Master the Grill of Korean BBQ: Your Ultimate Guide

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What is Korean BBQ?

Korean BBQ is a unique dining experience where marinated meats are cooked over a hot grill embedded in the center of the table.

"korean bbq"
Image by Lee Younghee from Pixabay

How to Make Korean BBQ

  1. Prepare in advance:Marinate the meats, prep the vegetables, buy the banchan (side dishes), and make the sauces a few hours before eating or even the day before. Also, get your liquor ready and refrigerate it—no one should have to drink warm soju if it can be avoided.
  2. Set the Table: When it’s time to eat, cook the rice and noodles, and set the table with banchan, dipping sauces, rice, and noodles.
  3. Heat the Grill: Turn on your grill or hot plate and ensure proper ventilation if you’re indoors.
  4. Oil the Grill: Brush some oil on the hot grill to prevent sticking.
  5. Cook the Meat: Place slices of meat on the grill and flip them as needed.
  6. Serve and Enjoy: Once the meat is cooked, remove it from the grill. Wrap it, top it with sauces and vegetables, and enjoy. Alternatively, you can place the cooked pieces on a plate and continue grilling, eating, and repeating the process.

Components of a Korean BBQ

 

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A traditional BBQ experience consists of various elements, each playing a crucial role in the meal. Here are some key components:

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Meat: This BBQ typically features a selection of meats, including pork, chicken, or beef. You can choose the specific cut you prefer, with options ranging from pork belly (samgyeopsal) to intestines, neck, leg, and skin. Once the meat is brought to your table, you cook it yourself over the grill in the center of the table. Use chopsticks to flip the meat and special scissors (usually provided) to cut it into smaller pieces.

Ssam: In this BBQ, ssam refers to the combination of grilled meat and veggies wrapped in leaves. Common options include lettuce, perilla leaves, and sesame leaves. Enhance your ssam with additional vegetables like seasoned scallions, bean sprouts, radishes, or cucumbers.

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Sauce: Enhance the meat and vegetables with ssamjang, a savory sauce made from soybean paste and red pepper paste. This umami-rich sauce complements the flavors of Korean BBQ without overpowering them.

Drinks: Pair your BBQ with traditional beverages like soju, a popular Korean wine, or other light drinks. These drinks balance the richness of Korean BBQ ingredients perfectly.

Extras: Stews are a common addition at Korean BBQ restaurants. Doenjang jjigae, a fermented bean paste stew, often appears toward the end of the meal. This brothy stew, featuring protein and vegetables, is enjoyed with rice and kimchi. It’s a classic comfort food that perfectly complements the BBQ experience.

Meats and Marinades for Korean BBQ

 

"korean bbq"

The highlight of Korean BBQ is the variety of meat cuts. Here are some popular choices:

  1. Pork Belly (Samgyeopsal): Can be thin or thick-cut.
  2. Pork Jowl (Hanjeongsal)
  3. Thin Cut Beef: From sirloin, ribeye, or brisket.
  4. Short Ribs (Galbi)
  5. Wagyu, Chicken, and Seafood: Less common in this traditional BBQ but gaining popularity.

Key points about the meat used in Korean BBQ are:

Fat Content and Thickness: Meat with some fat, cut thinly, is ideal for it. Whether it’s pork belly or marbled beef, thin cuts cook quickly and stay juicy, which is a crucial aspect of the Korean BBQ experience.

Seasoning: Typically, the meat for Korean BBQ is unseasoned to allow the accompanying sauces to shine. However, you can still serve it with salt and pepper, bulgogi marinade, or a spicy marinade.

You can find these meat slices at Hmart or ask your local butcher to slice them thinly for your BBQ.

How to Eat

  1. Order Your Soju and Beer (Maekju): The first step to enjoying Korean BBQ is to order your drinks! Soju and beer are the traditional choices.
  2. Decipher the BBQ Meat Options: Navigating the meat options can be tricky. I’ve often found myself using Google Translate to understand the menu. Samgyeopsal (pork belly) is the most common and widely served cut in Korean BBQ. It’s affordable yet incredibly tasty. Thinly-sliced beef brisket (chadol bagi) is also a popular choice, and galbi (pork rib) is one of my personal favorites.
  3. Sides (Banchan) Will Arrive: A variety of side dishes will be delivered to your table. While I often don’t know exactly what each one is, I dive in and enjoy them anyway!
  4. Time to Prepare Meat: Your meat will arrive on a side plate, accompanied by tongs and scissors. In this BBQ, you don’t wait for the waiter to prepare your meat—it’s all DIY! Place the meat on the grill, flip it over, and once it’s browned, use the scissors to cut it into bite-sized pieces.

Let the meat cook a bit longer, then move it to the side of the grill, and voilà—your BBQ meat is ready! I usually add garlic and chilies to the grill and cook them lightly, although most Koreans prefer to eat them raw and often give me funny looks when I do this.

Korean BBQ vs. Other Types of Barbecue

In many countries, barbecue refers to the method of grilling meat and other foods. In this regard, Korean BBQ is quite similar to other types of barbecue. However, barbecue has developed various nuanced meanings globally. Here are a few types of barbecue and how they compare to Korean BBQ:

Korean BBQ vs. United States Barbecue

In the United States, barbecue—sometimes called American barbecue—varies greatly by region. Unlike Korean BBQ, which typically uses small, tender cuts like beef tongue, beef short ribs, pork belly, and chicken, American barbecue often features large cuts of meat such as brisket, whole chickens, pork butts, pork ribs, and big steaks like sirloin and rib-eye. Common sides for American barbecue include macaroni and cheese, potato salad, collard greens, and bread, such as cornbread or white bread. Another key difference is that American barbecue often involves smoking the meat before grilling, whereas Korean BBQ starts with raw, marinated meat cooked directly on the grill.

Korean BBQ vs. Jamaican Barbecue

Jamaican barbecue primarily features spiced chicken and pork, with jerk chicken being the nation’s spicy signature dish. The term “jerk” refers to the seasoning made from allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers, both native to the Caribbean. Cooks often grill the meat whole, on skewers, or in parts like chicken thighs or pork loin over a smoky wood fire. In contrast, Korean BBQ focuses on a harmonious blend of flavors in the marinade, ensuring no single ingredient overpowers the others. Korean BBQ marinades typically include soy sauce, ginger, rice wine, sesame oil, and brown sugar.

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Korean BBQ vs. Japanese Barbecue

Both have several key differences. In a Korean BBQ restaurant, a variety of side dishes always accompany the main course, whereas Japanese barbecue typically comes with only a few raw vegetables. Another distinction is in the seasoning: Japanese barbecue relies on dipping sauces, whereas Korean BBQ features marinated meats. Additionally, while Korean BBQ includes marinated beef, pork, and chicken, Japanese barbecue tends to focus primarily on beef.

 

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