Bulgogi with Cucumber-Apple Pickle

bite of bulgogi

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.


gingered cucumber-apple pickle

rice, kimchi, cucs


sliced apples & cucs

sliced cucs

After 30 minutes, the salted cucumbers look like this (right photo):
salted cucs

salted cucumbers, draining

You all know to peel ginger with a spoon, right? Loved this Serious Eats post with essential kitchen tips and tricks.
peeling the ginger


apples and ginger

cucs & apples

cucs in ball jar

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:
marinade ingredients

This marinade calls for both grated ginger and apple:
grated ginger and apple


beef, marinating

If you want to get a nice char on your beef, it’s important to pat it dry after removing it from the marinade:
patting beef dry

In a hot pan, thinly sliced meat will cook in less than a minute per side:

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)
steamed rice
roasted seaweed sheets

Cucumber-Apple Pickle

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

Serves 4
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.

At The Good Fork in Brooklyn, they serve their Steak and Eggs with kimchi rice, which happens to be delicious:
ingredients for kimchi rice

Quick 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.

Kimchi Rice
2 cups water
1 cup sushi rice (or other short-grain rice)
1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons
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.

kimchi rice


    • says

      Hey Cat, thanks so much. I have not tried actually canning the cucumbers and preserving them — that’s what you mean, right? The original recipe calls for making the pickle a day in advance, which I’ve done, but in my opinion, a day in advance should be the max. Maybe it’s because the cucumber and apples are sliced so thinly, but I find that after a day, they start to deteriorate a little bit. Now, I don’t know if you do that actual canning process if this prevents the deterioration in any way, but my gut is telling me that this is perhaps not the best mixture to preserve. Hope that helps!

  1. says

    Wow. Alexandra, you never fail to impress with your recipes, but this set? It’s nearly 11:00 in the morning and I’m itching to figure out a way to call in sick from my afternoon shift, gather the necessary goods and have some friends over for a Korean BBQ dinner. Thank you so much for continuing to share your passions + talent with the rest of us!

  2. says

    Alexandra, you are after my heart with this one! I love, love, love Korean BBQ. I’ve never had bulgogi wrapped in nori, but I have had it wrapped in a round of very thinly sliced pickled daikon–amazing. And when I’m in Portland, I can been seen haunting a certain bulgogi taco food cart! Now you’ve got me all inspired! Wonderful post as always!

    • says

      Tracey — I never had either. It was totally knew for me, but I loved using the nori as a gripper and picking up the kimchi rice and layering a piece of bulgogi on top…love this kind of eating! I cannot believe this, but I have never been close enough to a city to have the real food cart experience. Need to do something about that!

  3. says

    Hmm… I am so intrigued but this looks like it would take ages! Does it? And can I confess something? I’ve never actually had Korean bbq. Gorgeous photos per usual, and you’ve definitely made me think this is something I should make ASAP!

    • says

      Darcy, it doesn’t! I know, I worried about that a little bit by posting so many photos, but honestly, the cucumber-apple pickle is so good and so quick/easy. The bulgogi marinade is also easy — the only hard part being grating ginger and apple. And the rest is easy too: steam rice, buy seaweed, open Sriracha. I complicated things by making the kimchi. It’s totally unnecessary, but also when it comes down to it, not that hard.

  4. says

    I agree with Tracey — you should come visit Portland (ya know — only 3000 miles away!) and our famous food carts :) SO FUN! Ali you are speaking my language with this amazing dish. Asian food is my jam! I love Korean food, some scallion pancakes would do well as a simple side, yes?! This process seems so simple, I really appreciate your making it streamlined, and I LOVE the nori wrap element! So great! Trying to figure how I can incorporate an egg, haha. I love eggs on rice. You are the best blogger because you always make a recipe repeatedly before sharing your tips with us. Thank you!

    I need friends like yours to cook me such feasts! For now, I will settle for making it for myself 😉

    • says

      I thought about you while making this! And yes, absolutely on the scallion pancakes. Do you have a recipe? The nori wrap is really fun. I think you would approve.

      Also, I can’t remember if I told you that the Baking Steel giveaway is on! Just go to their Facebook page.

      It sounds as though you would really like The Good Fork’s recipe for steak and eggs “Korean style.” I love eggs on rice, too, and they serve their steak and eggs with the kimchi rice.

      And I would LOVE to come visit Portland. I’m so mad I never got there when I was on the west coast.

  5. Dorothea says

    Alexandra I love this post!!
    Our oldest daughter (16) is totally into everything Korean and we got her bug now too! This Summer when we were in NYC we finally visited K’town (instead of our beloved Chinatown) and were amazed at the food. Through her we’re saving up to visit Korea (yes that will take long…). I love Asian food and am very happy with our great Asian supermarket only 15 min. away but I’m going to look into that Hmart site. I’m sure you watch “Maangi” on YouTube THE Korean youtube chef, very inspirational just like your post :-) I still want to start something of my own on the web bc I love cooking and food so much…
    Keep up the good work, it’s much appreciated!

    • says

      Wow, that is awesome! I am dying to get to Asia — would love to visit Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, China…so much food to explore. I love that your daughter is into everything Korean, and that she has gotten you into it too. Fun. Definitely check out your Asian market — I only supplied the link for people who don’t have access to an Asian grocery store. ANd I can’t believe it, but I have never watched Maangi! Will look him up immediately. Do you make any Korean dishes at home? I am on a little kick right now :)

  6. says

    I am so jealous of your Korean food and now I have a huge urge for Korean food now and it’s going to be a month before I am going to get a chance. I am going to try that apple pickle when I get home (and probably everything else eventually too)

  7. Dorothea says

    It’s a lady Alexandra! I love to make my own “Ramen” soup, be it with udon noodles or ramen from a packet, I put in Wontons, Chinese sausage, any Chinese vegetable I have on hand, homemade chili oil, good soy sauce and of course an raw egg on top!
    Currently I’m on an Indian spree…so tonight it’s homemade Roti’s with curry chicken and potatoes;-)

    • says

      Wow, amazing, homemade Roti! You totally need to start your own food blog. Also, I absolutely adore Chinese sausage. When I was working at the restaurant in Philly, the chef, Thien, would make us breakfast sandwiches with Chinese sausage on homemade rolls…heavenly! Thanks for sharing your faves.

  8. Laurie says

    Okay, as usual, I’m looking at the photos after my fast food lunch at work and feeling seriously deprived….how do you make the food look so AMAZING!! The meat looks lucious and I could eat it off the screen but I’m quite the carnivore lately….middle age?? Who knows, but I could go out and hunt me a bison right now and make Korean barbecue from it! (I made lamb chops for the FIRST time in my LIFE last night….a little honey, a little pesto and grill pan….who knew! Now I just have to keep visions of little dancing lambies out of my head! ;))

    • says

      Haha, Laurie, you are hilarious. Bison bulgogi sounds amazing. And now you have me craving lamb chops. We used to eat them all the time as kids. Salt, pepper, oregano, a little lemon…yum! Now I have little lambies dancing in my head. Hope you are well! xo

  9. Laurie says

    All is well, Jeff’s surgery went off without a hitch….I am FURLOUGHED on Monday and the dinners may be hamburger helper….or bison helper! As long as there is the Grace of everyday there will be dinner with gratitude! Hope you and yours are well! I tell everyone I know about the blog…..I tell them that it, and you, are amazing and not to be missed!

    • says

      Oh Laurie, I am so sorry to hear this! Happy to hear about Jeff’s surgery and about your never-failing positive outlook :) Thank you, as always, for your kind words about the blog. Big hugs!

  10. sookko says

    I’m a huge fan of you and your recipes in Korea.
    As a Korean, I’m very glad that you cook Korean food and introduce it!
    I usually use some pear to marinade Bulgogi, I’ll try your recipe soon! :)

  11. Katykat says

    Just thought I’d let you know that I finally got up the courage to make this, and I happily discovered that (1) it really isn’t that hard at all (I was scared for a long time) and (2) it is so so so SO delicious. Even Damien loves it, and he (a) claims that he doesn’t like cucumbers and (b) is suspicious when I try to make anything Asian inspired, probably because I never make anything Asian. (I’ve been writing a lot of contracts, can you tell by all my lists?) And now that I have these ingredients on hand, I will be making this over and over and over.

  12. says

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