“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” – Mahatma Gandhi
An innumerable list of lessons reveal themselves while living in a foreign place and Korea has offered so many of them. Standing above the rest is one thing important to us all: mealtime. This country’s eating style fascinates me, and perhaps that’s thanks to the years of opportunities to witness it in action.
Because everyone eats and here, it’s usually at the same time whether lunch or dinner. One way to define a culture is to watch its people eat. And they eat here. One particular dish quite commonly used for cultural engagement is Dak Galbi (Dalk Galbi to those craving a more precise translation).
But there’s a catch: eat with a friend.
Why? Because Koreans don’t like to eat alone. I’ve proposed this idea to friends, students, and always receive a strange look. Eating with family, friends, whoever is better than solitude. And when together, they don’t typically order separate dishes. The meal gets eaten like a family, no matter your relationship with the person. As one.
One would be hard-pressed to find a Korean restaurant and not find groups of people inside. Kinship and relations are truly important here and with that, sharing. But less spoken, sharing is an instinct here. And share until nothing is left. Nothing makes that sentiment clearer than during mealtime.
That’s why having a friend along for dinner or lunch is a must, not because company is always best. Koreans mostly don’t talk when eating and that can seem strange for those of us who love to chat over a meal. I love (and hate!) the vocal energy that these people bring to the table in almost every situation but that disappears when eating. When food reaches the table, it’s business time.
Another reason to bring a friend to dinner is that many restaurants prefer (if not require) a two person minimum, with menus specifically mentioning that orders begin for two. Korean restaurants are changing and while people love their big menus full of variety, the best places specialize in one dish or just a couple, smartly centered around one animal or main ingredient.
Pork and beef barbecue are cultural icons that everyone knows but thankfully, there’s a chicken option that separates itself from the rest. Dak galbi has worked its way into the mainstream and for good reason. Simply put, it’s marinated and boneless chicken but stopping there would grossly undersell this beautiful meal.
The delicious stir-fry players come in to help Dak Galbi pack a punch and leave one wanting for more not out of dissatisfaction but with an overly happy palate. Cabbage, sweet potatoes, tteok (rice cakes), and occasionally quail eggs all rise to the occasion to make this more than a dinner experience. Korean staples make up the sauce: Red pepper paste, sesame oil, and soy sauce with sugar added to taste, and neutralize the heat that remains around your lips after leaving the restaurant.
Satisfaction (and some responsibility) Guaranteed
Eating dak galbi is just part of the experience because you are partially responsible for cooking it beforehand. Of course the restauranteurs will come back and check up and even cook to perfection if business is slow enough.
Sitting down in a dak galbi restaurant is almost as special as getting a chance to watch the people themselves having an enjoyable meal. Korean food is definitely unique and gaining strength outside its borders. Dak galbi’s initially overwhelming spiciness might hold milder palates back but give it some time. It grows on you. You’ll want it again.
The Korean Wave continues to spread throughout the world and dak galbi may find its way into popular cuisine circles but that dining experience is worth a visit to the source. I tried to bring it home and while visiting family, produced an almost equally delicious version of dak galbi over a stove. But it wasn’t the same as watching it cook while sitting at a table and having some drinks in Korea. Nothing else can reproduce that. I promise.
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Read about our trip to the source of Dak Galbi here.