Forget everything you thought you knew about barbecue – once you try thin slices of beef short ribs or sizzling pork belly cooked right before your eyes, you'll never look at Western-style hickory sauces or thick hunks of meat the same way.
Korean barbecue is cooked at your table — Photo courtesy of tjsander
Gogigui, or meat roasting, started in Korea during the Goguryeo Dynasty between 37 B.C. and 668 A.D., but was all but wiped out when the country turned Buddhist and adopted its vegetarian cuisine. After a series of 13th-century invasions by the meat-loving Mongols and the 14th-century establishment of the Joseon Dynasty, meat once again swept the nation and Korean barbecue as we know it was reborn.
Pork and beef are the usual suspects at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Bulgogi, which is beef marinated in soy sauce and sesame oil, is a popular choice. Non-marinated meats like samgyeopsal (pork belly) and galbi (beef short ribs) are almost always on the menu.
Thin slices of galbi, or beef short rib, ready to be grilled — Photo courtesy of arnold | inuyaki
Korean barbecue consists of thin slices of meat rather than thick steaks or racks of ribs. This allows the meat to cook easily and quickly at your table. Many Korean restaurants have tables with grills built right in, while others will use portable tabletop grills for barbecuing. If you're not much of a griller, don't fret: The servers will usually handle the heat, flipping and cutting for you.
As your meat sizzles to warm perfection at your table, you'll typically be presented with a sweeping spread of side dishes, or banchan. The dozen or so extra dishes might be intimidating to the Korean barbecue novice, but once you've mastered the art of banchan, you'll realize there's no better way to enjoy Korean barbecue than with a colorful set of side dishes.
An assortment of banchan, or Korean side dishes — Photo courtesy of arnold | inuyaki/Flickr
The staple banchan for Korean barbecue are rice, garlic, kimchi, red bean paste (gochujang) and an array of various lettuce leaves. The rest of your table will be filled with a sampling of the day's side dishes, which are usually vegetable-based. You might receive dishes like bean sprouts tossed in sesame oil, seaweed salad, dried anchovies or the soup of the day, all of which are intended to be enjoyed family-style.
An example of ssam — Photo courtesy of joyosity/Flickr
To dig in Korean-style, toss a couple of garlic cloves and kimchi slices onto the grill. While that cooks, take a lettuce leaf and begin to make a ssam, which means "wrapped." Top your lettuce leaf with a bit of rice and your choice of sauce. Once the meat, kimchi and garlic are finished cooking, throw them onto your ssam, roll it up and enjoy in one bite.
Or just dig in straight from the grill – we won't judge.
Hungry yet? You're sure to find a Korean barbecue restaurant in a K-Town near you. Korean barbecue restaurants are especially abundant in areas like New York, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Orange County. Be sure to look for an AYCE, or all-you-can-eat, restaurant to get your fill of Korean barbecue.