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When we recently published a list of our possibly unpopular, but very correct food opinions, it felt really good to get some long-held weight off my chest, including my stance that American barbecue is overrated. Like camping, I like the idea of American barbecue—unfussy, communal feasting centered around large pieces of meat is definitely something I'm very into—but once I'm in it, I quickly transition to being over it. I like when the smoke is imparted to food with a can't-quite-put-your-finger-on-it restrained touch. With American barbecue it's front and center. I quickly hit the palate fatigue wall, and I've come to terms with the fact that it's just not my bag.
Korean barbecue, on the other hand, is my 20-pounds-over-the-weight-limit checked luggage. It's more varied, brighter, funkier, tastier, and straight-up more fun. Don't agree with me? How many times have you gone to a pulled pork and brisket joint to warm up for a night of group karaoke? I rest my case.
When it comes to the iconic dishes of Korean barbecue, beef galbi is up there at the top of the list. "Galbi" translates to English as "ribs," and at Korean-style barbecue restaurants in the United States, the term has become overwhelmingly synonymous with beef short ribs cut through—rather than parallel to—the rib bones into long, thin pieces. At Korean markets and barbecue spots, this cut is known as "LA-style," as it exploded in popularity in the Los Angeles Korean community, breaking from traditional Korean meat butchery. For butchers working in the Western European tradition, this cut is known as "flanken-style."
The thinness and large surface area of LA-style galbi makes it a great cut for marinating (which is a surface-level treatment), and quick, direct-heat grilling. Unlike the spicy-sweet profile of Korean barbecue dishes like buldak (Korean fire chicken), beef galbi is a dish that focuses on the balance of sweet and savory. Soy sauce provides the backbone of the marinade, providing salinity and umami; it also gets sweet notes from fresh Asian pear and brown sugar; allium bite from onion, garlic, and scallions;, subtle bitterness from sesame oil and seeds; and background floral heat from fresh ginger and ground black pepper.
The best part is how quickly this marinade comes together in a food processor. I start by processing an Asian pear with all of the aromatics, except for the scallions, into a coarse purée. Soy sauce, water, brown sugar, mirin, sesame oil, and black pepper then get added to the mix, with the water taming some of the saltiness of the soy sauce. To finish off the marinade, I stir in thinly sliced scallions and toasted sesame seeds, which I lightly crush between my fingers as I sprinkle them in. That's all there is to it. This is a marinade that works for both beef galbi and beef bulgogi, and it's a recipe that I learned from Beverly Kim, one of the chefs I worked for while cooking in Chicago.
Once the marinade is good to go, pour it over the short ribs and let them hang out in the fridge for at least an hour, and up to 24 hours. When you're ready to feast, fire up the grill. Most of the tabletop grills that you find at Korean barbecue restaurants are of the gas persuasion (permits for indoor charcoal-grilling are very hard to come by, and exhaust systems for charcoal grilling are expensive), so if you own a gas grill, you certainly can use it without losing credibility. However, I prefer grilling over charcoal, and charcoal-grilled galbi is really tasty.
Whichever grill set-up you use, you want to cook these short ribs over high heat. I usually turn this into a full Korean barbecue feast, and like to set mesh wire racks over the regular grill grate so that I don't sacrifice smaller pieces of meat to the coal gods. After removing the short ribs from the marinade—brushing off any excess marinade in the process—place them directly over the coals.
Keep a good eye on them, turning them frequently as they cook. This promotes even cooking, and prevents the sugars in the marinade from burning. You are looking for beef that is cooked through but still juicy, and lightly charred on the surface. All of this happens in less than 10 minutes.
Once the galbi is cooked, load the pieces up onto a serving platter with a pair of kitchen shears for cutting the meat off the bone and into small, bite-size pieces. As with other Korean meals, there are a lot of items you can and should have at the table to serve along with galbi: rice, lettuce, and perilla leaves for wrapping, savory-spicy ssamjang for dipping, and an assortment of garnishes and banchan side dishes.
And if you're interested in more Korean barbecue content, stay tuned: there will be more rolling out in the coming weeks.
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