1. Korean BBQ smells divine, a fact that I happily announced to the waiters the second I stepped foot into Shogun in Al Ghurair. Everything about it – the restaurant, the seats, our table, my hair as I left the restaurant…smelled of smokey grilled meats. Meaty hair can be totally unsexy in this day and age, but I’m quite sure that’s an (unfortunate) by-product of evolution.
Flashback to countless years ago, to a gang of bare-chested (bachelor) cavemen returning home after the day’s hunting session.
Caveman 1 (grunts): No want to be single no more. Me HATE coming home with dead animal, and No woman to grill meat.
Caveman 2 (pounds his chest in agreement): Arrr. I want woman like that Maurice in caves next door. She good cook.
Caveman 3 (dreamy-eyed, twirling his club): Maauu-rrece. Always smell of grilled meat. Sign of good cook in home. Future queen of my cave.
All 3 cavemen pound their chest in unison, ready to fight off a herd of crazed buffaloes if needed to win over the heart of meaty-smelling, muscly armed, cavegirl Maurice.
2. Korean BBQ is one of the most fun and interactive ways of getting to meet and bond with people over food – in the same category as s’mores or fondue. This is not your plain Joe meat n’ potatoes (no offence to the Americans) – order, eat, maybe steal a fry or two from someone else’s plate if you can get away with it, pay, and go home. With Korean BBQ, you’ve got to get down and dirty, slap on different raw meats and seafood on the grill, turn up the flame (and then lower it a few minutes later after your neighbor’s chunk of shrimp sizzles to a black unrecognizable mass on the burner), flip things over, and tweeze up whatever’s cooked from the grill with your chopsticks – whether or not you’d been the one to throw it on the flames – hot and seared and smokey and perfect to gobble down. There’s constant action and interaction, between the flames and the food, the food and you, you and your fellow diners, and overarching everything is this tremendous mutual sense of satisfaction that you’ve all cooked and enjoyed a meal together, right from the raw brutal basics. It didn’t matter that I knew only two of the nine person motley crew cobbled together by Debbie, a fellow blogger with the most comprehensive blog on East Asian food that I know of in Dubai (http://sgfoodinuae.wordpress.com). Korean BBQ has this innate ability to make people connect and bond, each of us from our different walks of life in this city…with the only unifying force being our common love for food. That, and our total disregard for the health risks of double-dipping with strangers, which brings me to point #3.
3. Korean BBQ does a cheeky in-your-face to all germophobics who could have mistakenly found a seat at your BBQ dinner table. As I was sitting there in our little BBQ booth at Shogun, I couldn’t help but think how this dinner could have played out so very differently had it been hosted by a germ-freak. One set of utensils for the raw meat. Another set of utensils for the cooked meat. A thermometer maybe to ensure the doneness of the meat. And tiny little serving spoons from which to serve ourselves the banchan (side dishes), lest someone had the warped idea of double dipping into the bowl of kimchi. Shudder.
Well – I think we pretty much violated all the recommended health and safety rules. Each person was armed with a singular pair of chopsticks – the same ones used to pinch up everything from the raw meat to the kimchi to the pajeon (egg and scallion pancake) to the cooked meat in all its wonderful marinated juices and smokey flavor – with everything being pinched and prodded multiple times with those same loyal chopsticks, in no particular order or health-regulated routine. All that whilst closing your eyes to the army of bacteria (hellooo salmonella.) that could have explosively germinated on your chopsticks by this merry point of your dining experience. It just feels so primal, so unrestricted, so boundaryless. Almost akin, in an adventurous, back-to-basics sort of way, to our bare-chested ancestors that made an appearance at the start of my blog post.
4. Korean BBQ balances the pleasures of a slow cooked, community created meal with the instant gratification demanded by the hungry diner. In most BBQ places I’ve visited in New York, they bring out a host of miniature side dishes – kimchi, green beans, dried fish or shrimp, spicy potatoes, other unrecognizable goodies – even before you’ve had the chance to look at the menu. That way you can continue munching while you plan on what to order to munch on next. At Shogun, they only brought out the banchan much later after we had already placed our orders (this delay was my only tiff with the place, everything else was outstanding)…but it was yummy nevertheless. I’m personally not a huge fan of kimchi, though what quickly grabbed my attention was a bowl of sweet (sesame-encrusted?) deep-fried and dried fish, known as ikan bilis. Anyone want to start an ikan bilis factory with me in Dubai? It could be the perfect protein powered alternative to pringles. We could make millions, I know it.
5. Maybe this should have been the first reason why I love Korean BBQ, but here it is anyway – the meat ROCKS. It’s the thin cuts of the meat – sheer strips of beef bulgogi (typically sirloin), fatty short ribs (kalbi), strips of boneless pounded chicken – together with the simple marinades (vinegars, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, often mirin…), that come together so harmoniously to create smokey, juicy fireworks on the flame. Next time we do a BBQ at home, I sure as hell am going to sneak in a Korean marinade or two.
6. Even if you’re not a BBQ fan, Korean BBQ joints still rule. They’ve got other fun tongue-twisting dishes – like the bibimbap for instance, with mixed rice, fresh veggies, potentially meat, and a fried egg up top – that are equally flavorful and scrumptious. In fact, one of the best dishes I sampled at Shogun was a braised beef dish ordered by this Singaporean oil trader on the table (side note: these Singaporeans are true maestros of food – both in their knowledge of it, and in their ability to consume Godzilla-sized portions of it. All Hail Singaporeans.)…he was kind enough to send around little samples for everyone to taste. My little sample was a plump piece of mushroom that had totally sponged up the hearty broth that the beef had been braising in, and right then and there, I decided that this is how all mushrooms should be born. Bubbling hot and bursting with slow-braised beef broth. My lens got totally fogged up trying to capture that beauteous beefy mushroom moment…
Debbie and motley crew of food-lovers in Dubai, thanks for a truly memorable dinner at Shogun, and for reminding me why I love Korean BBQ so much. Do count me on future BBQ excursions…I’ll be there for my share of ikan bilis, braised beef stew, smokey hair, and BBQed bulgogi that’s oh so smokin’ good.
Al Ghurair City (between Chilli’s and the residential tower), Deira Dubai
Phone: (04) 228-5568