Korean cuisine has a rich and complex history. While acknowledging its similarities to other Asian cuisines, including Japanese and Sichuan, Korean food is like no other. It's the contrasts that reel me in: slippery japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) set against the crunch of sweet and sour pork; spicy seafood soup alongside creamy ddokbokki; the sweet simplicity of fried rice offset with the complexity of bulgogi (Korean barbecue beef).
So I was thrilled to discover Hanwoori Korean BBQ Restaurant in Brisbane's CBD recently. Tucked away up a flight of steps in bustling Mary Street, this restaurant offers a cracking Korean buffet lunch for the very restrained price of $14.90 per person. This includes a range of Western-style and Korean soup options such as jjamppong (spicy seafood) and hot dishes including sweet and sour pork, jjim dak (braised spicy chicken), tofu kimchi and chicken legs revved up with sweet chili sauce. There are also noodle dishes, Korean pancakes, a salad bar and the opportunity to assemble your own bibimbap (which, I'm told, translates to a bowl full of mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables).
Korean cuisine typically incorporates sweet, sour, salty and bitter tastes - plus loads of colour to please the eye as well as the palate. The good news is that this food is incredibly healthy - with a focus on vegetables, lean meats and fermented foods such as fiery kimchi. Koreans, I'm told, treat food as medicine. If that's true, then dine at Hanwoori Korean BBQ Restaurant and you might expect to be transformed into the picture of glowing good health.
Capitalising on Western diners' love of Korean charcoal grills in the centre of the dining table, Hanwoori Korean BBQ Restaurant offers this option at night as part of its dinner buffet. Included in the $32.90 per person price are a selection of mouth-watering meats and seafood, including rump steak, octopus, pork belly and prawn. As with lunch, there are also many hot dishes, soups, rice and traditional side dishes to complement your meal. Whether lunch or dinner, it's a buzzing atmosphere inside, with plenty on offer, so come prepared with an appetite. Skip breakfast if you have to!
Don't expect a sweet treat at the end of the meal. Dessert isn't usually part of the Korean dining experience and, in any event, you'll likely be satisfied by the abundance of food available. Instead, it's customary to conclude a meal with a cup of green tea or something with a refreshing zing such as lemon mint crush. Hanwoori offers a range of smoothies for those with a sweet tooth - think 'mango tango' or the delightfully named 'raspberry bong-bong'.
Something else I love about this place - and Korean restaurants in general, truth be told - is the gusto with which diners approach their plates. Koreans swap, share and order more dishes, eating with a sense of enthusiasm and haste, talking noisily, helping themselves to more. It's not hard to get on board with that.