Korean style grilled beef and a meat market.
The list of Korean food I’ve never eaten is long and stacked with local specialities, seasonal dishes and seafood. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten Korean style beef. I’ve never even had bulgogi. This isn’t some cultivated curiosity, the stars have just never aligned for me and that famous Korean marinated and grilled meat. It’s commonly done with beef, the most expensive animal in Korea. Beef here is of two camps: imported, cheaper and mediocre; or domestic, expensive and most likely breathtakingly marbled.
Our marbled-enough plate of meat.
For a recent special occasion I decided to right this perceived anti-bovine stance and search out some Korean beef. Hanwoo beef is prized in Korea. It is from a special breed of cow that has been raised in a certain way, but not all Korean beef is Hanwoo. Possibly the best preparation of this speciality is simple grilling Korean style.
After baulking at high restaurant prices and being unable to find many believable blog posts (in English or Korean) we decided to take a chance on the Meat (Livestock) Market. Majang-dong, in western Seoul, is a meat lovers paradise. Lines of butchers stalls sell beef and pork. Buckets of tripe soaking, animals heads and feet, ruby-red glistening lobes of liver and huge slabs of meat, are all on display in surprisingly sterile surrounds for a covered market. In the evening they’re cleaning up and shutting down, but there are still plenty of places open so you can buy your dinner. The gimmick here is that you can choose your meat, then go upstairs to the restaurant and cook it. The butchers all have pre-prepared plastic wrapped plates of sliced beef ready to go, but can be sweet-talked into making one up to your specifications. We got a bit more than 300g of Korean beef, half of it heavily marbled, for 40,000 won, plus a few freebies thrown in, thankfully the common dish of raw liver and tripe was omitted. Shopping around would likely find you an even lower price.
The drill is basically the same as at any BBQ restaurant, except here you bring your own meat. For a small fee you get all the necessary banchan, this time it was kimchi, spring onions with spicy sauce, onion, garlic, lettuce and perilla leaves, spicy bean sprouts, raw green chillis and garlic and dipping sauces. The usual extras are also available: rice with doengjang jiggae, mushrooms, naengmyeon and drinks.
After a quick blush on the beef fat slick grill, both cuts of meat tasted just as I remembered beef should. The heavily marbled pieces were delicate and tender, but I preferred the deeper flavour of the other cut, intensified by chewing. Beef fat cooked mushrooms (king oyster, button and enoki) could well be Koreas answer to duck fat potatoes. This meal would have just been a plate of premium beef, were it not for the simple yet strongly flavoured sides. They bring life and endless possibilites to a Korean meal. Wrap a seared morsel up in perilla with spicy spring onions, or dip it in sesame and salt, or make yourself a lettuce wrapped rice and ssamjang packet. Then take a spoonful of fermented soybean soup (doengjang jiggae) or a bite of a raw green chilli dipped in ssamjang. I’m discovering that these limitless combinations are only part of the joy of Korean food.
If you’re not afraid of a bit of raw meat, and would like to eat some premium Korean beef at a cut rate, give Majang Dong Meat Market a visit.
Majang Dong Meat Market
The restaurant I visited is called Meat Village Butcher Shop and it’s on the 3rd floor above the street side butchers shops.
Banchan: 4,000 per person
Exit 2 Majang Station (Purple line) 0r take Exit 4 of Yongdu station (Green line offshoot). Alternatively you can stop at Wangsimni station (lines 2 and 5) and take a bus from exit 3.