Signature Dishes : Korean Barbecue
Your first introduction to Korean cuisine may have been at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Customers sit at communal tables and cook beef, pork, chicken and seafood on top of a tabletop grill.
Although it's what many people think of first when they think of Korean food, Korean barbecue, as we know it today, is a relatively modern food that was invented in restaurants in the 1950s after the Korean War.
One of the most popular of Korean barbecue dishes, "bulgogi," has a much longer history, however. It arose during the Goguryeo Dynasty (37BC to 668AD). Bulgogi (called "makjeok" at the time) was prepared similarly to how it is now—cuts of beef, topped with garlic, scallions and a lot of soy sauce. However, as the popularity of Buddhism and its vegetarian cuisine swept over the land, Koreans ate less beef and the dish nearly disappeared from the culinary landscape.
As the love of eating beef was brought back by invading Mongols, the Chosun Dynasty took hold of the Korean peninsula and beef came back as part of the Korean diet, especially amongst the royals. A fancy version of bulgogi (known as "neobiani") was introduced in the king's kitchen. A slightly thicker cut of beef than bulgogi, the pieces were shaped into rectangles, tenderized and seasoned with soy sauce and a little bit of sugar, which was very expensive at the time. Neobiani can still be found in restaurants today.
Still, the most popular Korean barbecue dish is galbi," usually beef short ribs marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sugar and sesame oil. Fancier versions include fruit puree or juices, like those of Asian pears, that help add a depth of flavor and tenderize the meat. Those in Hawaii like to add pineapple to their marinade, adding a bit of sweetness, tartness and a tropical flair to an already delicious dish.
The word "galbi" can also refer to Korean barbecue made from pork ("dweji galbi") or even chicken ("dak galbi"). Quite often, a spicier marinade, made with Korean chile paste ("gochujang") adds an extra flavor to pork and chicken barbecued dishes.
There are also non-marinated dishes found on the Korean grill. "Chadolbaegi," for instance, is beef brisket that's sliced so thinly, that it cooks almost instantly when it touches the heated griddle. "Samgyeopsal," another popular Korean barbecue dish, is made from thick slices of pork belly (the cut of pork which is also used to make bacon) cooked over a fire.
A popular way to eat Korean barbecue is to wrap the meat in curly leaf lettuce (called "ssam") with a bit of "ssamjang," a seasoned paste made from a combination of fermented soybean paste ("dwenjang") and gochujang with some added garlic and other seasonings.
However you like to eat Korean barbecue, it's easy to make it at home. Just marinade your meat in your favorite sauce and cook over a grill. Even if you don't have a tabletop griddle, you can enjoy the flavors of Korea in your home or your own backyard.