The Korean Wave is intensely sweeping the world by storm as South Korea’s cultural economy continues to export pop culture, entertainment, music, TV dramas and movies all over the world. Because of this, Korean cuisine is gaining more traction these days. One popular type of Korean cuisine we often see actors and actresses enjoying in Korean dramas and movies is Korean BBQ. Seeing them tuck into the sumptuous meal may make you want to drool, but do you know what exactly is Korean BBQ? What is the best way to enjoy this delectable cuisine? Let this article answer all your questions and enhance your understanding of Korean BBQ so that you can enjoy it the right way: like a local would.
1. What is Korean BBQ?
Korean BBQ, known locally as gogi-gui (고기구이), refers to the Korean cuisine method of grilling meat such as beef, chicken or pork on gas or charcoal grills inlaid into the dining table itself. There are many ways in which these meat dishes can be prepared, whether marinated or not. Bulgogi (불고기) is the most representative form of Korean BBQ. It is usually prepared by marinating thinly sliced beef sirloin or tenderloin cuts. Galbi (갈비) is another popular form of Korean BBQ. Here, short ribs of meat such as beef, pork or chicken, may be marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce. The meat dish is served to customers raw and is later left to cook on the tabletop grill before you can dig in!
2. How and what to order in a Korean BBQ restaurant?
You have probably seen images of the sumptuous spread of a typical Korean BBQ tabletop on TV or in the cinema, and may be amazed by how much space is taken up during dining. Learning how to dig into this generous spread can feel like a confusing or daunting task, especially for first-timers. Even if you have been devouring the dish one too many times, you may have not tucked into it the right way if no one properly taught you how. Questions may have run through your mind. What should you order? Do you wait for the server to grill and flip the meat for you, or should you do it yourself? And is it fine to ask for more side dishes if you finish them? All these questions are legit concerns that you should certainly address!
a. How to order the best meal?
There doesn’t exist a ‘best Korean BBQ meal’ experience across the board. What you deem a prefect Korean BBQ experience depends entirely on your personal preference for the type of meat served during your main course, and how you like it to be prepared. To begin, let the server know whether you wish to eat beef, chicken or pork. Then decide on the way the meat should be served. Do you want pork ribs, brisket, beef tongue, pork belly or chicken barbecue? All of them are delicious in their own way, but for a start, you may want to try ordering the non-marinated pork belly, known locally as samgyeopsal (삼겹살), which is a favorite of many Koreans.
In Korean restaurants, the quantity of meat you order is determined by headcount. As most meat servings for each person can be quite generous, you may wish to order only one serving when you have 2 people dining in. This way, you can order a variety of different meats to share and enjoy. Don’t forget to order some rice to pair with the meat. Or, for a healthier version, you can also wrap the bulgogi or kalbi together with the lettuce leaves (saam). Savour the tangy delicious “ssamjang” sauce as you pop it into your mouth!
b. Let the experts do the grilling
Now that you have ordered your favourite dishes, it’s time to begin your eager wait for your glorious meal to be served. But do you grill them yourself after the server brings your food? The server will usually ask if you want to grill them yourself, otherwise they will be more than willing to help you with the task. My take? Let the experts do the grilling! The best places will offer to do it for you since they know when is the best time to flip the meat and when the meat is cooked to perfect for optimum enjoyment. But if they don’t, don’t fret. Look out for droplets of water pooling up on the meat before flipping them. Don’t wait too long, or else the meat becomes too dry and tough to properly savour!
c. The side dishes are so yummy! Can I ask for refills?
Sure you can! Of course, that’s provided you are actually dining in the Land of the Morning Calm AKA South Korea. This is because Korean restaurants in certain countries may restrict you to just one serving of side dishes per meal. It doesn’t hurt to check with the server first before you order more.
If you haven’t already noticed, there is almost always a variety of side dishes served alongside the main dish in any Korean meal. These side dishes are called banchan. Koreans believe the small plates of banchan—which are light and not too greasy—help to boost your appetite. Furthermore, banchan is said to also aid in the digestion of the main dish of meat or rice that you consume. So while the banchan will be served before the main course, they are meant to be sampled throughout the meal, and not just eaten as appetizers.
d. I’m done with the meat parade. Is that all?
Now that you have stuffed yourself with all the tasty grilled meat you can take, is it time to ask for the bill? Well, not quite. I’m sure you probably have some leftover grilled meat that you really can’t stuff anymore, or some unfinished rice for that matter. Instead of wasting food, why not order some bokkeumbap, or Korean-style fried rice (볶음밥). Here, the server will help you fry the leftover rice with the meat on the hot grill! It is a simple dish well-loved by locals. Kimchi (a traditional side dish made from fermented vegetables) plus egg are usually added to enhance the flavour of the dish. Partake in this meal with your friends and family and savour this authentic, local flavour you won’t reject although you are already full!
3. Common Korean BBQ side dishes
Checking out what side dishes will be served before your main course in a Korean BBQ restaurant can be an exciting affair. This is especially the case given the multifarious selection of banchan you can look forward to. While a comprehensive list of wholesome Korean side dishes is simply too long to be included in this article, here are some of the more common side dishes you will come across in a Korean BBQ meal.
Needless to say, kimchi is a staple in Korean cuisine, as you can spot it alongside almost any Korean main course. The traditional side dish is made from salted and fermented vegetables. These are typically napa cabbage and Korean radishes that are generally seasoned with chilli powder, scallions, garlic and ginger. At first bite, the pickled cabbage or radish may taste a tad too sour for some, but slowly chew the vegetable and the satisfyingly spicy taste may hit you unknowingly. Nonetheless, kimchi makes a great complement to all the grilled meat that you are chomping on. Consider giving it a try even if you aren’t a fan of spicy or sour flavors!
b. Stir-fried zucchini
Stir-fried zucchini, or hobak bokkeum, is a summer side-themed dish that goes very well with meat dishes such as bulgogi and kalbi. Aesthetically diced and seasoned with saewoojeot, which is shrimp fish sauce, the end result is a plate of delightful tangy sides to whet your appetite. Its serving styles may vary. Sometimes, it is also tastefully garnished with sesame seeds!
c. Sweet and sour radish salad
As its name suggests, this sweet and sour radish salad is a Korean side dish which powerfully showcases both sweet and sour flavours at the same time. By popular demand, the dish is usually made spicy with red pepper chilli flakes (gochugaru). Other seasonings such as garlic and saewoojeot are also added. The final product being a refreshingly crunchy side dish that will keep you asking for more.
d. Stir-fried anchovies
Stir-fried anchovies, or myeolchi bokkeum, is made by stir-frying tiny or medium-sized anchovies in a small amount of oil. They are then mixed into a thickened sweet and savoury sauce. Gochujang (Korean red chilli pepper paste) is also added sparingly for that extra, slightly spicy kick. Combined with the natural saltiness of the anchovies, this calcium-rich dish not only adds crunch to your meal, but also enhances it with an assortment of sweet, savoury and spicy flavours.
e. Dried seaweed
Dried seaweed, or gim, is thin, paper-like dried seaweed or laver usually eaten with rice. This savoury delight is rich in calcium, vitamins and carotenes. It is a popular side dish that goes along well with rice and the meat in your grill. This side-dish is nutritionally packed with mineral salts and is a good source of iron.
4. Any drinks to go along with your meal?
Of course, with so much food (meat, rice and vegetables) going around the table, it’s natural to ask for a drink or two to complete your meal. It may seem like a no-brainer that you should just order your favourite drink, like carbonated drinks, fruit juice or a caffeine fix, to make for a satisfying meal. Of course, you’re free to do that, but you won’t be eating like a local if that was the case.
Koreans love to complement the grilled meat and side dishes with alcohol, or more specifically, soju—Korean rice wine. The national drink of Korea is a colourless, distilled vodka-like liquor which contains around 20% alcohol. It is the Korean equivalent of the Japanese rice-wine called sake.
Before you sip your soju in a shot glass, remember this! Never pour yourself a drink at the Korean table. An older member of the group will most probably hand you a shot glass, which you should accept with both hands to show your respect for your senior. When you drink, avoid eye contact with the person that pours the soju for you by turning your head politely to the side.
To add on to the fun, you can consider ordering the soju bomb. It consists of a shot of soju that you drop into a glass filled with 70% Korean light beer. Don’t forget to join in on the usual Korean drinking games too! It may feel reminiscent of the kind that you see in Korean dramas and movies. They are not only easy and fun, but will surely help to liven up the night and keep the drinks flowing!
Watch this video to learn more about basic Korean drinking games:
5. Is Korean BBQ expensive? Where can I find them?
Compared to a simple Korean meal such as the bibimbap (mixed rice) or kimchi noodles, Korean BBQ is relatively more expensive. Essentially, it is due to the fact that meat prices are on the rise and the Korean BBQ is a large format meal where you get to eat an array of different foods as opposed to a single main dish. So it is wise to enjoy Korean BBQ with a bunch of friends for the simple reason that you get to try more foods and split the cost!
Depending on the number of people sharing the meal and what you order, a typical Korean BBQ meal will set you back by at least 10,000 KRW (9.20 USD) per head in a cosy family-run Korean restaurant. Of course, the price goes up if you decide to dine in a traditional classy Korean restaurant for the ambience and everything else. The more people you invite, the lower your cost per head. Best to go in a group of four to six people for variety and economies of scale!
Hunting down a good Korean BBQ restaurant in Kimchi-land is also quite easy, given its widespread popularity and communal dining concept. You are bound to find at least one such restaurant round every corner. Just see if there’s a crowd (or queue) in the restaurant before you step in!
For an overview on how you can enjoy Korean BBQ the right way like a local, watch this informative video:
Enjoy your meal and have fun!
Now that you have a better understanding of Korean BBQ, it’s time to head out to a nice Korean restaurant to put what you have learnt into practice. Stop drooling over the grilled meat and sides eaten by the hunky actors and pretty actresses in Korean shows. Experience and appreciate the local culture firsthand by eating and enjoying the food at a Korean BBQ. Jal meokkesseumnida (Bon appetit)!
Share your Korean BBQ dining experience with us in the comments below! What are some of your favorite Korean BBQ haunts? Do you like the taste of kimchi?
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