My senses were overwhelmed. The smell of stagnant blood lingered in the air, chilled not from the winter wind but from the open cold lockers that lined the pathways. The perpetual drone of electric meat saws competed with the sounds of knives being sharpened. Butchers worked on carcasses, separating rib from short loin, chuck from brisket, and sirloin from round. I walked on wet pavement, past buckets of tripe soaked in brine and innards emitting a claret-red glow under cold fluorescent lights.
A woman, roughly my aunt’s age I estimated, called me over to her stall to inspect her selection. She looked like an aunt – I even called her aunt.
Like many of the nearby vendors, the woman showcased only Hanwoo in a variety of cuts. Hanwoo is Korean beef raised in a manner comparable to that of their more renowned Kobe counterparts in Japan. Cattle are fed a strict vegetarian diet, bred to a certain pedigree, and subjected to a discriminating grading system.
I meticulously inspected the meats and compared the marbling of fat between the various cuts before coming to a conclusion. However, I did not inform the woman right away of my decision. Standard Korean procedure had to be followed – negotiations on price needed to take place first.
After business was settled, the woman directed my purchase and I to a restaurant located a floor above the retailers. It was like any other Korean barbecue restaurant one would find in Seoul – there was that familiar smell of grilled meat, soju, and cigarettes.
But, these restaurants were a little different. Patrons were responsible for bringing their own meat to grill. “BYOM,” would that be the correct phrase? The restaurant however would be there to provide the other essential fixings for a Korean feast: banchan (side dishes), kimchi, dwaenjang jjigae (soy bean paste stew), naengmyeon (cold noodles) and of course, soju.
The meat was ready after a quick sizzle on the skillet, prepared without the aid of marinade or sauce. Doing so would have overwhelmed the delicate savor of the beef. I left the lettuce wraps and spring onions for another day, as it would have distracted me from the meat’s natural succulence.