because someone has to pour the drinks.