A Beginners Guide to Korean Barbecue
I’ve had many puzzled friends visit Korea or even visit a Korean barbecue restaurants in their home country and be taken aback by what they’ve found there. Once you know what to expect and how to do it, Korean barbecue is a feast for the senses that is fresher and healthier than the style of grilling one finds in the US or Australia.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. First, pick your meat. You can typically choose between pork and beef and pick from a variety of meat cuts. The most popular is samgyeopsal– pork belly. A thin cut of meat marbled with fat that cooks quickly and is usually served unseasoned. Moksal, or neck meat is also popular, as is dwaeji galbi– pork ribs that are often marinated. My personal favorite is gakmaekgisal– a cut of meat found between the ribs and liver of a pig.
2. At most authentic Korean barbecues, you cook the food yourself. Your table will have some sort of grilling surface, either electric or sometime a charcoal pit in the center of the table. You’ll have a set of tongs to turn the meat and a pair of scissors to cut it into bit size pieces. Typically, you don’t want to cut until it is at least halfway finished cooking. Sometimes a member of staff will assist you, especially if you are eating at restaurant outside of Korea where customers may be less used to cooking their own food.
3. Your meat should come with an array of side dishes or banchan. You can also order steamed rice to go along with your meat. Some of your sides are meant to be eaten as they are, but often they will give you kimchi, raw garlic, and marinated onion that can also be tossed on the grill alongside your meat. Many who don’t like kimchi often find it more palatable grilled– sweeter and less spicy. You can nibble the cold sides as your meat cooks. Some authentic Korean restaurants will also give you soup if you order rice. To be a true Korean, you must take a spoonful of rice, then dip it into your soup to pick up broth, vegetables, and often tofu for one delicious mouthful.
4. When your meat is finished, take a bite sized piece of meat and make it into a lettuce bundle. You will usually have some sauces on the table– a chunky soybean based paste is the most common. Sometimes for unseasoned meat, they will also give a dish of salt mixed with pepper or sesame. The authentic lettuce bundle should have a piece of meat with a small scoop of rice, a bit of sauce and one or more sides rolled together (like a piece of that grilled garlic or kimchi from step 3). But don’t make your bundle too big– proper etiquette is to eat it all in one bite.
Of course, meat can be eaten on its own, dipped in sauce, or on top of a spoonful of rice. Some people also prefer to mix the sides and meat into their bowl of rice to make a sort of bibimbap– or mixed rice. This works especially well if gochu, the red pepper paste traditionally put on bibimbap, is one of the sauces on the table. Some Korean barbecue also comes form of a chicken stir fry, (sometimes topped with gooey melted cheese) this style of barbecue is done in a large round pan and is is known as dalk galbi. The deeper you go, the more varieties of barbecue you will find.
In Korea, side dishes are part of your meal set and refills are unlimited, so enjoy a delicious meal that is full of healthy vegetables as well. While grilling food at the table may seem like a lot of work, it’s a lot of fun and puts you in control of your meal. Though it is very different than they style of barbecue you might be used to, give it a try and you may never go back to charred burgers and ribs again.
Odessa Denby is a writer and ESL teacher currently living in Seoul, South Korea. Some of her work has been featured in Outside Culture Magazine, Renaissance, Pitch, and Slipstream Magazine. She lives in a basement working on her novel and dreams of someday living in an apartment that gets sunlight. She is addicted to tea and likes to experiment with cooking foods that are not rice in her rice cooker. When time and funds allow, she travels the world and she blogs about her adventures at wanderlustified.wordpress.com