When you step inside a Korean barbecue restaurant, you are swiftly greeted by the smell of sizzling chadol (beef brisket), samgyeopsal (fatty pork belly) and galbi (sweet marinated short rib). It’s a slightly overwhelming but wonderful scent — an unspoken welcome to the restaurant and the glorious, oftentimes all-you-can-eat, feast you’re about to have.
My friends and I got Korean barbecue after coming back from our church’s youth retreat, where we spent the entire weekend begging students not to pelt snowballs at each other and sleepily passing around gummy bears during our midnight staff debriefs. I remember entering the restaurant both exhausted from the weekend but also very excited to eat — I was ready to eat my body weight’s worth of meat that evening.
Our large group sat down at three tables and immediately started ordering, agreeing to start with beef brisket and getting some soybean soup, fluffy steamed eggs and salad for people to share. From the moment we sat down and ordered, I remember smiling and laughing; I was so grateful for this memorable weekend with these friends of mine. But once the food arrived, I remember smiling and laughing all the more. I realized that night that the act of eating Korean barbecue can teach you so much about friendship.
For one, no friendship is complete without fun and games. When the first platters of meat finished cooking and people started eating, I noticed my friend Charis at another table not grabbing any. “Why isn’t she eating?” I initially thought to myself. Then I heard another friend chuckle. “Charis lost a bet,” he revealed to the rest of us between laughs. “So she can’t eat any meat for 20 minutes.”
When my friend first started talking, I had just shoved a massive piece of kimchi-topped brisket in my mouth, double-wrapped in pink radish and rice paper. When he said that Charis couldn’t eat meat for 20 minutes, I choked from laughter, covering my mouth with my hand so that half-chewed beef chunks didn’t go flying everywhere. “There’s no way,” I said, grinning once I finally swallowed. I saw Charis cackling and vehemently protesting the rules of the bet, but sure enough, for those next 20 minutes, she merely fiddled around with some pickled cucumbers on her plate. And, as good friends do, we made sure to show her just how much we were enjoying the meat.
This dinner also made me appreciate my friends’ small acts of kindness. At Korean barbecue restaurants, I am a pickled radish fiend. I much prefer the radish slices over the gummy rice paper to wrap my meat in. I like the way the tangy radish balances the saltiness of the meat and gives each bite the perfect crunch. I remember at one point during the dinner when the radish slices on my side of the table ran out. I shifted my gaze to where my friends were sitting, searching for radishes I could possibly steal before asking the waiter for more. Without even saying anything, my friend Timmy pushed a whole stack in my direction. “They’re all yours,” he said, and my friend Gracie who was next to him nodded in approval. The little things in a friendship — even Timmy and Gracie recognizing and responding to my silly love of radishes — can go a long way in making people cared for.
The entire meal was chock-full of jokes like the one with Charis and sweet moments like the one with Timmy and Gracie. In addition to people giving you radishes, having the grill master — the friend who takes charge of grilling the meat — personally putting a buttery piece of samgyeopsal on your plate can make you feel especially touched. I realized that eating Korean barbecue with friends creates an experience where various aspects of friendship come into play. You laugh with one another, you share food and you give a friend a pile of radishes when you know they like them.
Now, I have a newfound appreciation for Korean barbecue restaurants that goes beyond being able to eat enough meat to keep me full for a week. From operating the grill to passing around the salad bowl, asking for banchan (side dish) refills and looking at the menu to order another round of meat, there is a role for everyone to play; indeed, eating Korean barbecue fosters a deep sense of collaboration among friends. The experience from start to finish creates a rhythm in which friendships can be strengthened in each step: you can crack jokes while ordering, chat while grilling and show people you care by sharing food with one another while eating. Moreover, there is a strong sense of camaraderie that develops when you all leave the restaurant to get boba — there is always room for boba after Korean barbecue — with your clothes carrying the distinct, smoky fragrance of pork belly.
Korean barbecue was the perfect end to a wild weekend with my friends, so perhaps it is the meal to get as the semester comes to a close. My advice to you? Put some meat on your friend’s plate. Give them some radishes. That’ll assuredly show them that you love them.
Emily Kim PO ’25 is from Irvine, California. Her ideal TSL column-writing set up is headphones in, listening to NewJeans or Lizzy McAlpine with a cappuccino (double shot) and a slice of banana bread in hand.