Korean Kalbi: Grilled Beef Short Ribs (It's Like Bulgogi Only Cheaper)
"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." Mae West
Man, you've gotta love a restaurant with a grill embedded in every table.
If you've ever been to a Korean restaurant in the US, and if you haven't you should go soon, chances are that, between you and your sweetie, there was a grill in a hole in the table. Now I've been married more than 30 years, and the only thing that can get between me and my sweetie is a grill, so it is no surprise that I love Korean restaurants and my wife does not.
If you've ever been to a Korean restaurant, chances are you've had Kalbi (also spelled Galbi) cooked on these mid-table grills. Kalbi is the Korean word for "rib" and it is beef from short ribs, cut thin, marinated, and grilled very quickly. This is an excellent use of an otherwise tough but tasty cut. Click here for more about the different cuts of beef ribs.
If you've ever been to a Korean restaurant, you know it is great fun sitting around the table with friends grilling the meat in the center of the table, garnishing it with all the exotic tasty condiments they give you.
The good news is that it is easy to do at home. Any old hibachi or Cobb grill will do. You can even buy beautiful earthenware grills just for this purpose. Just be careful that the grill does not transmit heat to the table. A hot hibachi can crack a glass table or set a plastic table on fire. Use a thick slab of wood under the grill to insulate it.
I usually serve Kalbi with an amber ale or plain old lager because this dish can be a bit salty from the soy sauce. Bubbles seem to go well with salty stuff (beer and chips, anyone?) so a sparkling wine is a good choice. A slightly sweet Riesling or Chenin Blanc will also counteract the salt. I've had Kalbi with dry reds, a good choice because there are some big flavors here. And in South Korea, soju, a clear vodka-like whiskey usually made from rice, is the drink of choice. Sounds like I'm saying anything goes...
Korean Kalbi (Galbi) Recipe
25 minutes to make the marinade
1-6 hours to marinate
15 minutes to cook
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sesame oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup sugar
6 cloves garlic, pressed, crushed, or minced
4 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1/2 small onion (about 1/4 cup), chopped coarsely
4 pounds short ribs, bone in
About the meat. Buy short ribs with at least 1" of meat on the bones and as few hunks of hard fat as possible. If you can get it boneless, that's fine too. If it is boneless and cut about 1/2" thick as it is sometimes sold, you can lay the meat on wax paper, put another sheet of wax paper on top, and pound it flat with the bottom of a frying pan until it is about 1/8" thick. Plastic wrap works well too. If you don't have beef short rib meat, skinless chicken breasts and pork loin meat work fine in this rich marinade.
Make Bulgogi. You can use this same marinade on thinly sliced ribeye or strip steak, much more expensive cuts, and the results are called Bulgogi.
About the marinade. Marinades vary from family to family, but the basic ingredients are the same. The marinade above is pretty authentic, but feel free to modify it as you see fit. You can use another vinegar if you wish. Salad grade balsamic or cider vinegar would be good choices. Or use lemon juice. Don't have Korean chile paste? Use Tabasco sauce. Fresh ginger, garlic, and onion are important, but powdered will work in a pinch. If you wish, you can use OJ or beer instead of water. I like OJ. Feel free to substitute honey for the sugar. Just don't add too much or it will burn. If time permits, make the marinade a few hours in advance to allow the liquids to pull flavor out of the onion, garlic, and ginger. Overnight is fine.
1) With a sharp knife, remove the fat cap and the silver skin underneath it. Cut into individual bones sections if not already cut that way. Stand the meat on its side and slice the meat into 1/8" to 1/4" slices working towards the bone. The meat is usually cut thinner in Korean restaurants, but if it is a bit thicker you can get it off with a little pink in the center. I try for slices that are about 1.5" wide and about 2" long. Trim any excess hard fat.
2) Dump all the ingredients into a zipper bag or a bowl and mix thoroughly. Let the meat marinate in the fridge for at least an hour and up to 12 hours. Every hour or so, move the meat around so all of it is exposed to the marinade.
3) You can cook this on a grill on an outdoor dining table or on your regular grill. Get the grill good and hot. Place the meat on the grates (no need to oil them, the meat is too wet to stick). With the lid off, cook for 2-3 minutes per side. Try to get the meat off when it is brown on the exterior and there is still a little pink color to the interior.
Kalbi is wonderful served on a bed of rice. I like to sprinkle the meat with thinly sliced green onions, toasted sesame seeds, and some grated orange zest.
Most Korean restaurants in the US serve Kalbi rolled up in a crisp lettuce leaf with some rice, like a taco, with kimchi on the side.
Reader Nathan Lim from Manila writes that Korean restaurants there add to the rollup a sliver or three of raw garlic, a dab of Korean pepper paste (the stuff they serve with bibimbap), and/or Korean miso (a yellowish-brown paste that is surprisingly mustard-like).
For a cross cultural meal, serve it on a French baguette with grilled onions and sweet peppers. On the West Coast it is not uncommon to find food trucks serving kalbi on tortillas garnished with toasted sesame seeds, chopped green onions, and even cucumber.