"Barbecue may not be the road to world peace, but it's a start."Anthony Bourdain
In February 2018, thousands of athletes and millions of spectators from more than 90 countries around the world descended on PyeongChang, South Korea, for the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. Hopefully some of them ventured outside the Olympic Village to sample some of the world’s most exciting food cooked over live fire: Korean BBQ!
While American BBQ tends to emphasize big hunks of meat like brisket and pork shoulder cooked low and slow behind closed doors, Korean BBQ celebrates smaller cuts like strips of beef rib steak, sliced pork belly, and butterflied beef short ribs seared hot and fast over a charcoal fire—often right at the dining table and often by you, the guest! Most Korean BBQ restaurants have tables with built-in charcoal braziers. Hot embers of lump charcoal come to the table just before your marinated meats do, and then you grill the meat yourself. Grilling right at the dining table is a big part of the fun.
The side dishes are the other fun part. The raw, sliced meats come to the table pre-marinated (usually in soy sauce, rice vinegar, toasted sesame oil, and sugar) and share the spotlight with a slew of high-flavor accompaniments. Known as panchan, these go-withs allow you to customize your Korean BBQ to your taste preferences. On the table, you may find a bowl of funky kimchi made with cabbage or radishes, some spicy gochujang (fermented chile pepper paste), a dish of sweet-and-sour cucumbers, a fresh watercress or mung bean salad, a bowl of steamed rice, a dish of sesame salt, a savory dipping sauce dotted with chopped Asian pears, and some crisp lettuce leaves for wrapping it all up. It’s like a taco bar with lettuce as the wraps. The many, varied garnishes bring the grilled meat alive. You grill strips of meat over the charcoal embers just until they are charred by fire and kissed with smoke, then wrap them up with a bit of sweet, a shot of salty, a spark of spice, a lick of acidity, some crunch, and a boatload of savory for what eventually becomes a minor feast of culinary fireworks in your mouth!
“Korean food is all about bold, strong flavor,” says Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, author of cookbooks such as Eating Korean: From Barbecue to Kimchi and several Frommer’s travel guides on South Korea and its capital city, Seoul. “There’s nothing subtle about it. Everything hits you hard, so it’s fun for the palate.” You can find many of these strong flavors, such as gochujang chile paste, at a local mom-and-pop Asian grocery store near you or at a national chain such as H Mart or even Walmart.
And if you happen to be enjoying Korean food in South Korea (lucky you!), here are some insider tips from Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee: “Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking up in your rice. That is only done during funeral ceremonies to symbolize allowing the dead person to eat.” Good advice for avoiding a cultural faux pas! Lee also mentions “if you’re drinking alcohol with a group, in general you don’t pour for yourself. The younger person pours for the older. Always accept the glass with two hands while the alcohol is being poured.”
Ready for a taste of Korean BBQ? Celebrate the 2018 Winter Olympics by trying our recipe for grilled Korean Kalbi or Bulgogi made with beef short ribs or sliced ribeye. Either way, it’s an easy dish to grill at home. Don’t forget the kimchi, gochujang, sesame seeds, rice, and other accompaniments!
While you’re celebrating the Olympics and athletes from all over the globe, consider making a few more of the best recipes from around the world. Here are some of our favorite global recipes from a dozen countries, in no particular order: