Letter from Korea: the Kalbi Conundrum
by Andy Jackson

”Let’s go for a barbeque!” My Korean host Mr. Park suggested.

“A barbeque!” I exclaimed “But it’s minus ten!!!” “No!” Mr. Park scowled, as if I’d just stepped off the plane. I had in fact just got off the plane and that was where I had met my host -on the flight into Korea. “In Korea, we have the barbecues inside not outside!”

I hadn’t known what to expect from Korea, and already the culture was proving to be an insoluble conundrum. Imagine; a barbecue inside.

Within a minute we were sitting on the heated floor of a raised platform, around a table with gleaming hot coals in the center. “What do you want?” Asked Mar Park. “I don’t know, where’s the menu?” I asked naively and Mar Park pointed to a sign on the wall with Korean characters that were incomprehensible to me. “There it is,” he said. “Let me order.” I agreed and marveled at the restaurant with no appetizers, no afters, no menu. This was making complete sense.

Presently a plate of raw meat was served up to us. “But it isn’t cooked,” I exclaimed naively. “Will the chef be cooking it at our table?” Mar Park erupted into fits of laughter. “No, no in Korea, we’ll do the cooking ourselves.”

But of course, a restaurant where the customer pays the restaurant not to cook his food. This truly was my world turned upside down.

And then waitresses brought plate upon plate of all kinds of wonderful things, spinach in garlic, tofu in soy sauce, bean sprouts, crab, squid, sesame seed leaves- wonderful colours too- greens, whites, yellows but mainly the reds of the chili. This was great. “Yes eat as much as you like, we’ll order more later…” Mar Park was shining. “But won’t that be expensive?” I asked feeling dafter and dafter. “No these are side dishes, you only pay for the meat, this is Korea.”

And it was, so I ate as much as I wanted and marveled at the restaurant where all the vegetables were free. We washed it all down with small shot glasses of the infamous soju, which were drunk in rapid succession., I was so stuffed I wanted to lie down on the warm floor. Then Mar Park suggested the impossible and recommended having something called siksa. I asked if that meant dessert, Mar Park burst out laughing and fumbled in his dictionary. “It means a meal… dinner.. hearty fare.” “But we’ve just finished and now you want us to eat again!!”

“No we’ve finished the meat.. now for the rice and stew, it’s the Korean way.”

But of course, it was so simple: a restaurant where you finish your meal and then have dinner.

I did end up having the siksa, and it was indeed a perfect end to a marvelous first experience in Korea. It's so ironic that the only meat Korea is known for is of the canine variety that this marvelous Korean custom is so often ignored by outsiders to the peninsula. I often think back to that first day, when everything seemed so strange and I’m grateful to Mar Park for introducing me to a ceremony I’ve repeated thousands of times over the years. Usually without the silly questions.

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