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How to eat Korean BBQ? [Moved from the LA Board]

  • c
  • cls Sep 1, 2006 02:10 PM

We have all been to Korean BBQ, but how do you eat it? Every time I go, I am shown something different. Do you have to order multiple main dishes? I have been admonished by waitresses to do so even though the four or so pounds of meat are a bit much for just my wife and me? Do you place the lettuce on the meat? On a side of rice? Do you eat all of the side dishes at any time? Do you turn and grill meat yourself, or always wait for the waitress? Are there other things to request? Are their different styles?

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  1. First, in most places I listen to the waitress for recommendations but not at a korean place. I have seen at almost every korean resturant I frequent the waitresses trying to steer non koreans to specific dishes. I don't think malice is involved but they are doing it because the think most americans won't like specific dishes. As for the amount, order the amount you want. The waitress even recommend to their korean customers that we should order as an example two or 3 orders of karbi. Like at any resturant order what you want. Remember you can order more if you need more but you can't give it back once you've ordered.

    As for how to eat it there is no rule. Do what you want. I have been thought (right or wrong) by my korean parents that koreans tables have less formality. You can do what ever you want with food combination and the order you eat stuff in.

    I like to grill the meat myself. They generally dump the meat on the grill for you and then I flip. Don't let the waitress do it because most places they don't have enough time to keep an eye on it like you can.

    Have fun and hope you have a chance to venture out from just korean BBQ dishes. There is a lot more to korean food then the BBQ.

    1. Not to put too fine a point on it, the waitresses are trying to get you to spend more money -- I've had them ask me why I'm being so cheap! (I responded in Korean, "Whom are you calling cheap?" to which they didn't have a response.)

      I always grill the meat myself, because I like it a bit rarer than the waitresses think I should have it, especially (good) kalbi. The various types of bulgogi cook in no time at all, so waiting for the waitress means burnt bulgogi.

      The panchan (side dishes) are for eating whenever you want, in whatever order you want. The waitstaff will refill most of them as many times as you like, within reason -- you may have to pay extra for 'special' panchan like p'ajeon, the scallion pancakes, in which case the waitresses will not be shy about telling you!

      Most people, when presented with the lettuce, the rice, and the spicy bean paste (dobanjan), make a little lettuce wrap -- a little rice, a piece of meat, a dab of dobanjan, wrap it up in the lettuce and eat it like a grape leaf. Other people just ignore the lettuce and the dobanjan and eat the meat and the rice.

      You're not breaking any rules, and in any case you're paying for the food, eat it however you want.

      You can ask for smaller portions of what you want in order to not just have one meat; some places will give you grief about this, other places are OK with it. Korean dinners (given by Koreans) are usually hosted, with the idea that the guests should reciprocate later by hosting a dinner, and the idea is to do right by your guests by ensuring that no-one could possibly go away hungry, hence the tendency to over-order. (This is certainly not limited to Koreans, however!)

      One thing about Korean restaurants in particular is that they tend to specialise in one food, so you decide what you want to eat, then decide where to go, the opposite of how it works in America. (This is less true of Korean-American restaurants, because they know that Americans want to go to one restaurant and read a menu and choose their dishes.)

      Thus, you go to a barbecue place for barbecue, to a tofu house for soon tofu (see below), to a noodle house for naengmyon, to an appetiser bar for mandu.

      As for Korean foods you're missing:

      haemul p'ajeon (hay-mool pah-jawn), a seafood and scallion pancake
      abalone porridge
      soups ("tang", "guk") and stews ("jjigae"), including soon dubu jjigae, a very spicy tofu stew, kalbi tang (beef rib soup), haemul tang (mixed seafood soup)
      mandu, Korean potstickers, sometimes made into soup (mandu guk)
      japchae, cold yam noodles mixed with bits of meat and veg
      kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi
      naengmyon, cold noodles with beef, Korean pear and egg (mul naengmyon is these noodles in cold broth)

      The list goes on and on... but all of these dishes are available in any large city, and if you're in LA, there are restaurants in Koreatown, Buena Park and La Crescenta that specialise in all of these.

      21 Replies
      1. re: Das Ubergeek

        Maybe you can answer a question for me. I ate in a Korean restaurant and ordered a noodle dish that was covered in a thick brown sauce. The whole concoction was so thick that they provided me with a pair of scissors and a tasting bowl so I could eat it. I noticed other customers, some of whom were Korean so it's not the idiot caucasian syndrome, doing the same thing. What did I eat?

        1. re: Scagnetti

          It sounds like you've had jiang jiang myun which is composed of wheat noodles with fermented black bean sauce. It's usually served with julienned cucumbers on top. This dish is not in every Korean restaurant as it is a Korean-Chinese dish as opposed to a purely Korean one. The Chinese immigrated to Korea and adapted Chinese foods for Korean tastes.

          Koreans are known for scissors. They love to cut everything with scissors, including kalbi (Korean BBQ shortribs). It actually is the best tool for the job if you want to cut the noodles at the table.

          1. re: Miss Needle

            the dish is "jja jang myun", not "jian jian myun". when pronouncing this dish's name, you put the stress on the first syllable ("jja") rather than the second or third, as some people unfamiliar with the language are wont to do.

            notice that i spelled the first syllable of the name with "jj", which denotes a "sharp" j sound that's sort of in between a "j" and "ch" sound. but as i mentioned in my post below, it's virtually impossible to render the exact pronunciation of a foreign word written in a foreign script unless you hear it spoken by a native speaker.

            btw, the original northern chinese name for the dish is "cha chiang mein".

            1. re: balhae

              The name in Mandarin is actually Zha2 Jiang4 Mian4 (zhajiang = fried bean sauce, mian = noodle). Typically in China it's made with a brown bean sauce rather than the black bean sauce in the Korean version.

          2. re: Scagnetti

            That's jja jang myun. Noodles with a black bean sauce, and generally vegetables and seafood and/or pork/beef in the sauce. It's considered Korean-style chinese. The scissors were for cutting up the noodles; otherwise you run the risk of splattering the sauce everywhere and making a mess. The proper way to cut the noodles (or at least the way I've seen it done) is to open the scissors all the way across the bowl, cut through once, turn the bowl 90 degrees and do it again. Before you eat the dish, you're also supposed to distribute the sauce well. It takes a while to figure out how to do this with chopsticks; the sauce gets all over the sticks.

            1. re: mrsry

              One interesting story I've heard about jia jiang myun is that an enterprising Korean restauranteur invented this dish and sold it as a "Chinese" dish sometime in the middle of the last century. Global commerce and human migration being what it is, though, it quickly became popular amongst Koreans in China, and it's now sold to Chinese diners in China as Korean food.

              1. re: kimcheater

                no, that's simply not true. at least 100 years ago, manchurians and han chinese from northeastern china started migrating into korea. these people brought their food with them, including jja jang myun, tang soo yook, kal gook soo, jjim bbang, jjam bbong, and so forth. of course, as chinese migrants have done in any number of countries (u.s., latin america, japan, korea, india, africa, guyana, europe, etc.), the food's taste was altered to suit the local palate. so a lot of the korean-style chinese dishes introduced by these migrants taste very different from their original versions in NE china.

                at one time, seoul had a fairly large and bustling chinatown, centered around the myung dong neighborhood in the city's center. however, the various south korean dictator regimes of the post-korean war era wanted to maintain a "pure" society and thus expelled most of the ethnic manchurians/han chinese. some of these folks eventually ended up in the u.s. and opened the first korean-style chinese restaurants here in the late '60s/early 70s, catering primarily to ethnic koreans in the states who missed that hybrid cuisine from back home.

                the irony here is that even though most of the ethnic manchurian/han chinese migrants ended up leaving korea (those who stayed generally changed their names to korean ones and/or intermarried with koreans), the cuisine remained immensely popular. even today, the best place to get korean-style chinese food in seoul is in myungdong. but nowadays, a lot of the restaurants are run by full ethnic koreans, as is the case in the u.s.

              2. re: mrsry

                i'm not sure there's a "proper" way to cut the noodles. i'm not even sure that the noodles HAVE TO be cut. honestly, i've always believed that it was simply a "korean thing" done out of convenience rather than some formal adherence to an explicit set of rules.

                as far as i know, the northeastern chinese who introduced this dish to korea do not cut the noodles with scissors themselves, meaning that somewhere along the line, koreans started doing it out of practicality.

                btw, miss needle is correct when she said that koreans love to cut certain food dishes with scissors. i've never seen any other ethnic group use scissors in food preparation as much as koreans.

                1. re: balhae

                  Yeah, I like long noodles so I never have them cut and have never gotten grief over this. It's just for convenience AFAIK.

                  1. re: choctastic

                    Actually for chinese you can't cut the noodles. Some eat noodles for birthday - long noodles = long life.

                    It's hard to handle the noodles when they are very long though.

            2. re: balhae

              actually, the bean paste that usually accompanies korean bbq is a mix of den-jang (soy bean paste) and gochujang (chili paste) and is normally referred to as sahm jang (sahm - meaning wrap, jang - meaning sauce). thought i'd throw in my two cents since we were discussing minutia...:o)

              1. re: soypower

                the paste that accompanies korean bbq is not always ssamjang. sometimes it's just dwenjang, sometimes it's just gochujang, and other times it's ssamjang, which as you've mentioned is a mixed paste of dwenjang and gochujang, but also includes sesame oil (and sometimes minced red peppers, green peppers, and garlic, too).

                the one you get depends on the restaurant or the home chef's preference, but personally i've gotten each of these over the years.

                certain diners prefer one paste over another when eating bbq. for some people, this is simply a matter of personal taste/preference, and for others it has to do with the degree of spiciness of the food from their region of korea. in general, people in the southern part of the korean peninsula don't like their food as spicy as those in the north.

                anyhow, i should've mentioned in my first response to das ubergeek (which was apparently deleted) that dwenjang is one of the pastes--but not the only one--that can be brought to the table to accompany korean bbq. but remember, the reason for my response to him in the first place was because he'd referred to this paste as "dobanjan", which is incorrect.

                1. re: soypower

                  My bad. We use dobanjan at home, we like the taste better.

                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                    what's dobanjan? i've never heard of it...

                    1. re: soypower

                      i think he's referring to "doo bahn jang", which is the korean name of a chinese soy bean paste. the chinese themselves call it "dou ban jiang". you probably haven't heard of it bc, well, it's not a korean condiment. it's distinctly chinese, and as far as i know i've never heard of any korean recipe utilizing it. it may originate from the sichuan province, but don't quote me on that.

                      anyway, doo bahn jang, as koreans call it, is somewhat similar to korean dwenjang or japanese miso in that it is a soy bean-based paste. but a key difference from dwenjang is its preparation; unlike dwenjang, doo bahn jang is not fermented, resulting in a unique taste that's hard to describe, but definitely distinct from the versions made in korea and japan. i guess you could say that doo bahn jang/dou ban jiang is vaguely related to korean dwenjang or japanese miso, but they're really three distinct condiments in my mind.

                      1. re: soypower

                        i should add that i've never heard of doo bahn jang/dou ban jiang used in any korean restaurant to accompany an order of bbq. if anyone here has ever been served this condiment, i can only come to two conclusions:

                        1) the restaurant has a large chinese clientele, as is the case with a surprising number of korean eateries in LA, NY, and elsewhere. ethnic restaurants that depend on a customer base largely of a different race or ethnicity will often water down the food to pander to that group's tastes. right off the bat i can think of any number of korean restaurants across the country, even (or especially) in NY and LA, that many outsiders deem to be "authentically korean" but in fact are toned down for western tastes. in that same vein, i wouldn't be shocked at all if some korean restaurants are dumbing down the food to cater to chinese palates as well.

                        and if that's the case, i guess it's possible that "doo bahn jang/dou ban jiang" is now being substituted for dwenjang. i've never seen this personally, though.

                        2) the other possibility is that the waiters at some korean restaurants are using the term "doo bahn jang/dou ban jiang" to describe the paste when speaking with non-korean clientele. especially if that clientele is chinese.

                        over the past few years, there has quietly been an influx of ethnic koreans from northeast china into the u.s. these people generally speak both korean and mandarin chinese fluently. many of these newcomers work in blue-collar type jobs within the established korean community: busboys, waiters, livery cab drivers, cashiers and baggers at korean supermarkets, and so forth.

                        given that fact, i would not be surprised if these newcomers are using chinese terms to describe korean "dwenjang" as "doo bahn jang/dou ban jiang" to chinese and perhaps even non-asian customers, despite the differences in the two pastes.

                        or perhaps a combination of these two factors is going on. whatever the case, it's definitely not authentic.

                        1. re: balhae

                          I've never seen doobahnjang in a korean restaurant either but I will say that I haven't seen much of the dumbing down in LA. that you speak of but I suppose I could be wrong.

                          However, I have seen certain Korean restaurants in OC surrounded by hordes of hungry Chinese diners and as a result they had to hire chinese speaking waitresses . I suppose the food has suffered a little but still quite good IMHO.

                  2. re: Das Ubergeek

                    das ubergeek,
                    the paste that accompanies korean bbq is either dwenjang, gochujang, or ssamjang--not dobanjan. please refer to my response to soypower for a more detailed explanation.

                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                      "As for Korean foods you're missing:

                      haemul p'ajeon (hay-mool pah-jawn), a seafood and scallion pancake"

                      hey, just wanted to clarify something based on what you said above. please don't take this the wrong way, as what i'm about to say is simply for the sake of being accurate.

                      the correct pronunciation of haemul pajeon is very close to "HEH-mool PAH-jun". the first syllable of each word is stressed, and the "jeon" in "pajeon" rhymes with "sun" or "fun". also, the "oo" sound in "heh-mool" is not dragged out or elongated; it's pronounced quickly, w/o rounding the lips.

                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                        i agree with ubergeek. whether you pronounce it kalbee or garbi, denjang or dwenjang, dooboo or tofu, the waitress will understand.

                        1. re: soypower

                          oh i agree. i definitely think the waitress will understand if you slightly mispronounce a menu item. and i definitely think that anyone unfamiliar with the korean language should just point and/or use the english translation of the dish, if available. that's perfectly acceptable, and it makes things easier for everyone.

                          the only reason why i contested ubergeek's pronunciation of "pajeon" is because if you're going to go out of your way to educate others about correct pronunciation, you need to be accurate. it's one thing for someone to mispronounce a menu item on their own; it's another if they do so bc they were unintentionally miseducated.

                          ubergeek, if you're reading this i'm really sorry that you thought i was trying to give you a hard time--i wasn't. it's just that if you're going to go out of your way to spell out the pronunciation for others--and that pronunciation is incorrect--then you're giving wrong information to everyone out there. and as a korean speaker i had to correct that. i'm sorry you took it the wrong way. hey, i enjoyed the rest of your posts, it's good stuff. no hard feelings, ok?

                    2. How about a really ignorant question? My family and I ate at our first Korean place, had no idea what we ate! We were fascinated by the 8 or so little dishes of pickled things that arrived before our food. Just out of curiosity, were we supposed to do anything special with them? We nibbled on them before and during our meal. Our lovely waitress had extremely limited English, and I never did quite understand her...but a smile is universal, isn't it?

                      14 Replies
                      1. re: kmr

                        panchan (banchan) are side dishes that are standard with every Korean meal. You're exactly right; nibble on them throughout the meal. Some people like to put pieces of panchan into the lettuce along with meat and bean paste to make a wrap. Panchan is half the fun of eating Korean!

                        1. re: kmr

                          Ah, you have discovered the wonder of panchan. The list of panchan is huge -- the Korean market near me has nearly 200 kinds available by the pound, everything up to pickled oysters -- but here are some of the more common ones:

                          Kimchi -- the floppy looking napa cabbage with the fiery red sauce. This is the sine qua non of Korean food -- without it, some Koreans don't consider what they ate a meal.

                          Mul kimchi -- the same cabbage, but firmer and less spicy and floating in pink water.

                          Oi kimchi -- cucumbers that have been pickled in the same spicy chile paste. This one is my favourite.

                          Tofu with soy, sesame, ginger and green onion.

                          Cold bean sprouts with sesame oil.

                          Radish kimchi -- blocks of radish in the red chile paste.

                          Sweet radish -- "noodles" of white radish in a sweet vinegar sauce.

                          Seaweed (or spinach) with sesame oil.

                          P'ajeon -- thin, usually lukewarm pancakes with lots of green onion in them.

                          Potato soup -- thin broth with thin flat slices of potato floating in it, contains more black pepper than you would expect.

                          Japchae -- translucent yam noodles in a slightly sweet sauce.

                          Korean-style potato salad -- with raisins (not kidding).

                          This doesn't even scratch the surface of the zillions of kinds of panchan and kimchi out there... but it's at least a primer. At every sit-down Korean place I've ever eaten at, everything on the above list except the soup and the p'ajeon had free refills.

                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            Actually, the potato salad is most commonly made with apples and carrots, and raisins are sometimes added TO that mixture.

                            I only wish more places served guul (oysters)-- not the fresh kind (although some places do serve those)-- but muchim kind.

                            1. re: PseudoNerd

                              I agree about the potato salad--never seen it with raisins.

                              My mom used to make mussels that I think are like the oysters you're talking about. She even once sent me back to college with them, which I thought was crazy, but eventually I appreciated it!

                              1. re: mrsry

                                At Woo Chon in Flushing, New York, I've sometimes been served a banchan of mashed yellow sweet potatoes with golden raisins.

                                Other banchan I've found common that haven't been mentioned yet are caramelized, salted black beans and salted small fish in a red sauce.

                              2. re: PseudoNerd

                                the mayonnaise potato salad banchan commonly served at korean restaurants these days is a relatively recent creation, and a hybrid one at that. remember that there was no such thing as mayonnaise (or spam, for that matter) in korea until the korean war, when it was introduced by u.s. soldiers stationed there.

                                so koreans really (and i mean REALLY) took to these american foods like mayo and spam. that's how the banchan comprised of potato salad, mayo, apples, carrots, and sometimes raisins came about--it's essentially a hybrid food created by the korean love for this condiment and incorporating whatever items the chef feels like throwing in. in other words, since it's a "new" dish without any rules for how it should be made, different restaurants will include different ingredients--that's why sometimes you'll see raisins and apples, sometimes not; it's all up to the chef. sort of like how americans put weird toppings on their pizza, such as pineapple.

                                similarly, spam is used in any number of korean dishes, most notably boodae jjigae (a.k.a. army stew) and sometimes even kimchi jjigae (for home cooks, not at restaurants, where they'll use "real" meat).

                                1. re: balhae

                                  actually the potato salad coming out of korean kitchens is not really that much of a hybrid but almost all-american. specifically if you go into the midwest (I'm thinking Illinois for instance) you'll find \americans making potato salad with apples and such that tastes very familiar. the only thing that koreans put in potato salad that Americans don't really is cucumbers IIRC and okay maybe ham or spam.

                              3. re: Das Ubergeek

                                What, free refills?!! I've never had free refills offered. Thanks for this valuable information!!

                                There's a great Korean grocery in Chicago with a long table of panchan by the pound. I believe now they are labeling them in English, but when I first went there, there was no English, and I couldn't even tell if some of the things were animal or vegetable. Which I always thought was part of the charm. I just bought half a dozen, and took them home and tasted.

                                The potato salad I've had at Korean restaurants in Chicago had neither raisins nor carrots and apples. Very plain potato salad.

                                1. re: Anne H

                                  They aren't going to offer it, but it's available for the asking.

                                  The Wall O'Kimchi is much, much worse if you can read hangeul, by the way.

                                  "Let's get this one!"
                                  "Um, I'm pretty sure that says 'fermented octopus'."
                                  "Moving on."

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Sometimes, they do offer.

                                    1. re: Pan

                                      Some Koreanb restaurants actually charge you extra for additional side dishes. This is particularly common in big cities. So before you ask for a lot of side dishes make sure you ask or else you might end up with a very expensive bill!

                                      1. re: kobetobiko

                                        yeah, i've heard of this before, and it's ridiculous. this kind of garbage only happens at a handful of extremely westernized korean restaurants catering primarily to a non-korean clientele. they'd never be able get away with it at a traditional korean restaurant and/or to a table of koreans.

                                        someone told me a while back that the spiffy and trendy branch of woo lae oak in manhattan charged for banchan. while i haven't been to that place, i wouldn't be surprised at all that they would charge for something that's supposed to be included with the meal.

                                        1. re: kobetobiko

                                          This is most true in some Japanese owned, Korean style restaurants in my experience. These places also charge for rice.

                                  2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Some also have the pickled raw clams. Not sure what it's called.

                                2. I was told I had to shove the whole thing that was wrapped with rice and meat all in my mouth in one time if I want to be hardcore.

                                  1. I don't think there's one way (or a 'correct' way) of eating korean bbq... you should be able to eat what you want in whichever way you want to eat it. I'd be offended if a waitress didn't let me order or eat the way I wished. I don't eat red meat, but my family and friends love going to korean bbq places, so I end up eating only the complimentary side dishes... too bad if the waitresses have a problem with that!

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: bijoux16

                                      Oh I think that eating complimentary side dishes without paying for a meal is not a matter of being told how to eat. That is not something that I would do because it is unfair to the business and the waitress. She is serving a table of 6 but is only tipped on order for 5 people and the owners are feeding you for free! I'm sure that you're an ideal guest, but they have not invited you to enjoy a complimentary meal.

                                      In the Philadelphia area, our Korean restaurants tend to have very broad menus featuring hot pots, stews, noodles, rice dishes and BBQ, so there are many many options apart from red meat. But I'm under the impression that all BBQ places offer chicken or shrimp and that most offer vegetarian appetizers like pajeon. Perhaps you could order one of these dishes the next time that you go.

                                      1. re: Kater

                                        P'ajeon aren't necessarily vegetarian -- even if it doesn't have meat or seafood in it, many kinds of doenjang have anchovies in them.

                                        There are always non-red meat options (dack bulgogi, daeji bulgogi, haemul-tang, etc.) but there are not always strictly vegetarian options.

                                        That said, kimchi often has dried shrimp in it, so it's not necessarily vegetarian either.

                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                          Here's a question about kimichi.

                                          I recently when to a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles that served two different types of Kimichi for panchan. The first tasted much stronger, probably had fermented fish or shrimp. The second was huge--it might have been half of a head of cabbage wrapped into a ball. It might have had apples in it as well? But it was much milder in taste and it tingled on your tongue as if it was carbonanted. I preferred the stinky, fishy version. But do you know how the second was prepared and/or why it tasted carbonated?

                                          1. re: mielimato

                                            those weren't apples, those were korean pears. you know, the huge golden/brown pears that have a grainy texture and are crispy like apples. I think they are even called apple pears sometimes.

                                            The second is a stuffed kimchi that is very labor intensive. I have no clue why its carbonated....I always ask my mother why and she never seems to give me a straight answer. Maybe it goes through a different fermentation process than the first one. Im assuming the first one was fermented longer because of the strong taste you are describing.

                                            Wish I could help out more!