The first time I had to cook my own food in a restaurant it was at an okonomiyaki eatery in Tokyo. One was seated together with other dining parties around a hotplate or teppan (as in teppanyaki). You ordered raw ingredients and received a jug of batter. Using a spatula, you cooked a sort of filled pancake and ate directly off the teppan.
There are various styles of self-cooking restaurants. Japan also has nabenomo places, or one-pot cooking, similar to the Chinese hot pot. Some Asian restaurants in Cape Town offer such cookers and will set them up on your table with boiling pots of broth. You cook by fixing ingredients, such as cubes of meat, to long metal forks and dipping them in the seasoned broth. In the West, there are of course fondue restaurants. But perhaps the most widespread establishments for self-cooking diners around the world, although not well-known in South Africa, are Korean barbecue places.
Here one cooks directly over a charcoal grill at the centre of a table fitted with an extractor hood, the effectiveness of which varies between places. One comes out of some Korean restaurants feeling distinctly sooty.
Two enterprising young South Africans, Coenraad Groenewald and Louis Smit, have brought the first Korean braai to Cape Town. They taught English in South Korea and then opened the rather understated Galbi Restaurant in 2011.
You enter through a downmarket shopping mall on 210 Long Street or after 5pm up an obscure little alley off Bloem Street. Either way, it is not the most attractive entry. On a rainy night, you pass pots in the alley filled with floating cigarette butts.
The interior is rough and ready, with backless benches, and absurd heavy metal music blaring. It’s a noisy, young place, though it attracts a diverse crowd, including staff and office parties.
Each table is fitted with a button you can press for service. It makes a very loud dingdong and flashes your table number on a panel at the service hatch. A spate of dingdongs is enough to leave one feeling punch drunk.
All tables have a copper extractor tube, which is lowered over the grill when you cook. It appears a bit Heath Robinson at first, but it is effective and quite eye-catching. The coals are brought in a metal pot carried with tongs. These are no ordinary coals, but some sort of briquette; they arrive glowing vermillion and stay hot for quite some time. It gives a restaurant with a fireplace a whole new meaning.
A good way to start the evening is with a small drinks platter with shots of sake, soju (Korea’s trademark alcohol), makgeoli (a milky coloured Korean rice beverage), and herby baeck se ju (literally “one-hundred-years wine” because it is said, a shot a day and you will live to be a hundred).
Such strong drink requires some stomach fortification and we ordered jjinmandu, Korean vegetable steamed dumplings. They arrived fried leathery hard and covered in oil. The filling was disappointing and pungent with pre-prepared minced garlic. Dipping the dumplings in soy and sesame oil helped a little. Be careful with the sesame oil near the hot coals, it is surprisingly explosive.
You can order a la carte or choose one of the Galbi sets (R230 to R250 and serves two). There is also a vegetarian option.
The fusion set has as its main ingredients a 100g fillet, a 100g lamb skewer, 100g rump steak and a springbok sosatie. The safari set includes ostrich, kudu, warthog and zebra sirloin, as well as fresh corn on the cob. Or you can stick to Korean.
Traditionally, meats for barbecue are either bulgogi (ribeye or sirloin) or galbi (beef short rib). At Galbi, they serve beef cut like a minute steak and spicy marinated pork.
Accompaniments include a Korean mashed potato salad. We also ordered some tasty twice-fried sweet potato strips with a cilantro and jalapeno dipping sauce.
The coals are hot enough to give the meat a pleasant caramelisation without becoming overdone. Once cooked, you cut the meat into strips with a pair of scissors. You place these in a Cos lettuce leaf in the palm of your hand, and then you select from the panchan or side dishes, adding rice, sesame seed spinach salad (sigumchi), segments of green onion, and top it off with kimchi (spicy Korean fermented cabbage).
The sirloin had a pinappley taste. The kimchi had gone a little sour.
The meal is finished off with lashings of doenjjang, a savoury soup with potato, baby marrow, tofu and chili.
Galbi is friendly fun place for a casual night out bridging braai with Korean culture.
Galbi, 210 Long Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 4243030.