Barbecue! The searing heat of open flames, the tantalizing sizzle of cooking meat, the rising smoke that tells you that piece of beef has been on the grill just a bit too long. It’s iconic, it’s perfect for summer, it’s…happening in the middle of your table?
These marinated scraps of short ribs and sirloin may be cooked on a charcoal grill, but that grill’s on your table and the meat’s managed with chopsticks. This ‘cue isn’t American, it’s Korean, and it’s causing quite a stir in cities all over the country. What started as a niche party dish in Korean districts and homes has grown into a gourmet trend, and even wine bars like Chicagoland’s Flight now serve some permutation of Korean-style BBQ.
The most popular form of Korean barbecue, known as “gal bi” or “kalbi,” consists of beef short ribs—often cut off the bone, but traditionally served on it—prepared in a complex marinade for up to 2 days, then served raw to diners who cook it right there and eat it on the spot. It’s a popular picnic dish in Korea, a fixture as regular as Italian food in Japan, and a grand social experience wherever you are. Friends soon jockey to see who can cook meat faster, the group cooking fosters conversation, and the rewards—succulently grilled, juicy, umami-rich pieces of meat fresh of the grill—are well worth the extra effort. Often these scraps of shortrib are wrapped in cool lettuce, dipped in some sauce, and devoured; one thinks of Atkins-friendly burgers, but trust us, this stuff is much better.
The meat is undoubtedly the star of the show, but the complete Korean barbecue experience offers a wide variety of tastes, via the accompanying banchan, or side dishes. If the meat is a new twist on an old favorite, then banchan are new experiences whose results may vary: it’s a mix of leafy vegetables, pickles, and the Korean staple “kimchi.” Kimchi especially may take some getting used to; prepared by salting, pickling, or fermenting various vegetables, its flavor varies from sweet to spicy and is always a pleasant shock to the tongue. Though considered a side dish, banchan is not meant to be combined with the meat but rather complements it. Each ingredient should be savored separately.
According to the good people at The Food Section, you should also avoid using the aforementioned lettuce to create a leafy burrito—proper gal bi consumption involves tearing off small shreds of lettuce, wrapping each piece individually, and chowing down that way. It’s a bit less hearty than a huge beef wrap, perhaps, but far more polite.
Politeness can be a big deal, particularly if you’re at a formal or family Korean gathering. Rules range from proper placement of chopsticks (don’t stick ‘em in your rice bowl) to ideal pace of eating (don’t finish too fast or too slow). But Korean barbecue, particularly in America, is generally a very informal occasion, so unless you’re warned otherwise, don’t worry about etiquette.
If you’d like to hunt down a Korean barbecue restaurant, look for your nearest Koreatown; you’ll definitely find some. Or you could try out some Fusion cuisine; if the restaurant has Korean influences, you’ll probably see gal bi on the menu. And if you want to make it yourself, you can give this recipe a shot. It uses steaks, but if you’re concerned with authenticity you can easily find “gal bi cut” short ribs at your local Korean grocery store.
So this summer, consider a new spin on the classic ‘cue. Set up a grill, pour a glass of soju, and make sure no one steals your share of the food!