The fragrant smell of marinated short rib, the sizzle of fat on the grill, the colorful side dishes of pickled radishes and cabbage… What’s not to love? Korean BBQ is a feast for all of the senses and a truly unique experience. If you’ve ever tried it, you probably understand some of the reasons I love Korean BBQ. If you’ve never tried it before, let me explain.
First, A Little Bit About Korean Food In General and Kimchi In Particular
Korean food can be a pretty hard sell if you’re not already acquainted with it. There are many ingredients, textures, and flavors in Korean cooking that don’t appear in Western cuisine. Like kimchi, the pickled and slightly fermented cabbage that Korean cuisine is famous for. It can be something of an acquired taste. Like most controversial foods, you either love it or hate it. I don’t know many people who are ambivalent about kimchi. According to the man who owns the Korean Market where I shop, people who love kimchi don’t just love it; they’re addicted to it. Something to do with the way the probiotics react with your body. As a kimchi addict myself, I have to agree.
For some people, it’s the flavor that they don’t like; others can’t handle the heat. But for most Americans, the issue with kimchi – and with many Korean dishes or ingredients – is that they find the idea of it off-putting and so they never even try it. Whether it’s fermented cabbage or whole, dried anchovies, it’s very different from how we prepare food in America. Not everyone is an adventurous eater. Fortunately, though, there’s plenty of Korean food that falls into what my family likes to call the “White People Friendly” Category.
Korean BBQ happens to be one of those foods.
What’s So Special About Korean BBQ?
Although the words “Korean BBQ” describe any type of meat that has been marinated and barbecued with Korean seasonings and techniques, they usually refer to something more specific. Gas powered grills set into the tables are a fixture at most Korean BBQ restaurants. The kitchen prepares and marinates the cuts of meat you order off the menu but the actual cooking is done by you at the table. It’s a little bit like a Japanese Hibachi grill, but minus the master chef. Unless you’re dining with my family, in which case my stepdad fills that role rather well.
So. A variety of well-seasoned meat and cooking over a literal open flame: can you see why Korean BBQ is so popular with Americans? It doesn’t just cater to finicky American palettes, though. Sure, you can play it safe and eat only short ribs, rice, and a salad. Or you can cannonball into the deep end of Korean cuisine and try the spicy tofu and seafood soup (warning: there will be octopus in it), sample the colorful array of banchan or “side-dishes” laid out with the meal, and order the spicy marinated pork. And of course, the kimchi. No meal is complete without it.
The other great thing about Korean BBQ restaurants is that a lot of them are all-you-can-eat. Is there anything more American than that? Unlike a lot of buffet style all-you-can-eat restaurants, Korean BBQ doesn’t sacrifice quality for quantity. If it’s a good, authentic spot, anyways. One of the reasons they’re all-you-can-eat is because Koreans are big believers in the “family-style” method of ordering and eating. You just order for the whole table and everyone tries a little of everything.
Speaking of family style…
Korean BBQ and My Big, Blended Family
I think that Korean BBQ is delicious and most people who try it will like it, but my real love for it runs a bit deeper than that. When I was six, my mom married my stepdad, effectively introducing me to the world of Korean food. I don’t remember whether or not I liked kimchi the first time I tried it. I do remember sitting in bed watching TV and eating my way through an entire package of gim, which is dried seaweed, similar to what is used to wrap sushi. There were gim flakes all over the coverlet. My mom was… less than pleased. Spicy ramen, chewy rice cakes called tteok, delicious shaved ice desserts called patbingsu. And, of course, Korean BBQ. I ate a lot of Korean food growing up and it became my comfort food; the food that reminded me of home.
Home is on the other side of the country now and I only get to visit once or twice a year. Whenever I go home, Korean BBQ is on the top of my to-do list. Partly because there’s no good KBBQ spots in Tallahassee. Mostly though, it’s because I really miss the way it brings my family together. That’s the nature of Korean BBQ. Because you have to cook the food yourself, it encourages you to linger over the meal and enjoy each other’s company. To catch up while the meat is browning and your stomachs rumble and mouths water. It’s not just a meal; it’s an experience.
My family usually reserves the biggest table available at whatever Korean BBQ joint we’re eating at. Appa cooks the meat – a staggering quantity of short-rib, fatty bulgogi, thinly sliced pork that you might mistake for bacon, and shrimp. The shrimp is for my mom, who’s a pescatarian, and often supplements the meal with an order of soondubu – spicy tofu soup. My brother Jakob mans the second grill. My sister Kali gets bibimbap with tofu since she’s a vegetarian and my other sister Hana is basically a carnivore, eating only the short rib and maybe some rice. I struggle to keep up with the amount of food being heaped on my plate and usually tap out early enough to earn me eye rolls and exasperated sighs from the rest of the table. My stepdad normally ends the meal by asking if anyone has room for patbingsu, which of course, we do not. We order it anyways.
When I smell the savory aroma of sizzling bulgogi or the spicy tang of kimchi, those are the memories that spring to mind: sharing food and love and laughter with my family. The faces around the table range in color from my older sister’s pale, freckled skin to my stepdad’s deep, end-of-summer tan. We are a blended family; we are a biracial family; we are a family with a deep and abiding love of good food. And Korean BBQ? That’s some damn good food.