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Barbecue By Any Other Name

Or how to make Korean barbecue at a cookout

Henry Hong

By Henry Hong | Posted 6/30/2010

I can totally sense it--the disappointed sighing, scowling, perhaps even cringing out there that's been triggered by the term "Korean barbecue." Because for some, using the term barbecue to refer to grilled things is just so freaking incorrect. And I feel you, truly I do, because I count myself among you, barbecue nerds. I was the guy who would, with subtle over-emphasis, remind friends that unless there was some smoking or at least slow-cooking of meats happening, then they were having a "cookout" rather than a "barbecue." Friends, I am sorry for being such a dick about it. See, I've since softened my stance on the terminology. So before we get into the "Korean" part, a quick spiel on the etymology of "barbecue" to comfort all the purists out there face palming right now.

The most widely agreed upon theory is that "barbecue" derives from "barabicu," a term used by people native to the West Indies referring to a structure used for elevating things off the ground. Apparently they were used to smoke and/or dry meat, and the term eventually came to indicate the cooking rather than the apparatus. Thing is, it seems that originally the cooking done on these things was over fire, like directly over it, aka grilling. Thus in my mind, a sound argument can be made that saying barbecue to refer to grilling is pretty legit. This is in fact the case everywhere else in the world (e.g., "put another shrimp on the barbie"). But here in the United States, there's no question that the term, as a method at least, refers to the smoking or cooking of meat by indirect heat, normally provided by charcoal or wood. And then there is barbecue as an event, which I think we can all agree simply means a bunch of people eating outside, and also there's usually fire.

Fun fact No. 1: Homeboy H.L. Mencken described this origin in The American Language, his authoritative work on uniquely American idioms and expressions. Fun fact No. 2: Those same West Indians are also credited with inventing the hammock, so the cliche image of "suburban guy chilling in hammock with steaks on grill" is quite possibly a surreal replay of an ancient scenario.

In any case, the Korean version comes in a few different forms--always meat, almost never seafood, sweet, spicy, and sometimes even just lubed with oil and salted. At a restaurant, you'd typically find sliced beef, beef short ribs, sliced pork, pork belly, and less often, but more so recently, chicken. The beef will most likely be seasoned with the classic sweet marinade, while the pork and chicken will probably be spicy, courtesy goh choo jahng, the spicy fermented paste made from peppers and soybeans. The meat is presented raw, cut into bite-sized pieces for super-fast cooking. Diners then throw the meat on a tabletop gas grill or charcoal brazier, or if you're unlucky, on a small butane-powered hibachi. Since the pieces are so small, doneness is less of a factor than a nice char when looking for ripe pickings. I've always surmised that the addition of sugar to the marinade is at least partly to enhance the charring effect given the short exposure to heat.

There's rice, of course, and usually a bunch of accompanying condiments and side dishes, plus lettuce to wrap it all up into what some people apparently like to call "Korean burritos." Shudder. It seems this type of meat-centric cuisine didn't get popular in Korea until well into the 20th century, and despite what some may claim, doesn't owe its roots to Mongolian barbecue. Primarily because Mongolians don't really grill anything--the closest thing I could find was "khorkhog", which is meat and vegetables cooked with hot stones, and even that is more of a stew. It did, however, spawn the Japanese cooking style called "yakiniku," which mirrors Korean barbecue closely.

Anyway, it's a communal activity, with everyone at the table engaging in cooking, assembling, and eating, all at the same time. I think this--and the sheer elaborateness of the spread--is what makes it an almost exclusively going-out-to-eat affair. But for home cookout purposes, which tend to be big productions anyway, it's a great way to mix things up a bit. It doesn't have to be a hassle, I've had cookouts where all the meat was marinated Korean style but everything else was straight-up American, even serving the meat on rolls. Along with the marinades, all it takes are a few of the more critical condiments to achieve a result that is a recognizably Korean barbecue. The marinades are extremely easy to make. The problem is that the ingredients are not usually found in a non-Asian kitchen. You can probably get most all of them in a nicer supermarket, but you'll pay handsomely for the convenience. My advice is to hit up an Asian market, and get some kimchi while you're there (perhaps the most important of the condiments, duh).

Because cookouts usually feature a single meat distribution point, i.e. the grill and the person helming it, some modifications are necessary to make it easier to cook and practical to serve. Mainly this comes down to meat cuts. Size-wise, it's preferable to monitor a few big things rather than many small ones. Also, traditional cuts like short rib or sliced pork belly may be tough to find, so subbing in more readily available cuts, generally the more expensive and tender steak cuts, may be necessary. It is, after all, fast and hot cooking. But still barbecue.

Beef Marinade


Warning: All measurements are approximate, as it is all done to taste. Adjustments may be required.

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp minced ginger
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 cup sliced onion
1/4 cup slivered scallions
Up to 2 pounds of beef

Good cuts of beef: Strip and rib eye are best—chuck and sirloin are also good, but need to marinate longer. Cut larger pieces of beef into strips to increase surface area for better marination. My favorite is short rib, or gahl bee, but this cut is not so easy to find.

Advice for gahl bee: Some supermarkets have short ribs but almost always with the bone in. Usually it'll be a section of rib a few inches long. Cut the meat off the bone and into one-inch thick slabs, which are easier to grill than the small chunks you'd find at a restaurant. Use the bone for stock, or grill and gnaw, then give it to your dog if he/she has been especially good. Asian supermarkets usually have packaged cuts specifically for gahl bee.

This marinade can also be used for chicken, or any meat for that matter.


1) My aunt taught me this trick, and I'm convinced it makes a difference—in a small bowl, dissolve the sugar in the hot water first, then add all other ingredients and combine.
2) Pour over your beef, and massage thoroughly. I like to make sure to crush the onion and scallion a bit.
3) Let stand refrigerated for at least an hour, and up to a day or two. For chuck and sirloin marinate for a few hours or overnight, if possible.
4) Grill to desired doneness.
5) If serving Korean barbecue style, allow the meat to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes and then slice into bite-sized pieces.

Spicy marinade (good for pork or chicken)


Warning: All measurements are approximate, as it is all done to taste. Adjustments may be required.

2 tablespoons goh choo jahng
1/2 cup hot water
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1/4 cup sliced onion
1/4 cup sliverd scallions
Some chopped hot peppers if you want it spicier
Up to 2 pounds of pork or chicken

Good cuts of pork: Tenderloin, loin, uncured belly—but it will be very fatty—or any chop type cut really. Cut larger pieces of meat into strips to increase surface area for better marination.

Good cuts of chicken: Boneless breast, of course, but boneless thighs work exceptionally well in this marinade and are a much cheaper.


1) Dissolve sugar in hot water, then stir in the goh choo jahng, then the remaining ingredients.
2) Massage into meat thoroughly
3) Let stand for at least an hour.
4) Grill to desired doneness.
5) If serving Korean barbecue style, allow the meat to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes and then slice into bite-sized pieces.

Korean Barbecue-Style Accompaniments

A popular way to eat Korean grilled meats is as a ssam, which means wrapped in a lettuce leaf with various components that add contrasting flavors and textures. In a restaurant, there are some side dishes specific to barbecue, along with the banchan side dishes that come with dinner anyway, which usually makes for a large selection. Below are some basic ones.

Tip: Ssam are meant to be eaten in one bite. Otherwise the little packages disintegrate and spill their contents all over the place. The trick is to not make them too big. Help your guests in this regard by tearing the lettuce into palm-sized pieces.

Leaf lettuce, any type that has tender, supple leaves to facilitate wrapping—red or green leaf, butter, or bibb are good
Dwen jahng (Korean fermented soybean paste) and/or goh choo jahng (red pepper/soybean paste) for smearing
Rice (duh)
Scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths, slivered, and tossed with a little sesame oil, soy, and red pepper
Sliced raw garlic—yup raw garlic, it adds a sharp, almost spicy bite
Kimchi, standard cabbage kimchi is best, but cucumber kimchi is good too.

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