By Jamie Purviance, "Smoke, Fire, Fish,"July/August 2010
Walking through the tight little alleyways of Pimatgol several years ago, I had to wonder if I had come to the wrong place. When I planned my trip, local food experts steered me here for some of the best grilled food in Seoul, South Korea, but initially all I saw around each shadowy bend were rows of concrete buildings that appeared to be ordinary homes, with laundry hanging from their second-story balconies. The uneven stone walkways were deserted, and I was tempted to head to the nearby district of foreign embassies where I knew I’d find a cheery, brightly lit restaurant with menus in English. But the reassuring smells of burning charcoal encouraged me to stay. Plus I had come to South Korea, a country known for barbecue, in part because I happen to be a little obsessed with grilling (I’ve written eight grilling cookbooks). So just the chance that I might find some new grilled discovery kept me in Pimatgol.
Steps from Gyeonghuigung, the grandest palace in all of Seoul, and practically hidden behind futuristic skyscrapers, Pimatgol was a meandering neighborhood that had survived thousands of years of cosmopolitan growth. Back in the 1800s, members of the ruling family left their Seoul palace on sedan chairs held high on their servants’ shoulders to ride down Jongno, one of the city’s widest streets. Commoners were obliged to show respect by bowing as the royalty rode past. But some Koreans scoffed at this custom and instead slipped down hidden alleys that ran beside the street. Before long, taverns opened along the alleys and the owners set up barbecue grills to feed the flow of customers. The food scene in Pimatgol grew in reputation and drew throngs of office workers every day for its particular specialty, grilled seafood.
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.
As I left the table and walked back into the alley, I saw crowds of office workers pouring through Pimatgol, looking for lunch spots, while several women smiled and grilled outside their tiny restaurants, encouraging diners inside for their signature versions of fish and banchan, the array of small side dishes that accompany every meal. In a land so closely linked to the surrounding seas, the choices seemed to go on forever. In the last two years, much of Pimatgol has been torn down for redevelopment, but every time I make the following recipes I remember the smells and tastes of its old alleyways.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Jamie Purviance serves as a judge at major barbecue events around the country. His most recent cookbook is Weber’s Way to Grill (Sunset Books, 2009).