Walk into a Korean barbecue restaurant and you’ll find the air filled not only with aromatic smoke from tabletop grills, but with the excited voices of children. Eating sweet, thinly sliced meat hot off of a grill sunk into the middle of a table is an evening’s worth of entertainment.
Grilling the kalbi (beef short ribs) and bulgogi (sliced rib-eye or sliced Spencer steaks), the fatty cuts of meat served in restaurants, is so easy that patrons can enjoy doing it themselves.
It’s foolproof grilling. Two minutes each side, and it’s done.
Creating Korea’s most popular dish at home is just as straightforward if you know what meat to buy and how to make the marinade.
Take a trip to any Korean grocery store to pick up the meat and marinade ingredients. There, the traditional barbecue meat is wrapped and ready to grill in precut 1/4-inch-thick slices. In addition to the meaty short ribs and the more elegant rib-eye and Spencer steaks, any cut of meat sliced Korean style, even a New York strip, lends itself to this barbecue.
It’s considered more elegant to remove the short rib bones, which the better restaurants will do. But at home, leaving the bones attached makes this finger food.
Ginger root, 1-pound bags of peeled garlic cloves and Asian pears are staples in Korean food stores. You also can pick up some kimchi, the spicy hot pickled cabbage served at nearly every meal. An apple can be substituted for Asian pear, although the pears can be found at specialty markets and well-stocked supermarkets.
The marinade can be made a few hours ahead, with the sesame oil added at the last minute. Then it’s time to soak the meat and fire up the grill.
“The meat is sliced thin so that it can absorb the marinade quickly, just before you put it on the fire,” says Erik Lee, manager of ChoSun Galbi, a popular Koreatown restaurant. At the restaurant, the marinade is massaged into the beef for about a minute before grilling.
You might want to forget about imitating your favorite restaurant’s tabletop cooking. The Korean restaurants use gas grills only for convenience. At home, a charcoal fire is often preferred.
The recipe lends itself to subtle variations -- it can go from mild to wild and spicy. ChoSun Galbi’s marinade recipe includes the heat of Southern California jalapenos. Artistic license is allowed.