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An Introduction to Korean Barbecue

You probably know something about the grilling of the “Land of the Morning Calm” already.

Two dishes, Bool kogi (sometimes spelled bulgogi) and kalbi kui, have made the leap from esoteric ethnic food to the American mainstream. The former is a rib eye steak sliced wafer-thin, sometimes glazed with a sweet-salty marinade, and grilled candy crisp over charcoal. The latter qualifies as one of the world’s most ingenious rib dishes: beef short ribs sliced and butterflied in such a way that you can cook them by direct grilling. This transforms a touch, ornery rib into tender, incredibly flavorful beef you can grill in a couple of minutes.

But beef is only a start, for the Korean barbecue repertory is broad enough to include pork belly, oysters, chicken, shellfish, and even eel—all served with a variety of small plate condiments collectively called panchan. The eater places the grilled meat on a lettuce leaf, tops it with a selection of condiments, and taco-like, wraps everything into a neat bundle.

THE GRILL: At the heart of Korean barbecue—and at the center of the table—is a charcoal-burning brazier that looks like a large flower pot. Some restaurants use more conventional boxlike metal grills. Depending on the food, it’s grilled either on a conventional wire grate or on what looks like an upside-down metal wok with holes or slits in it and a raised rim around the edge at the bottom that collects the juices, for dipping the meat.

THE FUEL: The traditional fuel is lump charcoal, lit outdoors and carried to the table in a brazier or metal box. Some South Korean chefs cook on gas grills, especially in big cities.

The Korean Grill

The Korean grill: a wire grate over blazing
charcoal.

THE FLAVORINGS: Korean barbecue plays pinball on your taste buds. The marinades counterpoint the saltiness of soy sauce with the sweetness of sugar, Asian pear, and sometimes mirin (sweet rice wine). Sesame oil and sesame seeds provide a nutty element, one of the distinguishing flavors of Korean barbecue, while garlic and black pepper supply the aromatics. On the grill, the sugar and fruit juice cook to a candylike glaze. Koreans also like their barbecue spicy, using chile powder and hot bean paste to kick up the heat—especially with pork and seafood.

MUST TRY DISHES:

Barbecued eel with panchan

Barbecued eel with panchan

THE CONDIMENTS: A small bowl of sesame salt is the basic seasoning for grilled meats, especially beef and pork. The traditional dipping sauce for beef contains soy sauce, sugar, Asian pear, garlic, scallion, and pepper. Grilled pork might be dipped in a fiery red chile sauce. Grilled seafood comes with kochujang, a sort of turbocharged cocktail sauce.

HOW TO EAT IT: A grilled dish becomes a whole meal at a typical Korean barbecue house. First, you slather a lettuce leaf with doenjang, Korean soybean paste. Then pile on some rice, kimchi (pickled cabbage, daikon, bok choy, or other vegetables), then the grilled meat, then grilled garlic, chiles, and scallions.

Fold the ensemble into a bundle, dip it into Asian pear sauce and/or sesame salt, then pop it into your mouth. This is a feat which Koreans accomplish with perfect aplomb, using slippery stainless steel chopsticks.

WHAT TO DRINK: Plum wine, wild strawberry wine, rice wine, or cinnamon punch.

THE MOST SINGULAR DISH IN THE REPERTORY: Blowfish bool kogi—yes, that’s the same blowfish known as fugu in Japan that contains a deadly poison that must be removed by highly trained fi sh cutters. One famous place to try it is Cheol Cheol Globefish restaurant in the Jung-gu district of Seoul.

For even more information about Korean Barbecue, check out this blog post.

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