Frances Cook discovers the joy of bonding over Korean barbecue
If you're a germophobe you might find eating in South Korea a little difficult.
But if you're interested in building the kind of friendships that come with sharing plates of rich meats, tangy kimchi, and sweet red bean paste, it might just be perfect.
So it is when we make our first stop for the famous Korean barbecue. Thick slabs of beef, fat marbled through the meat, are quickly chopped up with scissors.
They drop on to the glowing coals in the centre of our table and start to sizzle. That fatty tender meat smells so good my mouth starts to water.
The bite-sized pieces are perfect for picking up straight from the barbecue with your chopsticks, so it's lucky South Koreans prefer a slightly different type of chopstick that won't burn.
Unlike the wooden chopsticks used almost everywhere else, South Koreans use metal - easy to use and reuse. The only issue can be a slight slipperiness as the food is pinched by the metal.
My guide laughs as I drop a piece of beef back on the barbecue. She tells me their metal chopsticks are good for the brain, and their old people stay mentally quick because of them.
No kidding. Each mouthful is a brainteaser, at least until you've spent a few days mastering it.
Food in South Korea typically arrives with one main plate of protein, and four or five side dishes of pickles, vegetables, and bean pastes.
The table today is set up so the beef is the hero of the night, supported by plentiful varied sides.
That pattern repeats everywhere we go, whether it's fish or tofu taking centre stage, with the surrounding bounty of sides making it feel like a mix and match feast.
There's something about sharing food that breaks down barriers and forges bonds. I pass over the side of kimchi to one of my friends, and they pass back the red bean paste.
It makes sense that so much of Korean food culture is communal, like their wider culture. Locals I talk to tell me they don't use phrases like "my country" – it's "our country". They don't even like to say "my mother". It's "our mother".
Maybe the strong community bonds are the result of being a small country surrounded by giants like Russia and China; posturing between China and America often takes place on Korean soil to this day. Who wouldn't band together in that situation?
Meanwhile, chunks of mushroom and onion are tipped over the glowing coals alongside the chunks of beef.
The sizzling steps up a notch, the sweetness of onion cutting through the smell of charred beef.
Chopsticks dunk beef into different sauces, pick up different pieces of vegetable to go with the beef.
Coleslaw, kimchi, onions, mushrooms, are all devoured. The one miss is the savoury acorn jelly; our group dare each other to try it and I nip off a corner with my chopsticks.
It mostly tastes of bland gelatin, with the smallest hint of a nut flavour. I don't bother going back for a second piece, instead grabbing another piece of tender barbecued beef.
It's an intentional, communal style of eating. The metal chopsticks and small plates force you to slow down, to share, to communicate with those you're eating with.
No phones at this dinner table. Just community and friendship.
Korean Airlines flies direct from Auckland to Seoul. koreanair.com