Pigs Fly at Korean BBQ Joint Yanji, Bethnal Green

05 Sep 2019

“Pork ear? Pork. Ear. Really?” was my fathomable reaction when first reading the menu at new Korean BBQ joint Yanji in Bethnal Green. Seeing something like ‘pork ear’ on a menu for a restaurant you’re about to go to may appear daunting, however I’d like to attempt to change this mindset with a reassuring point. Eating things like black pudding, kidney in a ‘steak and kidney pie’, and chicken or duck liver in a pâté is entirely commonplace. Why, then, would we cringe at the thought of eating beef aorta or chicken heart? It’s the same animal that you’d eat the breast or the leg of. Get a grip, people (and me). With this reassuring fact strongly placed at the forefront of my mind, I brought along my most gastronomically fearless friend and headed into Yanji for a full Korean BBQ experience. Bring on the tendons!  

Armed with an excel spreadsheet of what we were planning to order (my companion’s much-appreciated creation, not mine), we sat in one of Yanji’s booths and admired our very own grill with a looming extractor pipe above. Arguably more admirable was the playlist of our teenage dreams; think Avril Lavigne’s Complicated, Alicia Keys and Usher’s My Boo, and JT’s Rock Your Body… Ahhh, such good times. Right, back to the food.

The menu is rightfully written in Korean with English translations underneath, and lays out BBQ dishes that arrive cooked, skewers that you barbecue yourself (minimum 2 of each), starters, specials and mains. It is El Dorado for the daredevil with offerings of pig trotter, pig intestine, chicken gizzards and more. Arriving raw, our skewers of beef aorta, chicken heart, chicken soft bone and fish tofu were placed in grooves that automatically rotate the skewers above red-hot blocks of charcoal. The incredibly helpful staff are pros, sporadically coming to check whether your food is cooked and then lifting off the skewers and placing them on a rack above, ready to be eaten.

Suitably juiced up on soju, a sweet, vodka-like Korean spirit that drinks like sake and comes highly recommended by the staff, we were braced for our culinary adventure. While the beef aorta was fascinating in texture, bouncing with a crisp outer shell and a softer, almost fatty centre, the chicken soft bone was covered in the taste of cumin and were unpleasantly crunchy to the bite. The fish tofu, my companion announces, is ‘literally fish tofu… Literally’; firm and spongy in texture with the distinct, moreish taste of the sea. The chicken hearts were true winners: rich, earthy and chunky, and not to be intimated by. Bravery always pays off. Then there was the pig’s ear – which my guest courageously ate for me (I don’t eat pork). Her verdict? A yes. but still didn’t trump the chicken hearts.

With the other dishes, food arrives all at once in a flurry with no concept of starter and then main (perhaps this is just the way it’s done?) The layered block of kimchi arrived soaked in a bright orange, punchy sauce; each bite offering a clean-cut refresher on the palate, cutting through the richness of offal. Everything is all very tactile, with squid legs being cut with scissors at the table, the spare beef ribs clear broth soup being ladled into small bowls, and the aubergine sliced in sections. The squid legs were satisfyingly chewy, while the mouth-wateringly soft beef applied the most subtle taste to the steaming clear broth. The barbecued aubergine was excellent, served sliced in half and seasoned with spring onion, sesame, garlic and chilli.

Along with those surprisingly delicious chicken hearts, I feel compelled to call out the oysters and scallops. The phenomenal cooked oysters, sitting pretty in their shells, swam in a glistening pool of garlicky goodness. Shot one of those babies back for a hit of garlic that will later send your partner to sleep on the sofa. Drenched in a similar pool of peanut, spring onion and garlic were the stunning scallops. Served in a pretty shell with a swivel of glass noodles, the meaty scallops tasted fresh amid their generous seasonings.

Overall, Yanji is a must-try experience with some excellent hits and some misses that I do not regret for a minute. Readers, I encourage you to educate yourself about Korean BBQ. Be brave and try every delicacy, commonplace on the other side of the world and which we’re lucky enough to have shared with us in the convenience of East London.

Ashiana Pradhan

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