I settled down at the floor table of a Korean restaurant in Satwa, my spectacles screwed tightly to my face. I was about to scrutinise a menu teeming with Korean dishes, most of them so alien and exotic that the menu sniggered at my proud awareness of kimchi as though it were nothing more monumental than being knowledgeable about fries.
But there’s one Korean dish I order before I’ve even opened the menu. The dish is bulgogi, strips of marinated beef tenderloin or sirloin, often cooked over grid irons sunk into the centre of the dining table. The friend who introduced me to bulgogi had predicted that I’d leave the meal thinking of it for the rest of the day, not just because of its taste, but because my clothes would be perfumed with beefy smoke by the time we were finished cooking it.
Bulgogi beef is soaked in a marinade that reveals the salty, sweet and pungent undertones of sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pepper and spring onions. The raw, marinated meat is then piled high on a plate, often alongside thick-cut raw onions, whole garlic cloves and plump mushrooms. From that point on, the grilling process is handed over to the diners. Bulgogi is an experience of communal cooking, of assigning the grill master of our group to watch the meat so that it doesn’t overcook while the rest of us are gossiping like desperate housewives, the soft sputtering of beef only audible when the conversation momentarily drops to make way for a hungry plea: “Is it done yet?”
Seconds after the meat is declared cooked, clucking chopsticks tweeze the mellow, tender beef off of the grill, cradle it into vibrant lettuce sleeves and dot it with ssamjang, the fermented bean and chilli paste whose irresistible yet evasive taste may be best pinned down as umami. If there is any vestige of conversation still trailing the table, the first bite of juice-dripping beef slivers tucked into crunchy lettuce wraps effectively wipes it out. It is usually at this moment of the meal that I silently repledge my allegiance to bulgogi.
• Dubai is bursting with Korean options, but a personal favourite is Shogun Restaurant, Al Ghurair,
04 228 5568
Arva Ahmed blogs about
hidden food gems in Old Dubai at www.ILiveinaFryingPan.com