The Beginner’s Guide to Korean Barbecue

From the cuts of meat to what’s in the sauces, here’s a crash course on the ABCs of KBBQ.

The Beginner’s Guide to Korean Barbecue

Korean barbecue is a communal affair so gather a few of your best friends and get ready for family-size portions.

Photo by Staxpopzphoto/Shutterstock

Korean food has exploded in popularity during the past decade in the United States—words like kimchi, bulgogi, and bibimbap have officially entered the American culinary lexicon. I mean, T.G.I. Friday’s even added a Korean steak taco to its menu in 2012 and Yelp estimates that searches for Korean food grew 34 percent since 2012. Celebrity chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi have enjoyed a warm critical reception to their respective fusion Korean food empires, and, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite virtual Korean mom, Maangchi, who teaches YouTube viewers all over the world how to make Korean comfort food. But perhaps no other kind of food originating from the Asian peninsula is gaining as much popularity across the U.S. as Korean barbecue.

What is Korean barbecue?

Korean barbecue, aka KBBQ, traces its origins back to the Koguryŏ Era (37 B.C.–668 B.C.E.) of Korean history, to the nomadic Yemaek tribal group, whose range encompassed the whole of Korea and stretched as far as Manchuria. Since they were always on the go, the Yemaek people had plenty of time to marinate meats, but also needed a way to cook them quickly—thus, maekjeok was born. “Maek” refers to the Yemaek tribe while “jeok” is the word for the skewers they used to cook their meat over an open fire. Fast forward several hundred years, a Korean dynasty, and a Mongol invasion, and maekjeok lost the skewers and evolved into its modern incarnation, bulgogi—a sweet, savory marinated beef dish that’s one of the most popular items in Korean barbecue.

Today, there are many different types of meat you can order to barbecue that go way beyond bulgogi (more on that later), but all of your options will be thinly sliced to make them easier to cook over an open grill. There, you, or your server, will slowly roast cuts of beef, pork, and chicken over gas and charcoal grills that are often built directly into the table. Most importantly, KBBQ is almost always a communal affair—so, gather a few of your closest foodie friends and head over to your local Korean barbecue.

Marinated cuts of meat like galbi and bulgogi are among the most popular options at Korean barbecue restaurants.

Marinated cuts of meat like galbi and bulgogi are among the most popular options at Korean barbecue restaurants.

Photo by Anchalee Wiangkao/Shutterstock

What cuts should I order?

The options for meats that you can order at a KBBQ run the gamut. Any cut that you can think of on a cow, pig, or chicken will likely be on the menu, though beef and pork are really the stars of the show.

Some typical cuts to order include tender pork or beef belly, prime rib, brisket, and short ribs. Marinated cuts like bulgogi and galbi (beef short ribs) are soaked in a sweet, soy sauce–based brine and are among the most popular options at KBBQs. A few inside the animal items like intestines (called gopchang in Korean) will also be up for offer—don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

How do I eat Korean barbecue?

Since meats like bulgogi, galbi, and jeyuk bokkeum (spicy pork) have already been marinated for hours, they can be eaten fresh off the grill. Other options, like sliced beef or pork belly, are cooked without any seasoning, the idea being that you’ll dip the cooked meat in a sauce, or just plain salt afterwards. Some popular sauces to eat with KBBQ include gileumjang (a simple blend of salt, pepper, and sesame oil) and ssamjang (ssamjang translates directly to “dipping sauce” and is a sweet, savory blend of soy beans, red chili paste, sesame oil, onions, garlic, and brown sugar). Plain ol’ soy sauce and wasabi is a favorite dip as well.

Alternatively, Korean barbecue is also sometimes served ssambap-style, or lettuce wrapped (ssam means lettuce, while bap means rice). Now, ssambap is not meant to be as big as a burrito—it’s more of a bite-sized amalgamation of lettuce (usually red leaf romaine), rice, meat, and ssamjang. As you’re building your ssambap, hold the lettuce like a taco shell and lay down a foundation of rice, then layer on the meat (usually something boneless like bulgogi), and dab a little ssamjang on top. Your creation should be small enough to pop in your mouth in one go.

There are hundreds of different kinds of banchan. The best part? They're included in the price of your meal.

There are hundreds of different kinds of banchan. The best part? They’re included in the price of your meal.

Photo by KYTan/Shutterstock

What’s normally eaten with Korean food?

Banchan—and lots of it. Banchan refers to Korean side dishes, which are served with almost every kind of meal. There are literally hundreds of different kinds and variations of banchan, but any kind you encounter will fall under three umbrellas: fresh, soy-sauce braised, and fermented. Kimchi, in all its incarnations, is an example of a fermented banchan dish, kongjang (sweetened soybeans) are soy-sauce braised, while sigeumchi-namul (blanched spinach) is served fresh. With all their different flavor profiles, banchan provides a little veggie break from the meatiness of your meal while giving diners plenty of flavorful variety to keep things at the table interesting. The best thing about banchan? They’re included in the price of your meal, as are banchan refills—don’t be shy about asking for more.

Korean barbecue is meant to be shared with family and friends.

Korean barbecue is meant to be shared with family and friends.

Photo by Suzanne Pratt/Shutterstock

Is there any etiquette I should know about?

Though there are plenty of restaurants that tout a do-it-yourself attitude when it comes to KBBQ, many places will have a server cook your meat for you. Even if the attendant walks away, it’s understood that you should not touch your meat, lest you raise the ire and receive a few choice words or a slap on the wrist from the ajumma (a Korean word used to refer to middle-aged or married women) assigned to turn the meat. All-you-can-eat joints will usually let you cook your own food, while higher end, à la carte restaurants will have an all-mighty meat attendant.

Generally speaking, you should first start cooking your unmarinated meats before things like bulgogi and galbi, but this is more for practical reasons—the sugar from the marinade is prone to burning and makes the grill sticky and smoky. However, feel free to ask your server to swap out your grills whenever it gets too crusty, though they’re likely to do this of their own accord (probably with a begrudging glare if you dared try to touch your meat). Also, as a side note, it’s not weird to grill your kimchi; the leafy part of the veggie will fry up into a delicious crisp—go bananas!

When most people go out for Korean barbecue, there’s an expectation that a bottle of soju or two is also going to be involved. Koreans, after all, have the greatest appetite for hard liquor in the world. Drinking is seen as a way to bond with the folks at your table, as it is for many other cultures. The most important rule when it comes to drinking at a KBBQ table? No one’s glass should remain empty.

Traditional Korean meal etiquette can be quite daunting, but depending on the context, you probably don’t need to worry about all the minutiae if you’re just going out for a fun weekend dinner. For example, when eating Korean barbecue (or any other Korean food really), rice is served in a separate bowl, and diners should not dirty their rice by placing meat or banchan directly on it. It’s also considered rude to pick up your bowl from the table, as you normally would in a Chinese or Japanese dining setting. But don’t worry about all of that: The real point of KBBQ is to enjoy the company of the people you’re with—and the deliciousness of the meal you’re sharing with them.

>> Next: Everything You Need to Know About Korean Banchan

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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