What's not to love about going out for Korean BBQ? It's a fun, hands-on way to grab dinner with a large group of friends—and there's live fire and drinking is strongly encouraged! But here's a scenario that, for first-timers, is all too familiar: the server comes around, a timid order is placed, a pile of uncooked dishes is placed on the table, the grill is lit, and no one knows exactly what to do.
Da-Hae West and her husband, Gareth, wrote K-Food: Korean Home Cooking and Street Food (Mitchell Beazley) in an effort to help demystify Korean food culture—and to help people know what to do in moments of confusion such as this. "We wanted to create a book that was authentic in the respect that a lot of the recipes are from my childhood, and many of them my mother cooked at home, but we also wanted to show that Korean ingredients aren't scary or weird," says Da-Hae. To help with accessibility, the book also includes dishes they perfected at their Korean fusion food truck and pop-up restaurant, Busan BBQ, such as Korean-inspired burgers and Philly cheesesteaks.
The shining star in K-Food is the chapter dedicated to Korean BBQ, so we asked Da-Hae to share a few pointers on impressing everyone the next time we're at the grill table.
No. 1: Don't Be Afraid to Mix It Up
Da-Hae encourages always ordering one marinated meat and one unmarinated meat—either beef or pork, usually. "The marinated meat normally comes with two choices: one that's spicier, which is gochujang, a type of Korean hot pepper paste, and the other is a bulgogi marinade, which is usually soy-based," explains Da-Hae. "Those options showcase the different flavors you get with Korean cuisine."
"But the unmarinated option is important as well, because it shows off the different cuts of meat that are quite unique to Korean BBQ," continues Da-Hae. "There's samgyeopsal, for example, which is pork belly that's sliced wafer-thin so it cooks on the griddle quickly." Note: you should always cook the unseasoned meat first so it doesn't take on any residual marinade on the grill.
No. 2: The Sides Are Just as Important
"If you go to any Korean restaurant, you're normally given a nice assortment of side dishes, like kimchi, in what's called banchan," says Da-Hae. "The banchan might also include little dishes like bean sprouts and spinach tossed with sesame oil and sesame seeds." And if they're not provided, be sure to order them, because they play an important role in balancing out the meal.
No. 3: Embrace Customization—and Big Bites
For Da-Hae, one of the best things about Korean BBQ is tailoring it to meet your particular taste. A prime example: lettuce wraps loaded with meat, rice, and whatever assorted toppings from the banchan that catch your attention. "The key is to put in your mouthful of lettuce wrap all at once," stresses Da-Hae, "so don't try and bite a bit off and be ladylike about it. You really need to take in all those flavors at once."
No. 4: There Should Be Drinking...Lots of Drinking
"The Korean spirit, soju, is what you would normally drink, but because the food is normally quite spicy or sweet, beer goes really well with it, too," says Da-Hae. Korean drinking culture also comes with its own set of rules: it's considered rude to refuse a drink; if you're with a group of new people, try and pour and receive drinks with both hands; the first drink should be kicked off with a proper "cheers," or gumbae in Korean; and always keep an eye on everyone else's glass so you can properly top them off once they've properly drained their glass—never pour when it's half-filled!
K-Food by Da-Hae and Gareth West (Mitchell Beazley) is out June 7, $25, octopusbooks.co.uk.