Just last week I made a short, impromptu trip to Korea. Seoul, to be precise - it was also my second trip to the frightfully cold city, who was in the midst of a winter spell.
I have always loved the cold, the idea of traveling to Korea was exciting to me not only due to the snow fall and the sub-zero temperatures, but also because I was excited to return to Korea's cuisine. Korean cuisine always intimidates me due to its extensive use of chilli and preservation techniques. I am not a big chilli eater, I can handle my spiciness but it's not that great of a grasp.
I will tell you one thing - Koreans know their meat.
In fact they know their meat so well I only had one place in mind to return to with this second trip, and this place was Palsaik Samgyupsal.
Palsaik (Eight colours) Samgyupsal (Bacon) is quite well known, having made it to not only American shores but also recently to Singapore.
They are famous for one thing: Pork.
Now, I haven't visited the American or Singaporean counterparts of Palsaik, but I know a good restaurant when I see it, and Palsaik is one of those. It's not difficult to find, and the moment you walk in, the staff greet you loudly and quickly show you a table, set up with an garden variety tray of vegetation - leaves, greens, chillis, mushrooms, garlic.
The staff will also, have already set up a steamboat stew for you, where you adjust the spiciness yourself with the addition of chilli spice powder of gochuchang, a sweet chilli paste.
Your hot-pan, for the iconic Palsaik grill, is tilted at an angle to drain any pork fat later and already sizzling with a heap of kimchi and a second heap of mung beansprouts tossed in kimchi sauce.
As the customer, you don't lift a finger in Palsaik. This establishment is not a barbeque joint, it's a tightly run, systematic grill where the servers have the best knowledge of grilling their iconic meats.
What iconic meats? The eight pieces of thick, beautiful pork belly slices, all marinated in eight different sauces.
These eight slices, rolled in individual plates and served to you on an easy-to-read wooden plank, will then be unrolled by the server and placed to grill on the hot pan, three by three, only flipped once, charring just so with the addition of mushrooms both enoki and oyster and garlic.
Now, while all that is grilling, let's talk about the eight flavours offered to you - original, wine, herb, curry, ginseng, miso paste, garlic and gochuchang. All delicious and their flavours intensified through the grilling process.
If you order the set dinner, which will cost you a little more than 50 bucks, it also includes a side of marinated Chinese bellflowers, in a sticky sweet spicy sauce. This is also meant to go on the grill, which will char and caramelize into a delicious root-like texture, half crunchy and half tender and wholly perfect wrapped up and eaten with the crispy tender pork.
So order the set menu. You'll find yourself so very very happy.
The soup stew, of course, is not forgotten, now bubbling quietly with its hoard of seafood, silky tofu and vegetables, sweet and spicy in a soybean seafood broth.
You will find yourself sipping eagerly at the stew as you watch the pork sizzle. It's natural, don't worry about looking hungry, there is a reason why Palsaik servers move so quickly, they are aware of the consequences of sizzling pork and hungry customers. They also have to ensure that the pork is fully cooked so nobody gets sick, and you will see this guarantee when they cut the individual slices to smaller, bite-sized cuts.
Once the meat is ready, the server gives you a quick nod and retreats, leaving you to your imagination. The basic rule is to wrap the pork in any leaf you like, add the kimchi or bellflower, mushrooms or garlic, dab on some chilli sauce, roll all that goodness up and then, for a lack of a better word, shove it all in and get ready to weep in joy.
Always remember, if your leaf can't hold it all, you may need to rethink the amount of ingredients you have on your leaf.
Also, if you find yourself still unfulfilled after the stew is finished, order up a fried rice. Palsaik Seoul has a choice of two, the original or cheese fried rice.
Both of which will be done at your table for you, using the remainder of your stew. The remaining pieces of seafood will be fished out, the softened vegetables roughly minced before an addition of shrimp roe, cooked rice and sliced greens tossed in.
The mixture is then quickly stirred evenly and quickly until the server is satisfied with the product, before they again retreat and leave you the fragrant rice.
This is not like most fried rice you eat in Chinese restaurants, this tastes almost lighter, since there is no egg, fluffier and heavily scented with the addition of the mixed greens, with pops of salty flavour from the shrimp roe.
Wash everything down with some tea, before you return to the chill of Seoul's winter. The meal should not be heavy, or make you feel too full, or even greasy. Everything oily or greasy will have been cut through with the spice of well-made kimchi, fresh, crisp vegetation and detoxifying garlic.
Also take note that this meal is not meant to be quick - it is perfect for group meals with long conversation, and even better with the addition of alcohol.
If you are ever in Korea for visit, especially in winter, never miss the chance to visit Palsaik. It was minus 10 when I left the restaurant, and even in such biting cold Palsaik ensured I left full, happy and so very very contented.
Palsaik Samgyupsal (Seoul) can be located at:
서울특별시 마포구 백범로 18 (노고산동)