I think about this a lot. Me and five friends huddled around a long table, warmed by sweaters, steam, and soju. We’re in Baguio, one of the few places in the Philippines where the temperature drops below 10 degrees. Surrounded by mountains and pine trees, we plan our next trips for the year. At the centre of the table are two grills we use to cook thin strips of pork and beef between shots and gossip. It feels like a dream but really, it's a memory from the before times.
It was January 2020, when COVID-19 was just a “mysterious pneumonia” in China and didn’t get more than 30 seconds of airtime in holiday party conversations. Half a year later and after nearly four months of staying at home (I’ve only been out twice since the strict lockdown lifted), all I want is to eat Korean barbecue again. Oh how I miss Korean barbecue.
Samgyeopsal (pork belly) dipped in melted cheese and topped with kimchi, woo samgyup (beef belly) wrapped in lettuce and dipped in sesame oil, sweet-savoury LA Galbi (beef short ribs) with white rice — I want it all.
For anyone who hasn’t visited Manila in the last five years, let me explain. Korean barbecue is huge in the Philippines. As in, in my neighbourhood alone, there are at least five Korean barbecue spots that are less than a kilometre away from one another. When going home from a night out — remember when that was a thing? — I would lose count of all the restaurants with signs that shout “unlimited samgyeopsal” and “Open until 2 AM” in fluorescent lighting.
The Philippines is believed to have the largest Korean diaspora in Southeast Asia and one of the largest in the world, so this shouldn’t be surprising. But what started out as a few family-owned restaurants in “Korea Towns” is now a massive food movement. I mean that literally. The cuisine is so popular, there’s now a local Korean barbecue chain with over 100 branches nationwide.
Before the pandemic, I would go out for Korean barbecue at least once a month, usually more. I’d go with friends at 5 AM and we’d slurp bowls of hot Shin Ramyun while BTS played in the background. Last year, after spending an afternoon in a 5-star hotel, we decided that the only right way to end a friend’s birthday was a second dinner at a Korean barbecue joint at a strip mall. We stuffed ourselves with meat and swore to never eat that much again, a false promise we only kept until the next time we craved for spicy pork belly while watching a K-drama.
So goes the samgyup cycle, one we could only dream of being stuck in again.
The other day, while having dinner with my family, my mom said she misses it too. It’s one of the few dining options we all agree on. When my cousin visited for the first time after moving to New Zealand, we had Korean barbecue. And when my family was too full and lazy to cook after Christmas Eve festivities, we had Korean barbecue for Christmas dinner. It usually takes us hours to decide where to eat but Korean barbecue is always a good idea. Of course it is. What’s not to like?
For $10 we get to gorge on all-you-can-eat meat, vegetables, and rice. After just two hours, our table is left looking like the site of a competitive eating contest — empty plates stacked on top of each other on one side and half-empty glasses of water on another. Our jean buttons are open as we stare into space, waiting until we have room for an ice cream sandwich shaped like a fish.
If we were feeling fancy, my friends and I would go to a premium meat spot that’s just a little bit pricier. The pork and beef are not unlimited but we could still stuff ourselves with banchan (side dishes). Oh the banchan. Tiny gifts served on silver (fine, stainless steel) platters. I don’t pick favourites but I miss the soy-glazed potatoes the most.
There are worse things happening in the world right now but whenever I get anxious, or lonely, or bored, these meals are one of the few things that remind me that there were better times.
It sounds simplistic and could just be a way for me to psych myself out of a funk but apart from the food, it’s the camaraderie I miss.
I realised this when my family had Korean barbecue at home during the lockdown. The food was great, better than other restaurants even, but it didn’t feel like a moment. We didn’t talk over each other because there was no rush to tell stories. All we had was time.
I still catch up with friends on Zoom but without a shared activity keeping us busy, calls can feel repetitive. For as long as we’ve known each other — close to 20 years — my friends and I have always congregated around food. More than words of affirmation, quality time, giving gifts, acts of service, or physical touch, food is our love language. And, though casual and cheap, Korean barbecue always felt like a special occasion.
When one of our friends left to study in the United States two years ago, we had Korean barbecue for her going away party. We cooked for each other and laughed about all the stupid things we did in high school. I’m admittedly the lazy one of the bunch and not-so-secretly eat meat other people placed on the grill, but I would gladly cook for my friends and have the smell of meat stick to my hair for hours, just to get these moments back.
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