Korean BBQ: Best When Shared

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

I think I have a problem. My eyes start to grow wide when I think about it. My cheeks (fuller now then maybe ever before?) crawl towards my ears revealing a serious–some may say concerning–smile when I'm actually doing it. But I can't stop. And I don't plan to stop anytime soon. So it's best just to admit I have a problem and move on: I'm guilty of trying to turn any group gathering into an improv Korean BBQ outing. Christmas dinner? I know where we can cram 15 of us in a booth with 3 electric grills in the table! Monthly couple date? Let's catch up over pork belly and Hite, and I'll update you on that weird neighbor of ours who covers his windows with foil! The girl you drove five hours for cancelled dinner, and now you're stuck in a city you don't live in with no plans? The obvious cure to your pain lies in some Jeyuk Bokkeum and soju (multiple bottles)!

I remember when I was introduced to Korean BBQ. James (a friend I met during Army training in Fort Lee) held the bottom of the empty glass with his thumb and middle finger and swirled it as if the secrets of the universe were inside it. James picked up one of the green bottles on our table. He showed it off like a Sotheby's auctioneer. He called it soju. Apparently, the bottle that James was holding contained the most popular liquor in the world, and I had never heard of it. James reassured me that the entire country of South Korea couldn't be wrong in loving soju. He said businessmen in South Korea will celebrate with soju and blow off steam by ordering a bottle per man, then another bottle per man. This would continue he said, from bar to bar all night, sometimes until the sun greeted them. He admitted that it can get out of hand at times. But he also said there are rules.

The first rule he said, was that the oldest person at the table pours the first shot for everyone. Then, everyone lifts and taps their glasses revealing a distinct clink sound. But you don't tap them like you do in the United States, he told me. In the states, we hold shot glasses firmly in the middle and when you tap them they produce an underwhelming thud. To get that pure clink, a clink that marks the end of a two year merger or the beginning of parenthood, you need to hold the glass gently at the bottom. To help with his endeavor, you will find little ridges that are cut into the bottom of the glass in order to make it easier for you to hold. Two hands is a preferred method, so I've read but never seen. Once everyone clinks and throws back their first shot it's important not to leave your glass empty. But there's a catch. You can't pour your own shot. Someone else must pour your shot–always. James elaborated how these rules and customs reflect some of the values of Korean society: respecting elders and superiors and the importance of the group over self. I loved it all. The only thing I hated was it took 25 years for me to be exposed to it. It turned eating into a ritual that can only be enjoyed at its fullest with people you care about. It's a dining experience to brag about. Many of us chase something like this but it evades us behind velvet ropes and year long wait lists. You will have no such troubles when dining on short ribs in the middle of a strip mall.

On New Years Eve two years ago, I held a shot glass between my thumb and middle finger like James did only a few years before. I explained to my younger brothers the rules and customs of the experience we were about to share, and the importance of honoring them. Then a smile started to spill out of the corners of my mouth as the waiter came and put down two green bottles in front of us.

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