Sure, the food is delicious, but it’s that sense of community that makes Korean barbeque what it is.
This isBad Kimchi, a column by Noah Cho about how food and cooking can inform our identities.
A lot of my childhood memories are dominated by my grandparents. My Korean grandparents lived with us on and off, always jovial, even when my halmeoni made my mom furious by pretending to neither speak nor understand English. Eventually my white grandparents made the move from New Jersey to California to help my mom take care of my younger brother and sister. This group always made for interesting family gatherings.
Most of our big family dinners took place at our house, where my mom would cook a multinational assortment of foods—from the Polish and broadly Eastern European dishes of her childhood to the Korean dishes she spent so many decades trying to perfect. My Korean grandparents preferred to eat Korean food, but gamely tried the other dishes my mom prepared, my harabeoji occasionally adding something spicy. My white grandmother, too, was up for trying almost anything outside of offal cuts; she still loves wide swaths of Korean food and handles spice admirably for a ninety-year-old woman.
My white grandfather, though, was not as open-minded when it came to food. He would eat, as most white Americans do, Westernized Chinese food, and when it came to Japanese food, he’d rely on teriyaki or tempura. He didn’t touch Indian or Thai food, and while he could not avoid Mexican food in Southern California and grew to enjoy it, it’s not like he knew what a tlayuda was or anything. When it came to Korean food, he liked none of it, save for one thing: Korean barbeque.
Cooking meat over a flame isn’t anything revolutionary, and in that context it’s easy to see why my grandfather took to Korean barbeque. He had an incredible sweet tooth, so the fact that many Korean barbeque marinades are sweet also played to his tastes. He liked kalbi, and was particularly in love with bulgogi, which he referred to—often loudly, and to my great embarrassment and shame at Korean restaurants—as “bulldoggy.” But these were the only times he sat and enjoyed Korean food with me, so they remain cherished memories.
For white Americans like my grandfather, Korean barbeque is often a gateway to Korean food. When Korean food was still niche in this country, the one thing I could count on my white friends actually enjoying was barbeque. The dazzling display of a giant tray of raw, red slices of unseasoned beef paired with the murkier but sweet-garlicky smell of the marinated cuts won folks over time and again. As a lifelong Californian I don’t love the rain, but the sound of it so often reminds me of Korean barbeque hitting the grill, the patter on a roof echoing the sputtering, charring promise of beefy bliss. I’ve eaten Korean barbeque in a lot of places, from the best Korean food city in the US, Los Angeles, to a random place near the Vatican, to the side streets of Hongdae in Seoul. Every time, it’s been a reason to gather with friends or family and share a table together.
For white Americans, Korean barbeque is often a gateway to Korean food.
There is, always, the designated meat cooker, a task I relish—especially when I get to grill for someone encountering Korean barbeque for the first time. In recent years, I’ve noticed more servers in Korean barbeque places taking over the grilling duties themselves, perhaps bemused that so many non-Koreans tend to seize up without the diplomatic immunity of a Korean friend to guide them. But it really is that sense of community that makes Korean barbeque what it is. Sure, the food is delicious; exploring the restaurant’s banchan, and seeing if they offer half orders of cold, refreshing naengmyeon to cleanse the palate near the end of the meal is one of my favorite flavor adventures. Beyond the food, though, meals like this are where many of my best friendships have solidified, where family disputes have erupted into cataclysmic shouting matches. Korean barbeque restaurants are where so many of us go when we need a place that can hold a big group and feed us well.
And that is what I have been mourning. Since the pandemic began and many restaurants closed, my thoughts have returned time and again to the meals that can’t be easily replicated at home—or, at least, don’t hit the same way outside of an actual restaurant. The Korean barbeque restaurant experience, for me, is irreplaceable. I make a very good kalbi marinade, and I feel quite secure in my bulgogi recipe. My favorite meat selection at Korean barbeque is dwaeji bulgogi, pork marinated in scarlet, gochujang-rich sauce that, gently charred at the edges is as close to perfection in food that I can think of—I can make this for myself, too, and grill it at home. It’s not the same, though.
I miss my clothes and hair smelling like charred marinade when I emerge from the restaurant. I’ve jokingly asked Korean friends to record their moms or aunties yelling at me for ordering too much. I want to watch an ahjumma grab the scissors and deftly cut identical, even cuts of succulent meat ready to be thrown on the grill and tossed and turned with tongs, as my friends and I clink glasses of watery, barely-beer Hite and knock back another shot of soju, all while the chorus of pastel-shirted Korean businessmen one table over scream at each other over memories of their youth.
So many memorable moments have taken place over Korean barbeque. In college, I had a disastrous dinner with the Korean girl I was dating at the time; never have I felt less Korean than when her mother chided me for flipping the meat too much and how “white” my nose looked. My Korean family, a dysfunctional lot that has spent many decades simply yelling at each other about injuries great and small, had one of their epic wars at a Korean barbeque restaurant.
In recent years, many of my older Korean family members have passed on. From my dad’s sibling brood of six, only two remain: my aunt, and my Uncle Kenny, my dad’s youngest brother and the only remaining Cho male from that generation. Uncle Kenny has always been my favorite of my dad’s brothers; he’s funny, loud, generous beyond his means, and perhaps suffered the most in a family rife with suffering, from robberies of his liquor store to house fires to bad investments. But he’s a gift, too; charming beyond all measure, and someone who has a lust for life and an incredible taste for food. That lifelong battle with the world has taken its mental and physical toll as he enters his late seventies. I still see my dad in his face—more than I do in his other brothers, or even in my own reflection, which is maybe why I took to Uncle Kenny so much after my father died.
Korean barbeque restaurants are where so many of us go when we need a place that can hold a big group and feed us well. And that is what I have been mourning.
The last time I saw Uncle Kenny was at a Korean barbeque restaurant (naturally) in Los Angeles. Not just any barbeque restaurant, but one of the classics: Dong Il Jang. It’s been around long enough that I remember going there with my Korean grandparents as a little kid. I remember seeing one solitary bead of sweat form on my dad’s forehead as he drank kimchijigae along with his barbeque. It’s definitely not the best Korean barbeque in Los Angeles, but it has served generations of Korean families well, providing an almost-frozen-in-time look at what Koreatown in Los Angeles has been throughout its existence—the ahjummas who work there are as salty as they’ve ever been, still wielding their kitchen shears with aplomb.
During the meal, as he often does, Uncle Kenny took my hand in his. His grip held steady and tears formed in his eyes. As the meats sizzled on the grill, as chunks of garlic charred to black, as smoke filtered above and around us, he wept, telling me how much he loved my father, how much he missed my father, how much I look like my father, and how much he loves me. I wept with him.
The dinner wore on, the grill changed, new meats were brought out. We toasted with beer and soju, and after a quiet moment he locked eyes with my mother. “How is your daddy?” he asked. Her father, my grandfather—the one who called bulgogi “bulldoggy,” who only ate Korean food if it was Korean barbeque—had died years ago.
“He’s dead, Kenny,” my mom said softly. “You were at the funeral, remember?”
Uncle Kenny looked in the distance and whispered, “Oh.” And then he looked at the sizzling grill, lost in thought—perhaps chasing the memories of my grandfather, of my father, of family barbeque dinners and days soon to be lost forever, as the embers burned down beneath.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.