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Following a trail of wood smoke, I finally found my first griller of the day, a slender, old woman standing on collapsed cardboard boxes, to cushion against the stones, and hunched over a portable grill. She was jockeying a dozen butterflied mackerel over glowing embers and brushing them with a dark red paste. A little smile from her convinced me to step inside her tiny restaurant, where I sat at a bare table and waited for something to happen. Without ordering a thing, I soon received from another woman a bowl of warm bean sprout soup, a covered tin of steamed rice and a little plate of kimchi, Korea’s most famous dish of pickled vegetables. A few minutes later, the griller outside brought in a glistening, golden mackerel and set it on my table without a word. I regretted the language barrier between us, but the women smiled and laughed as I struggled a bit with chopsticks, and they saw I appreciated every element of the meal, particularly the sweet, moist flesh of the mackerel and its slow-burning, spicy glaze.
Korea is known for its barbecue, a tradition which was brought to the Korean peninsula by the Mongols when they invaded in the 13th century. Today, westerners usually think of beef when the subject of Korean barbecue arises, but actually the amount of beef that Koreans consume is minuscule by American standards. Their diet revolves to a greater degree around seafood, which isn’t surprising given that the Korean peninsula has more than 5,000 miles of coastline. In many markets, you’ll easily find a variety of seafood, from shrimp and squid to octopus, clams, mackerel and eel. And it’s not just grilled. Koreans like their seafood dried, smoked, stewed, fried and even fermented.