After checking into the hotel, I received a message from colleague. Dinner, she said. Thing was, we didn't know where to go. At the hotel entrance we decided to go left and somehow wandered into a sidestreet dominated by small, unpretentious Korean eating houses. Which was good, because days later we discovered that had we turned right, we would have found the glitzier, more cosmopolitan areas full of espresso bars, boutique hotels and non-Korean restaurants.
Not knowing which restaurant to try, and since it was so effing cold (minus 3 C) we decided arbitrarily that we would eat something grilled. It seemed that the most popular restaurant was one that was serving pork, grilled DIY-style. When in Seoul, do as the Seoulites do. We entered, took of our shoes, and was greeted warmly by the staff. Any misgivings about the smell and smoke from indoor BBQ was quashed by their enthusiastic welcome and our general reluctance to step back into the freezing winds outside.
We were shown to a low table, and given little aprons to wear and plastic bags to protect our coats. Looking around, we noticed that all but two other customers were male. Everyone was looking (discreetly) at us, I don't suppose they often see clueless foreign women in their midst. And it soon became apparent that there is no English menu or picturebook to refer to, and none of the staff or fellow customers spoke English. We communicated using sign language, holding up two fingers to indicate our order.
The food came, fast. From the kitchen emerged a sucession of kimchi, salads, pickles and soup. Pork was sliced by a man who sat next to the payment counter which was next to the entrance. There must be a reason why this guy was prepping raw meat within stepping range of the dining tables and the shoe cabinet but I didn't know how to sign-language this question. Quite soon afterwards, we were given a plate of thick cut belly slices which looked like streaky bacon to me. Quantity definitely exceeded our annual allowance.
We didn't quite know how to cook it, and must have looked so awkward that the ajuma came and showed us what to do. First, the lard was brushed on to grease the plate, then pork is arranged in the middle and upper part and when they are done they rest at the bottom. The hotplate is angled so that grease drains through a small opening.
The pork could be eaten either wrapped with lettuce or pickled radish together with any combination of bean paste, scallions, grilled garlic and/or green chillies. Not that any of this matters, because the bacon was utterly, sinfully, crisply, sizzlingly, meatily, juicily delicious on its own. The healthy vegetable side dishes with their fresh crunchiness and myriad sweet, sour and pungent tastes contrasted well with, and if anything, made the bacon taste even better. I giggled happily and showed two thumbs up to the ajuma. Very good, I said. She beamed with pride.
We finished almost the entire plate, though with the last few pieces we thought of our cholesterol and removed the fatty streaks. I also consumed a none-too-tiny pile of sliced garlic, the Korean garlic is much milder than ours and grilling them with bacon fat made them sweet and soft, rather addictive but quite healthful I should imagine.
The cost: 18,000 won (~ USD18). Which was equivalent to what our hotel charged for the cheapest room-service breakfast.
Two days later I showed my Korean colleague what we ate. She said it is one of her favourites, in fact the day before she had treated her husband to such a meal for White Day (a sort of Valentine's Day for males) celebrations. I asked for the name of the dish, and she told me. Samgyupsal.
Nice name. I won't forget it in a hurry.