Cooking Life

2 Food in Korea I: specialists

Food is an amazing cultural artifact. I love food. I love meals with friends. I love the magic of raw ingredients becoming cooked. The very essence of what it means to be human is bundled into every meal. But I’m getting carried away.


When I travel, I try every single thing I get my hands on. Mostly. It’s why I love food in Korea: the variety is astounding. Abalones, eels, kelp, ginseng, hallabongs, makgeoli, big fat raddishes and chunky round pufferfish, pickled crabs and penis fish. And many more.

Each of those is fascinating. And usually delicious. I’ll write about them sometime.

But there is another reason I find eating in Korea so very, very different from Europe. Restaurant specialization.

In Europe, restaurants split neatly according to social class. I tell them apart by table settings. Nothing on the table: lower class joint. One glass, one fork and one knife: middling fare. Two or more glasses, sets of cutlery and fine linens: upper class.

They might be Italian or German or Turkish or Moroccan or Martian, but they function the same way. I go into a restaurant and then choose what I eat. Will it be lamb soufflé or shrimp paté or patates soumise-en-beurre or boiled cow bits in a crust with two peas. I choose one thing, my friends choose different things. Then, just desserts.

Depending on class, I can expect older oil and a lower bill. And flavor and ambience, sure.

This is not the case in Korea. Here, restaurants are specialized according to their main dish.

Pork on a grill in a pork belly place

I can go to a place that does grilled chicken, beef barbecue, pork belly, puffer fish soup, fried fish, sashimi, abalones, grilled eels, seafood stir fries, seashell grills, pickled crabs, snowflakes, bubble tea, pastries, rice rolls, rice cakes, grilled cow intestines, blood sausages, spicy steamed chicken, lamb skewers and more.

But that’s the only dish they do.

There’s no messing about with choosing dishes. Once I’m sitting with friends, we’re sharing the same meal and the same experience. Together.

The best part is, I never feel like I’m the one person who got screwed by the damned seafood special and ended up with the three sad, burned petit-king prawns for 40 euros and a view. Oh, no. We get to bitch together. That, right there, is some good team-building design.

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