Let the sparks fly
Branch out with Korean barbecue
Some people are security seekers. I have friends who always drink the same brand of beer or wine and order the same familiar foods such as steak, fried chicken or cheeseburgers. Other people are thrill seekers. They are the ones who try out all the different microbrews or esoteric wines and order the grilled octopus or veal sweetbreads. I fit in the latter category.
I love going to ethnic restaurants and experiencing the culinary traditions of other cultures. I admit that at times I feel like a stranger in a strange land, but I always ask questions and watch what others around me are doing.
For a maximum dose of ethnic eccentricity, I recommend visiting a Korean barbeque restaurant. Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have vibrant Korean neighborhoods known as Koreatown or K-town. When you open the door to a Korean barbeque restaurant you are hit with the smoky aroma of meat grilling over an open fire. As soon as you sit down and place your order a series of unfamiliar rituals unfold. Eight to twelve small dishes are placed in front of you containing such things as marinated tofu, pickled vegetables, marinated fish, and peppery fermented Napa cabbage kimchi. You may be tempted to tell the server that you hadn’t ordered all these dishes, but these are banchan, or side dishes. Similar in concept to Spanish tapas, banchan are an essential part of a Korean meal and are meant to be enjoyed with the main course. Banchan are included in the cost of the entrée and refills are free.
The next exciting moment occurs when the server appears with tongs and a little bucket of glowing charcoal to fill your tabletop grill. When the overhead vent hood is turned on, glowing embers fly out of the grill like miniature fireworks, sometimes landing in your hair. The danger is half the thrill.
Your entrée arrives uncooked. Your server will place thinly sliced marinated sirloin (bulgogi) or strips of crosscut marinated short ribs (kalbi) on your grill. He may stick around and cook your order to completion, but if he is called away you’re in charge.
With your entrée comes a bowl of rice and a platter of lettuce leaves, thinly sliced daikon radish, hot pepper slices and a sauce made of fermented bean paste and chili called ssamjang.
The proper way to eat Korean barbeque is to make a wrap with the lettuce: a little grilled meat, a little rice, a bit of kimchi, a dab of saamjang. Kitchen scissors are provided to cut the short rib meat into small pieces. The little packets should be eaten in one bite.
Korean barbeque is traditionally enjoyed with beer or soju. Soju is made from rice, wheat, barley, sweet potato or tapioca and resembles vodka, though lower in alcohol. You shouldn’t fill your own glass. Toasts arise spontaneously and it is your responsibility to keep your neighbor’s glass topped off.
One cannot hope to recreate the zany, unique experience of a Koreatown barbeque at home but this recipe does a pretty good job capturing its flavors.
Korean short ribs (kalbi) and skewered shiitake, scallions and peppers
- 2 lbs. beef short ribs, sliced thinly across the grain, available at Asian markets (or substitute skirt steak)
- 1 lb. shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and wiped clean (or substitute cremini or portabella)
- 1-2 bunches large scallions
- 1-2 red and or yellow bell peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut into strips approximately 1 ½ inch x 1/2 inch
For the marinade:
- 1 Asian pear or Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored, and roughly chopped
- 1 T. minced garlic
- ¼ c. sesame oil (dark/roasted/Asian)
- ½ c. naturally brewed soy sauce, such as Kikkoman
- 1/3 c. honey
- 2T. light brown sugar
- ¼ c. sake (preferred), dry sherry or dry vermouth
- 4 scallions, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more or less to taste, optional
Use the mushrooms whole if small, or cut to the size roughly equal to the pepper pieces. Cut the white part of the scallions (with the green parts as needed) into 1 ½-inch lengths.
Combine the ingredients for the marinade in the container of a blender or food processor and purée until smooth.
Divide the marinade between two one-gallon resealable plastic bags. Add the short ribs to one bag and the vegetables to the other. Let marinate at least an hour, preferably 2-3 hours. The meat may be marinated overnight, but not the vegetables. If marinating for more than one hour, refrigerate.
Thinly slice the remaining scallion greens on the diagonal and reserve.
Soak bamboo skewers in hot water for 1 hour prior to grilling (longer if not using hot water).
Remove the short ribs from the marinade and let drain. Remove the vegetables from the marinade, drain, and reserve the marinade.
Preheat the grill to high. Thread the skewers alternately with the mushrooms, then scallions, then peppers.
Grill the vegetable kebobs until the vegetables are tender and browned, about 3-5 minutes per side, for a total of 10 minutes.
Grill the short ribs at the same time until well browned and thoroughly cooked, but not until toughened, about the same length of time as the vegetables.
Serve immediately, sprinkled with the reserved sliced scallion greens, and with the reserved marinade from the vegetables as a dipping sauce.
Last summer Peter Glatz cooked 4 meals in his bus for 125 people at a music festival. Content with the knowledge that he could do it, he swore never to do it again. This year he volunteered to make ice tea.