Upon entering any restaurant in South Korea, after saying hello, the staff inevitably ask the same question: How many in your party?
Not at this restaurant. The staff here assume you’re all alone.
When I walked into Dokgojin, a barbecue eatery in Bucheon, a suburb west of Seoul, the server simply smiled and said, “Sit wherever is comfortable.” Dokgojin is unique in that it caters specifically to people, who, either by choice or lack of options, are eating alone.
It is part of a growing phenomenon known as honbap in Korea, which means eating alone. Honbap is a portmanteau of the Korean words for “alone” and “rice” (rice is used in Korean to refer to food in general).
Last year, single-person households became the most common type of living arrangement in South Korea, one sign that more than ever before, people are eating, living and spending free time alone.
Dokgojin, which opened in February, is filled with individual wooden cubicles that all have a chair, a TV and eating utensils (the TV remote control is sealed in a kind of condom to protect it from grease splashback). I took a seat and looked over the menu.
Barbeque is one of the most social of Korean eating experiences, usually enjoyed in groups, to the point that meat restaurants generally won’t serve solo diners. I was curious what the atmosphere in a solo-dining barbecue restaurant would be like at dinnertime on a weekday, a time when South Korean restaurants are typically filled with chattering groups of colleagues and friends letting off the steam of a day’s work.
If you want to see how a society is changing, those changes must come through in how people eat, right? George Orwell wrote, “A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into,” and that, “it could be plausibly argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even religion.”
I wanted to know, are these solo-dining places pathetic, filled with friendless losers drowning their loneliness in grease and soju? Or are they a sign of a noble evolution of South Korean social culture, proof that one need not be weighed down by groupthink, that there is no shame in going out and having fun alone?
I should disclose my biases: Though I socialize regularly and don’t live alone, I actually like eating alone. I’m a finicky eater and solo-dining means I can eat whatever I choose, and that I don’t have to coordinate the logistics of timing and location with anyone. Also, I can read or listen to a podcast while I eat. So as a phenomenon, honbap makes sense to me.
When I arrived at Dokgojin, there were only two other diners, both men who looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. Both were grilling meat then wrapping morsels in lettuce and eating them with garlic, kimchi and salty fermented soybean paste, as is the standard eating method.
Honbap’s gastronomic cousin is honsul, which means drinking alone, sul being the Korean word for booze. One of them didn’t appear to be drinking any alcohol, the other was on his second bottle of soju. Some people think it is problematic to drink alone; I’m a journalist, so I ordered a beer, along with one portion of pork belly.
The server turned on my burner to heat the frying pan where I’d cook the meat, then used a knob of pork fat to grease it. He then set a timer for several minutes, after which time the burner would be hot enough to cook the meat.
While the theme of Dokgojin is unique, the food certainly isn’t. The server filled the counter space in front of me with the same side dishes — pickled bean sprouts and cucumber, shards of lettuce slathered in some gray goop (known locally as “salad”) — that one finds in any typical barbecue joint.
After the timer went off, I plopped a strip of pork onto the pan. While waiting for the meat to cook, I ate a bit of seaweed soup and started flipping channels on the TV. Ironically, I quickly came across a TV show called “I Live Alone,” which follows the mundane daily lives of celebrities who — you guessed it — live alone. The show is one of the more public forums in which South Korean society is exploring a changing reality where more people are doing things alone.
The show is a skewed glimpse into how South Korean society is evolving, in that the subjects are celebrities who have high enough incomes to live comfortably on their own, and the gravitas to shrug off their parents’ influence if they wish to (even some young South Korean adults with their own incomes are forbidden by their parents from moving out of the nest until they marry).
Like the cliche about sitting in an airport or train station wondering where one’s fellow travelers are headed, I wondered why the other guys in this restaurant were eating alone, instead of with family or friends. Was it preference?
Results of a study published last year by Korea Health Promotion Institute researcher Oh Yoo-jin found the reasons South Koreans give for eating alone differed according to age. Respondents in their 20s chose the ability to choose time and menu as the primary reason they ate alone (24 percent), followed by having no one to eat with (23 percent). For respondents in their 30s, the most common reason was having no dining partner (38 percent), followed by not having time for social dining (21 percent).
Another paper by the same researcher shows that shelling out for barbecue is an unusual extravagance for most people who eat alone. The research concluded that the five most common menu choices for honbap are inexpensive, easily accessible dishes: ramen noodles, rice with side dishes, bread, kimbap and sandwiches.
As I sat at Dokgojin, I didn’t have long stretches to think about this social context, as being alone forced me to pay attention to the cooking. Normally the tasks of grilling and cutting the meat are bestowed on the table’s youngest person, or in more horizontally-oriented groups of friends, taken on by whoever volunteers. With no one to share, I had to almost constantly watch the meat to make sure it didn’t burn.
Fry, flip, cut. Wrap, eat, drink. I worked my way through my pork and beer. But something felt odd. It took me a little while to figure out what it was.
The only sounds were the sizzle of fatty meat, and the K-pop blaring from outdoor speakers at a mobile phone store next to Dokgojin. I realized what was missing: human voices.
No one was talking. Normally barbeque restaurants are a cacophony of conversations, of people exchanging banter, sometimes too loudly. And in South Korea, it is convention to call out to your server every time you would like to order something additional, or if you wish to have something at your table refilled. These requests run the gamut from effusively polite pleas to please bring something over when the server has a moment, to barked commands to gimme this or that.
Inside Dokgojin, every time I or one of the other diners asked for more kimchi or side dishes, we would do so in a somewhat hushed voice, as if not wanting to call attention to our presence.
Just then, a fourth diner showed up, a man who appeared a bit older than the rest of us, and was dressed in full business attire, apparently having just left the office. Though seated closeby, none of us acknowledged the other. I was tempted to say hi and forge a bit of loner solidarity, but decided against it. Shouldn’t I leave them alone?
What takes place at Dokgojin, and other establishments that cater to solo diners, is therefore a somewhat odd mix of the public and the private: You’re alone, but in a public place; you can eat what you want at your own pace, but need to ask someone to bring it to you.
With no one to talk to, I was left to think about the food in front of me. I was out of lettuce, but didn’t want to beckon my server, who stood across the room staring at a TV. My pork was nearly all eaten and my beer was empty.
For some reason, the less pleasant aspects of the barbecue experience seemed amplified: the labor intensity of preparing the meat, the salty aftertaste of each bite, and the oozing greasiness of the pork belly. Despite my cubicle having a fan positioned over my right shoulder, I could almost feel my clothing being saturated with the scent of smoldering pork.
There is a saying in Korean that food eaten alone doesn’t taste good. At least when it comes to barbecue, perhaps company is like seasoning. Without it the experience lacks flavor.
Cover Image: the table setting at Dokgojin, a restaurant specializing in one-person meals. One the left is a portable gas burner for cooking meat. On the left is a television with a remote control wrapped in plastic to avoid grease splatters. (Steven Borowiec/Korea Exposé)
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