In any nation, undergoing rapid modernization cuisine can often be a telling reference point of the cultural transformation that is taking place. For instance, George Ritzer’s sociological theory of McDonaldization is based on the belief that, once a nation allows fast food franchises into its towns and cities, it is surely heading down a path of homogenization towards bland mass produced western culture, movies with roman numerals in the titles and chain store funeral homes.
Korea has indeed grabbed the concept of the fast food franchise and run with it at full speed: McDonalds, Burger King, Subway and home grown concepts such as Lotteria and BHC Chicken. Korea has also picked up the hyper-consumption ethic that is implicit in fast food culture, and that everything must be fast, new, ultra slick, from cell phones to apartment blocks and when the new is used up or superseded, it is readily discarded.
Yet, this is hardly the complete picture of life in Korea today. Truth be told while Koreans rapidly modernize, there is also a conscious effort to hold onto traditional values and, sure enough, this is reflected in choices of cuisine, especially the group of dishes referred to as ‘galbi‘.
‘Galbi’ translates as “rib” and refers to ribs of meat marinated in soy sauce. Though, traditionally, beef was the meat of choice, pork is also a common sight in restaurants specializing in galbi. These ‘galbi houses’ (referred to as “Scissor-cutting-meat-places” by one newcomer) seem to embody some quintessential elements of Korean culture. For example, the more traditional galbi houses will follow the custom of having patrons remove their shoes before entering as one would do upon stepping into somebody’s home, after which customers are shown to a table little more than a foot high with a gaping hole in the centre of it and what appears to be a industrial vacuum dangling overhead.
It is incredibly rare for someone to eat alone in a galbi house, meal time being a communal event in Korea and therefore, once seated on the floor around the table, customers are presented with a myriad of small dishes which are shared around. Kimchi, radishes, bean paste and green chillies are all passed around, as metal chopsticks expertly dive in and out, bringing articles of food to dishes of soy sauce en route to the mouths wet with anticipation. In the same manner, alcohol consumption is not a solo effort, but rather, single bottles of beer or soju are shared between many, the crash of empty shot glasses being slammed down on the table, being a familiar sound.
For the most part, the staff will simply wander over with the prepared materials with which the patrons are left to construct their meal as they please and, soon enough, the main event takes place: a bucket of glowing coals is brought out and neatly placed in the hole in the centre of the table. Over these coals, a grill is laid while the dangling space vacuum is pulled down and begins to suck up the emanating fumes. Then, strips of marinated rib meat are cut with scissors and placed upon the grill. From here, it is once again up to the patrons to tend to the chucks of meat with their chopsticks as they sizzle away, moving the cooked pieces to the edge, so they can be plucked off into dishes of bean paste and be wrapped in leaves before being eaten. Staff will saunter over every now again to ask if more meat or soju is required, but the table’s occupants are usually left to get on with it and require little prompting to do so, something which is also quite indicative of Korean attitudes to most tasks. Finally, little dishes of snow white rice are brought out, accompanied by a pot of boiling tofu, chilli and bean soup.
Families huddle around these low tables, tending to the little chunks of meat that sizzle over the red hot embers. Normally stern-faced business men loosen their ties a little, as Taekwondo students and their masters knock back another round of soju. Downtown, a fluorescent glow floods from the windows of the McDonalds and Burger King, like it does in a thousand cities the world over, but the galbi houses are quite the opposite, almost bastions of Korean traditions, or at least the traditions that predominantly consist of consuming meat and alcohol.
By Dann Gaymer