What is Korean BBQ? Meats, Side Dishes & Ordering Tips

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If you’ve never tried Korean BBQ, you’re seriously missing out, but if you’re intimidated, here’s a beginner’s guide to ordering Korean BBQ like a pro.

At the most basic culinary level, it is simply the traditional Korean method of grilling meat at the table. But as a cultural phenomenon, it’s really about the experience, where succulent protein is seared right in front of you on a scorching grill grate.

Think of it as a more intimate hibachi experience – except instead of wild flames, flying shrimp and theatrical squirts of sake – there’s an assembly line of tricky sides to explore, slippery noodles to pluck with chopsticks. , soup to suck, and shots of soju (more on that, later) to sip, or more commonly, swallow in one gulp.

We asked Esther Choi, chef and owner of mŏkbar in New York, to give us a crash course in the most authentic (and delicious!) way to navigate Korean barbecue on our own.

“Expect bright, bold flavors, and expect to eat a lot!” she says.

First, you need to know your meats

The hardest part of Korean barbecue is deciding which cut of meat to order. That’s because while you’ll see traditional options like prime rib, flank steak, thin beef brisket, or thick pork belly strips, more and more restaurants are catering to foodies and scrambling the menu with a long list of cuts of steak, chicken and even seafood.

“If you want the traditional Korean flavor experience, choose short ribs, flank steak, or bulgogi, which is thinly sliced ​​rib eye in a sweet and spicy marinade,” advises Choi.

Keep an eye on the grill

Most restaurants have waiters who cook for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they cook things right.

“Nowadays, a lot of people cook it very, very quickly and keep turning the meat. You don’t want everything to be brown or grey, you want to get a caramelization that a nice searing will achieve,” says Choi. That means making sure the grill is preheated (meat should pop and sizzle as soon as it hits the grate), and they don’t have to use the same grill top for all types of meat.

“A good restaurant will change the grill depending on the type of meat. Thicker steaks should be cooked on cast iron, while short ribs are best on a wire grill so they can catch some flame and pick up that smoky flavor,” she says. If you really want to, you can usually ask to do the cooking yourself.

Feel the vibe

An authentic barbecue won’t make the meal feel like a race to the finish – servers should cook things slowly and in stages, so you can fully taste and embrace all the flavors and dishes. “They shouldn’t rush you out of the restaurant to sit down another party,” Choi warns. You should also be able to ask questions about menu items or ask for recommendations without feeling embarrassed.

What about apps?

There are plenty of starters to choose from, but it’s not always a good idea to indulge in the dizzying array, especially if you’re new to barbecue, Choi says. While whatever you choose – plump dumplings, pajeon (a savory pancake stuffed with vegetables, meat or seafood) or Korean fried chicken – is sure to delight, it can also be flavor overload and belly. If you want to test the taste, stick with a noodle dish or stew and share with the table (we’ll tell you the best of these options below).

To Banchan

Banchan – the complementary line of vegetable side dishes that inexplicably appear right after ordering – is an underrated star of any Korean barbecue meal. Each restaurant will serve something slightly different, but most often you’ll find lettuce leaves to wrap the meat in, kimchi (fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or daikon), spicy cucumber salad, pickled raw bean sprouts or lightly seasoned, sautéed spinach or watercress, green onion salad, and just about any other vegetable (broccoli, radish, even eggplant) that you can steam, boil, sauté, or make into a salad cold.

Expect to taste sesame, spice and funk that tickles the palate. And don’t leave any sauces untouched – you’ll frequently see small dishes of gochujang (a spicy/mild hot sauce), ssamjang (a thick, spicy paste), sesame oil, and even slices of raw garlic or garlic. green onion – and all are meant to enhance the simple backdrop of meat.

How do you fit so much into one bite, you ask? You don’t — the spread will tell you how it should be eaten, Choi says. “Everyone does it a little differently, so it all depends on what you want to add to each bite or what you want to taste after a bite of meat,” she says. “My favorite way to eat is to wrap a lettuce leaf around a piece of meat, then add a dab of ssamjang and maybe a little green onion salad. If the meat is not marinated, I can dip it in sesame oil with a pinch of salt.

The best side dishes to choose

If you want a substance to pair with your protein, you can always opt for plain white rice. But to eat like the Koreans do, broaden your horizons a bit. “I love a kimchi stew towards the end of the meal. It’s a little funky and sour, so it cleans your palate and cuts the fat from the meat,” says Choi. Plus, it’s usually served with rice.

If you prefer noodles, opt for a cold buckwheat noodle soup. “It’s so refreshing. Sometimes I ask for it to come out with my meat and use it instead of rice. Wrapping those fresh noodles around the steaming meat is the most perfect combo ever. You to have to make cold noodles.

Don’t forget the soju

It looks and tastes like vodka, but this popular distilled spirit begs to be enjoyed with food, just like wine. It should flow throughout the meal – and while you can sip it – it’s more fun (and traditional) to dismiss it as a shot.

“Every Korean barbecue experience should include soju,” says Choi. Her favorite brand (and the one she stocks in her restaurants) is called Tokki and is distilled in Brooklyn.

Finally, don’t be afraid of kimchi

If you think kimchi should taste and smell funky, you just haven’t eaten good kimchi yet. Technically, any vegetable can be “kimchified,” Choi says, and when properly prepared, it’s just the kick of acidity and freshness that any meat-heavy meal needs.

“Fresh, quality kimchi should be bright and attractive, and taste crunchy and delicious,” she says. “And, look for something that’s homemade.” If you’re looking for a homemade batch to try in New York City, look no further than Choi’s own restaurant, with locations in Chelsea Market and around the corner from Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

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