LIANE HANSEN, host:
This summer South Korea partially lifted a ban on American beef, but the fear of mad cow disease still lingers across the country and has sparked public demonstrations and riots. That hasn't kept Koreans away from good barbecue. Rebecca Martinez ate karbi, a traditional Korean beef dish, during a visit to Seoul. She sent this audio postcard.
REBECCA MARTINEZ: I backpacked around South Korea this summer and dined on succulent seafood. But after two weeks of fried prawns and tuna sushi rolls, I was so over the fruits of the sea.
JEAN(ph): This place is called Tu-Nenu(ph).
MARTINEZ: On my last night in Korea, I met an old classmate, Jean(ph), and her American friends at a busy restaurant in Seoul. Jean is Korean-American and has been a vegetarian for years, but she thought it was important for me to try her favorite food from the good old days.
JEAN: It's kind of like when you're in jail, you're a prisoner, and you're on death row, and you're about to be executed, and you get your last meal. That's kind of like what karbi was for me before I went veggie. And if I ever went non-veggie, it would be because of karbi.
MARTINEZ: The five of us crowded around a small table with a grill sunken into the middle under a long, black flue that hung from the ceiling. The waiter took our order and scooped some coals into the grill. We passed around steel chopsticks to dig into the side dishes called banchan. I picked through communal bowls of soy-marinated spring onions, romaine salad with hot sauce, bean sprouts, and kimchi(ph), the piquant, fermented cabbage dish.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
MARTINEZ: This kimchi is spicy.
JEAN: I don't know, I thought it was OK. OK, kampai!
Unidentified Diners: Kampai!
MARTINEZ: We toasted shots of soju, a potent Korean rice liquor, and the waiter brought several cuts of marinated boneless ribs. He tossed the first cut on the grill. Gabe(ph), a teacher from New Mexico, was put in charge of flipping and cutting the meat on the grill, not with a knife but with a large pair of scissors. Even with the blackened edges, the ribs were sweet from the marinade and very tender. Jean asked the waiter where the beef was from.
JEAN: (Korean spoken)
Unidentified Waiter: (Korean spoken)
JEAN: He said the meat - the beef is from the Netherlands.
KENT(ph): Thank God it's not American.
(Soundbite of laugher)
MARTINEZ: Jean's friend Kent knows all about the Korean fear of American beef. Even McDonald's hangs posters in the window declaring that they serve "Australian beef, clean and safe." Regardless of where ours came from, the beef barbecue was delicious and cheap. Now I'm back in Washington, D.C., where there's not exactly a karbi restaurant on every corner, but I have heard about a place that serves great karbi across the Potomac in Virginia. I'm planning to check it out and to see how the Korean specialty tastes with good old-fashioned American beef. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Martinez.
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