One of the things I love about Korea is the sense of community built around food and the interactivity that happens right at the dinner table. Many meals are “family style” where dishes are shared and cooked on your tabletop. Korean barbecue is one of those meals and one that I never get tired of. Samgyeopsal, which is pork belly, is the quintessential cut of meat for Korean barbecue. It’s ordered by the gram, usually 100-200 per person, and is brought to your table raw, unseasoned and un-marinated. That may sound a bit boring, but once it starts sizzling on the gas or charcoal grill built into your table, you won’t be disappointed.
Samgyeopsal is always served with ssamjang (a thick dipping sauce made with red pepper paste and fermented soybean paste) and either a little bowl of course salt or a sesame oil and salt combination. Once the pork is nice and crispy on the outside, I like to dip it in the two and wrap it up in a lettuce or perilla leaf which are also always served with samgyeopsal. I also like to add garlic, cloves of which are grilled at your table alongside the pork. Sometimes grilled kimchi is a nice addition as well. Like all Korean meals, an array of banchan (side dishes) will be brought to your table along with the samgyeopsal, kimchi, garlic and lettuce. Typically you’ll get a soup, pickled radish, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, and some marinated seaweed, among other things. It varies from place to place, but they’re always free with your meal and refillable at no extra cost.
Usually one person in your dinner party takes charge of the grill at your table. I’ve had a few different experiences in terms of how much the staff help out, however. The first time David came to visit I was so excited to share a traditional Korean barbecue meal with him, but we were both disappointed when the woman working there wouldn’t leave our table. She just stood there, manning the grill until all the meat was cooked (at the time I was still fairly new to Korea and didn’t know how to politely ask her to leave and let us grill our own meat). That is the only time I’ve had the staff babysit the grill like that, though. Most of the time they leave you to do it on your own, or they might step in and flip your meat over if they see you’ve left it too long on one side. Either way, if you feel like you do need help or a refill of some sort, you can call the staff over by simply pushing a button at your table.
I suppose some people might not enjoy the aspect of cooking your own food at a restaurant. Isn’t not having to do the cooking the point of going out for dinner? For some, maybe. I happen to love the communal, interactive dining experience, and the fact that I don’t have to wash any of the dishes afterwards makes it even better.
It’s no surprise hiking is really popular in Korea considering 70 percent of the country is comprised of mountains. There are 21 national parks in South Korea, which seems like a lot considering the country is the size of Indiana. Jirisan was the first to be designated in 1967, and the Korea National Park Service was established in 1987. Knowing the park service was formed in 1916 in the United States, it’s a relatively new concept here in Korea. From what I’ve seen so far, the KNPS does an excellent job of maintaining them.
While I’ve only been to three of the national parks so far, there are several things I’ve observed each time I’ve gone hiking. One of the first things I noticed was not about the mountains or trails themselves, but the hikers. I have yet to see a Korean on a hiking trail that isn’t decked out in the latest brightly colored hiking gear, head to toe, with matching backpacks and trekking poles. The difficulty of the hike doesn’t seem to matter, it’s all about the gear. Appearance is a really big part of Korean culture, so this isn’t shocking, but I’m still amazed by how much time and money they seem to put into their hiking outfits. This explains why there are so many outdoor apparel shops throughout Korea.
The first time I went hiking in Korea I wondered why I saw so many people carrying 50+ liter backpacks on a day hike. Then I reached the summit and discovered clumps of people scattered about, all huddling around gigantic spreads of food, rice wine and soju. I’ve learned that hiking in this country is not complete without a feast on the mountain. I assume this is why there are so many “rest stops” along trails that are basically roadside restaurants, just in case you didn’t bring enough food or drink with you. My peanut butter and jelly sandwich and bag of apple slices seemed quite pathetic after seeing so many elaborate mountaintop picnics. The food lover in me really likes this aspect of hiking in Korea.
As a native Coloradoan and former resident of Washington, I can say the mountains in Korea seem a little puny in comparison to 14,000 foot peaks. However, I don’t think Korea knows about the secret of switchbacks. They prefer to just plow straight up the mountain making many of the hikes here a bit strenuous. This is where I should mention the majority of hikers I see here are older. And by that I mean it’s rare to see people under 40 taking pleasure in day hiking (not that 40 is old, but I’ve hardly seen anyone in their 20s or 30s on the trails here, unlike what I’m used to seeing back home).
Claustrophobic is not a term I ever thought I would associate with hiking. That is, until I went on a few fall hikes in Korea. There have been times when the trail has been so crowded there’s been no where to go and no way to get around all of the people. I have actually been pushed and shoved on crowded trails here, and I have had to wait in line to finish hiking the last half kilometer to the summit because there are so many people. I’ve also nearly had my eye poked out more than once by other people’s trekking poles while trying to navigate through what I decided to call hiking jams. It’s great to see so many people being active and taking advantage of the outdoors, but didn’t we all come here to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, to listen to the trees blow in the wind, to be quiet with nature and our own thoughts? There have been a few instances where I’ve felt just as stressed about being on a mountain side as I have in an overly packed subway car. Perhaps I’ve just chosen the most popular trails during the most popular hiking season a few too many times. I also rely on public transit to get me places, making it harder to access spots that are a little more off the beaten path. Thankfully, not all of my hiking experiences have been this way, but more than I’d like have been.
In the end, no matter how crowded the trail is or how under-dressed I feel, no matter how big or small the mountain is, it always feels good to conquer it. I hope to climb a few more before before my time in Korea comes to an end.
Shabu Shabu is not a traditional Korean dish, it’s Japanese. Actually, the idea originates from Chinese hot pot dishes, but it is very popular in Korea (not to mention delicious and healthy), so I had to share. There are various kinds of shabu shabu, but what you will always find at these restaurants is a pot of boiling stock in the middle of your table, to which you’ll add an array of vegetables and then cook your meat in it. Sometimes there is also a grill along the outside of the pot for cooking meat, and at Vietnamese style shabu shabu restaurants you’ll find rice paper on the table to wrap up your meat and vegetables and then dip in various sauces.
The important thing to remember when going to a shabu shabu restaurant is you must bring a big appetite because you will eat a lot (the first time I experienced this meal I could barely walk home, I was that full). This is because there are several “courses” involved, and it’s hard to stop eating when it tastes so good. You begin by choosing a set of meat which will automatically come with loads of vegetables, plus noodles and rice. You’ll also get a variety of traditional Korean side dishes (called banchan). Originally, this dish was made with thinly sliced beef, which you only need to briefly dip in the stock to cook, but you will also see pork, duck, and seafood listed as options in meat sets.
One of the things I love about this meal is how beautiful it is, especially right when they begin arranging all the dishes on your table. I tried to capture it on camera, but I found that a little hard to do because I was so distracted by the deliciousness.