Last Friday, Ben and I arrived at our friends’ house to find a beautiful scene: a rice cooker sitting on the counter, a serving dish spilling with pickled bean sprouts, a plate towering with sheets of roasted seaweed, and a jar glistening with brilliant red pickled cabbage. All week we had been looking forward to Korean bbq, a meal we learned to love many years ago at Kim’s, a hole-in-the-wall in North Philadelphia.
At Kim’s we could always count on a few things: a blazing hot charcoal grill, replaced several times over the course of the evening; an array of banchan ranging from spicy pickled daikon to steamed egg custards to scallion pancakes; and a table surrounded by a crew — friends, family, coworkers, anyone willing to spend an evening charring whole cloves of garlic, slices of jalapeno, and platters of paper-thin beef.
More often than not, the gathering at Kim’s had been organized by Thien, the chef of Fork at the time, who found any excuse to cab north for Korean food, and who somehow managed to pack into his messenger bag both wine (for everyone) and glasses (for everyone) — as much as Thien loved his cheap eats, he pooh-poohed plastic cups. We always stayed at Kim’s for hours. We never left hungry, and upon exiting, we never felt more grateful for fresh air — Kim’s ventilation system (or lack there of) could use some work.
One step through our friends’ front door, the pungent smell of kimchi pervading the house, took us right back to north Fifth Street. And the incredibly tender bulgogi served with addictive salty sheets of seaweed had me itching for the recipe. Prying, however, turned out to be unnecessary. Our friends, without apology, revealed their bulgogi secret: Hmart. Sliced, marinated, cryovacked. They love Hmart. I love them.
For four nights in a row following this dinner, I made bulgogi, and I served it the way our friends did with sheets of roasted seaweed — so good! — and kimchi rice, à la The Good Fork in Brooklyn. The sole banchan, a cucumber-apple pickle, while unexotic and untraditional, played the banchan-role nicely, striking that irresistible sweet-tart-spicy balance. I found the recipe in a great spread from the May 2009 Gourmet, (the same one that led me to discover warm tofu with spicy garlic sauce), and while it sparkles as a condiment, it certainly can be eaten on its own, like a salad, and paired with any number of Asian dishes, honey soy chicken legs, sesame-crusted tofu, Asian lettuce wraps, come to mind.
If you make any recipe from this post, I hope it’s this one. Apples and cucumbers have never been so happy together.
You all know to peel ginger with a spoon, right? Loved this Serious Eats post with essential kitchen tips and tricks.
This bulgogi marinade comes from The Good Fork in Brooklyn and was featured in a 2007 Bon Appetit recipe for Steak and Eggs Korean Style. Marinating overnight is ideal, but the marinade imparts an amazing amount of flavor in a short time — try for an hour at least:
Korean BBQ at Home:
Making Korean bbq at home can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. To keep things really simple: make just one banchan, such as this cucumber-apple pickle, and the bulgogi marinade, which looks like a lot of ingredients but which comes together in no time. Out of necessity, I made the kimchi, but this is completely unnecessary: if you can find it at your grocery store or Asian market, buy it. I loved chopping the kimchi and adding it to the rice — it not only is delicious but makes for easier eating in some ways, too. The cucumber-apple pickle can be made a day ahead (though I like eating it immediately) and the beef marinade can (and should) be made ahead too. If you are thinking about making this for a party, on serving day, the only work you really need to do is the steaming of the rice, opening the packs of roasted seaweed, and pulling out the Sriracha.
Here are the elements for a simple Korean bbq at home:
Cucumber-apple pickle (recipe below)
bulgogi (recipe below)
kimchi (recipe below)
roasted seaweed sheets
Adapted from this 2009 Gourmet recipe
Notes: This is another recipe where a mandoline will save you lots of time.
1/2 pound Japanese or Kirby cucumbers
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt (I used kosher)
1/2 Fuji or Granny Smith apple (or whatever you like)
2 cups water
1/3 cup unseasoned rice vinegar or cider vinegar
1 tablespoon very thin matchsticks of peeled ginger
1/4 cup sugar
Pinch of Korean hot red-pepper threads (optional — I used crushed red pepper flakes)
1. Slice cucumbers crosswise 1/8 inch thick and toss with sea salt. Let stand 30 minutes, then rinse well and squeeze out excess liquid with your hands. Note: Don’t worry too much about squeezing out all of the liquid — you end up pouring more water over the mixture anyway.
2. Halve apple half lengthwise and cut out core. With a mandoline or sharp knife, slice crosswise 1/8 inch thick.
3. Toss apple with cucumbers and remaining ingredients and marinate, chilled, turning occasionally, at least 1 day…or eat immediately. No need to marinate these cucs/apple slices for very long.
Korean Style Steak
Adapted from this Bon Appetit article
Notes: Marinating overnight is ideal but not necessary. If you can’t marinate overnight, try for at least one hour. The minimum I marinated this meat for was 2 hours, and I was amazed by how much flavor was imparted to the meat in such a short period of time.
1/4 cup mirin (sweet Japanese rice wine)
2 tablespoons finely grated cored peeled Granny Smith apple
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (I’ve used brown sugar and maple syrup)
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion (white and pale green parts)
1 tablespoon (scant) Korean hot pepper paste (such as sambal oelek)
1 tablespoon (scant) minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons Asian sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1 to 2 skirt steaks (about 10 to 20 oz total) or hanger steak or ribeye or strip steak, thinly sliced
1. Whisk first 10 ingredients in bowl. Add sliced meat. Cover; chill overnight. If you can’t marinate overnight, try for at least an hour.
2. Meanwhile, prepare barbecue (high heat) or place a cast iron skillet or a stainless steel skillet over high heat. Remove sliced steak from marinade, place on a plate or in a colander, and pat dry with paper towels. Cook steaks for about 1 minute or less per side. Note: I did not add any oil to my cast iron pan — it’s old and well seasoned and the meat doesn’t stick to it — but if you are worried, add a small amount of olive or canola or grapeseed oil to the pan as it preheats, and add the meat when the oil starts scooting around the pan and looking hot. Also, the meat will be ready to flip by the time you get it all onto the cooking surface. You essentially will start flipping the first pieces of meat you put down as soon as you place that last piece of meat on your cooking surface. Hope that makes sense. Transfer to a platter. Let stand 5 minutes.
If you live near an Asian grocery store, look for these packs of seaweed — they are especially good. Our friends found them at Hmart. If you can’t find them, any variety of nori (for making sushi for example) will work just fine:
I did not plan on making kimchi before setting out on this quest to make Korean BBQ at home, but I couldn’t find it at my local grocery store, and I didn’t think the meal would feel complete without it, so I went for it. This recipe for “Quick Kimchi” relies on fish sauce to give it a fermented flavor in a short period of time. I did not detail the process as closely as I would have liked, but if you are up for it, it really is easy to make. Also, don’t be totally misled by the word “quick” — the cabbage, after it is salted, sits for 2 hours. If you’re not up for making it, just buy it: I love jarred, store-bought kimchi.
Adapted from this 2009 Gourmet recipe
1 (3-pound) head Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped peeled ginger
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
1 bunch scallions, chopped (1 cup)
3 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted and crushed with side of heavy knife
2 to 3 tablespoons coarse Korean hot red-pepper flakes
1/2 Asian pear or Granny Smith apple or whatever apple you like
1. Quarter cabbage lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 2-to 3-inch pieces. Toss with 3 tablespoons salt in a large bowl and let stand, tossing occasionally, 2 hours.
2. Rinse cabbage well, then drain. Squeeze out excess water with your hands and transfer to a large bowl.
3. Purée garlic and ginger with fish sauce and vinegar in a blender until smooth, then pour over cabbage. Add scallions, sesame seeds, and red-pepper flakes and toss to coat.
4. Peel pear or apple, then grate on large holes of a box grater (avoid core and seeds). Add to cabbage mixture and toss well. Marinate at least 1 hour.
2 cups water
1 cup sushi rice (or other short-grain rice)
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups Napa cabbage kimchi, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
1. Bring 2 cups water to boil in small saucepan. Add rice and 1 teaspoon salt. Return to boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until water is absorbed, about 18 minutes.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add kimchi and vinegar. Stir until heated. Fold in rice. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.