The sizzling sound, the irresistible aroma and the savoury meat, Korean barbecue has never failed to impress hungry visitors. This dish has extended beyond the borders of its home country, becoming the favourite of many people around the globe. And certainly, a trip to South Korea will never be completed without this grilling experience.
In a casual setting, charcoal platters are placed at the centre of the tables, surrounded by excited guests waiting for their cuts of meat to be served. The meat is cooked over glowing charcoal and the aroma curling up from the grill makes all the guest drooling. Those are the first images that appear in my mind when thinking of gogi-gui (고기구이) or Korean barbecue.
A meal in itself, Korean barbecue usually lasts for one or two hours beginning with a plethora of side dishes called banchan. It includes multiple vegetable dishes, such as kimchi, pickled radish and marinated stir-fried spinach, accompanied by individual bowls of rice. A few minutes later, the pièce de résistance is served and guests have the choice of grilling it by themselves or having it grilled for them. Bulgogi and galbi-gui are usually the most favourites, though many other varieties are consumed as well. Once cooked, the meat is cut into small pieces and wrapped with fresh lettuce leaves, garlic and chilli paste, before dipping into a sesame-based sauce.
Derived from the Korean words bul (“fire”) and gogi (“meat”), bulgogi (불고기) is the most typical form of Korean barbecue. A delicacy of Pyongan Province (currently in North Korea), this dish followed refugees to South Korea after the country was liberated from the Japanese Empire in 1945. Due to its fine taste, bulgogi is enjoyed nationwide and can be found in nearly every barbecue establishment. Traditionally, bulgogi is thinly sliced beef sirloin or brisket cooked slowly on a charcoal grill. The meat is marinated with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper. Pureed pears are also added to enhance the amazing flavour and aroma of the beef.
While beef bulgogi is associated with a feast, pork bulgogi is often seen in a home-cooked meal. It’s marinated with similar ingredients as beef bulgogi, but in the place of pureed pear, chilli paste can be used to bring spiciness to the dish. Besides, as an economical option, pork bulgogi is often stir-fried in a pan, normally together with onions, bean sprouts or mushrooms.
Though bulgogi is the most widespread variety of Korean barbecue, galbi-gui (갈비구이) is the favourite choice of the gourmets. Galbi-gui is the general term for grilled beef short ribs or pork spareribs and it’s known for the addictive smokey, sweet flavour. Similar to bulgogi, the meat is cooked on a perforated gridiron over glowing charcoal until it reaches a glossy, dark brown colour. And if it is grilled properly, the meat should easily fall from the bones.
Depends on the kind of meat, galbi-gui is served raw or marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce consisting of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and pepper. Pearl juice or chilli paste is often brushed on in order to bring depth to the dish. Though imported beef is commonly used, Hanwoo (premier Korean beef) is the ultimate choice. It’s comparable to the famous Kobe beef, but personally, I found it less fatty and sweeter.
While beef galbi-gui comes in both forms, pork galbi-gui is usually marinated to remove the unpleasant odour. The only exception is pork galbi-gui made of Jeju black pork, which is believed to have a distinctive taste. It’s undeniably delicious, but my untrained taste buds could barely recognise the difference to the ordinary pork. As pork ribs are smaller, marinated pork galbi often containing both pork ribs and shoulder meats.
Other varieties of Korean barbecue
Not limited to bulgogi and galbi-gui, Korean barbecue also includes various kinds of marinated and non-marinated meat dishes, such as the chewy gopchang-gui (grilled beef small intestine) or the fatty yet savoury samgyeopsal-gui (grilled pork belly). A healthier alternative to red meat is also available. Made of boneless chicken thighs and thinly sliced chicken breast fillets, dak-gui (grilled chicken) and dak-galbi (stir-fried chicken) are perfect for whoever loves Korean barbecue but wants to maintain a diet. In comparison to other gui, these dishes are inexpensive and they are usually served in a large portion. That’s why it gains popularity among the general public, especially those who are on a budget. Although considered a “cheap version” of the traditional Korean barbecue, dak-gui and dak-galbi aren’t short of tastiness. In fact, the chicken’s sweetness is a refreshing change after eating too many heavy meals.
Despite its amazing taste, Korean barbecue is not all about the meat. It’s actually about the sense of community in which family, friends or colleagues gather around an open grill and prepare food together – bites by bites. The joy associated with the Korean barbecue is the reason why it has been held dear by Koreans for generations.
- Wangbijib (왕비집) – 26 Myeongdong 8 ga-gil, Chungmuro 2(i)-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul.
Hidden on the second floor of a building in Myeongdong, Wangbijib is the ideal place to delve into the delicious world of Korean barbecue. It’s known for the melt-in-your-mouth meat, which is served lightly seasoned with salt. Due to its popularity, a little patience is required. But the grill is definitely worth waiting for.
- 한우名作 창고43 – 10 Euljiro-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul. (Metro station Euljiro 3-ga, exit 12).
Recommended only on Naver (Korean version of Google), this restaurant is nearly invisible to foreign visitors. It’s located in the basement of an office building, and the only way to recognise it is by reading the list of companies hanging outside the building. The marbling Hanwoo beef is the speciality of this restaurant.
- Anga (안가) – 494-1 Jwadongsunhwan-ro, Jung-dong, Haeundae Busan.
A short walking distance from the metro station Jung-dong, Anga is one of the most visited barbecue establishments in Busan. Guests can enjoy the food at their own pace within semi-private wooden booths. Though most dishes in Anga are delicious, their samgyeopsal-gui really stands out.