When it comes to Korean cuisine, barbecue is often regarded as the jewel of its many culinary traditions. Culturally, this special-occasion meal is considered a treat to enjoy for celebrations or when in the mood to splurge, and now, with the growing availability of Korean restaurants across the U.S., it’s also become the gateway food for many Americans looking to try Korean fare.
For James Park (aka JamesyWorld), content creator and current video producer at The Kitchn, Korean barbecue is a way to share his culture with non-Koreans while introducing them to a multitude of flavors and dishes. “Korean barbecue really brings people together-I’m always fond of taking my friends,” Park says. “And it definitely brings me happy memories of my family while growing up in Korea.”
Whether it’s your first time having Korean barbecue or a return visit, this family-style feast includes plenty of customs that might be new to some or a good refresher for the most seasoned eater. With the guidance of Park, here are tips to keep in mind when dining on Korean barbecue.
Start with plain options before moving onto marinated meat
Popular protein options for Korean barbecue are beef and pork, but many restaurants will also offer seafood and a vegetarian selection that might be an assortment of mushrooms. When it comes to beef, the meat is offered plain or marinated with the most common being one with a soy sauce-base that has a salty-sweet-umami balance. Pork marinades are often spicier with a gochujang-base and a hint of sweetness.
“Have the meat without sauce first before eating the marinated to appreciate the plain cut’s texture and the flavor,” Park advises. “The best way to do this is to dip it into the sesame oil and salt mixture that’s a staple of pairing for the meat, or the ssamjang, which is a sauce mixture of gochujang and doenjang [soybean paste].”
Have a piece of meat and dip it into the sauces that are provided, and then move on to the next stage of eating by introducing lettuces and introducing other parts of banchan and offerings that are on the table.
Sit back and let the grilling professionals do their magic
Those who have never tried Korean barbecue often wonder who will do the actual cooking. The good news is, the only job diners have is to sit back and enjoy the meal. With a tong and pair of scissors to cut the meat, the restaurant staff will handle the grill located in the middle of your table. And they’re pros at making sure it doesn’t burn, so don’t be alarmed if they step away for a moment because they’ll pop back over to check in on it in no time.
“Watching your server’s masterful grilling techniques is almost like theater,” Park says. “Everything is happening tableside, and when it’s done cooking, they’ll even distribute the meat onto people’s plates.”
Don’t rush on eating the banchan and be sure to finish any refills
As your meat cooks, the delectable aromas of Korean barbecue wafting all around can easily trigger the urge to start eating any food in sight. This often leads to people devouring all of the traditional side dishes, banchan, that are served early on before the meat is grilled.
“The biggest mistake for banchan is that people think they’re appetizers, but they’re not,” Park says. “They’re more meant to complement each bite and to make them exciting by creating different kinds of flavor combinations. This maximizes the Korean barbecue experience.” And while it’s customary to sometimes ask for banchan refills, be sure you’re intending to not leave leftovers. “I would say definitely order more banchan if you can eat it, but be mindful of leaving without finishing it.”
Make a ssam that can be eaten in one bite
It’s customary to build a ssam (wrap) when eating Korean barbecue. The first step is to grab a piece of lettuce from the basket that often includes red leaf lettuce, raw whole peppers, and sometimes perilla leaves. Then place a piece of meat that’s been dipped into a sauce onto the lettuce before throwing in some kimchi and banchan of your choice. But don’t go overboard and make it too big.
“Ssams are meant to be eaten in one bite,” Park says. “I really want to encourage people to have the goal of fitting the entire thing in your mouth in one try. The beauty and the whole science behind it is savoring all the flavors of everything at one time.”
Offer the best bites to your loved ones
In Korean culture, the custom of showing your love for someone by placing the most sought-after morsels of protein or portions of the best dishes onto their plate is practically a long language. When it comes to Korean barbecue, the tradition is to build the perfect ssam for your loved ones and even feed it to them.
“When I was younger, I loved making a ssam for my dad,” Park says. “The difference in eating Korean barbecue in Korea compared to America is that the staff don’t grill the meat for you there. And because my dad would always be too busy cooking for us and didn’t have time to eat, I was happy to show my appreciation through my ssam.”
Be adventurous with different cuts of meat
While beef short ribs and pork belly are some of the more standard Korean barbecue orders, restaurants will often offer offal and intestines. Other varieties often include gopchang, makchang, and pork skin.
“This is a part of Korean barbecue culture that is very unique to Korea,” Park says. “And while it hasn’t yet become a big trend to the average American palette, it’s really an important part of Korean barbecue. I highly recommend beef tongue. It comes thinly sliced and just melts in your mouth.”
Add on some non-meat dishes to your meal
To balance out a meat-heavy meal, order additional dishes that often work as palate cleansers.
“I like to have a nice selection of soups and other dishes,” Park says. “Tteokbokki and dumplings are also options, and I especially love ordering any type of jeon [savory pancakes], whether it’s kimchi, seafood, or scallion. Kimchi jjigae [stew] or doenjang jjigae are usually reserved towards the end. And always save room for noodle dishes like naengmyeon because no Korean barbecue meal is complete without it. The cold noodles and its broth are very refreshing. Usually, a single order to share amongst the table provides enough for each person to experience this clean ending to the meal.”
Throw some kimchi on the grill
“I always put kimchi on the grill,” says James. “It tastes incredible because of the beef or pork fat coating the grill.”
In addition to kimchi, Koreans will also throw on mushroom caps with the stem side up and wait to eat it until some of its natural juices gather in the core. You can also ask for raw garlic with sesame oil inside a small vestibule to cook on the stovetop, as well.
Order Korean booze to wash it all down
With alcohol and drinking customs generally playing a large role in Korean culture, many consider a barbecue outing incomplete if not paired with booze. “Definitely have soju or beer,” Park says. “The sharpness of soju works especially well with the meat.”
And if you see the table next door making a drink concoction that’s commonly mixed with their chopsticks, that would be somaek, a combination of soju and beer. “You can make somaek with a ratio of one part soju to two parts beer in your glass,” he adds. “It’s kind of dangerous, but in a really good way.”
After your restaurant outing, re-create the experience at home
Korean people prefer to have Korean barbecue at a restaurant because making it at home can be time consuming and expensive. However, for those days where having people over is easier, creating the Korean barbecue experience at home is definitely doable.
The first step is to choose what home pan to purchase. Choose from a standard grill or go big with fancier ones that have an extra ring on its edge to steam eggs and melted cheese. Plain meat cuts, marinated meat, banchan, and sauces can be purchased at stores like H Mart.
“Expect your house to smell like meat afterwards,” Park says. “And to help with oil splatters, my dad always lays newspapers on the floor.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!
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