An Introduction to Korean Barbecue

Overhead view of a Korean barbecue spread with grilled daeji bulgogi, beef bulgogi, and beef galbi. Along with the grilled meats, the spread includes various banchan (side dishes), garnishes, ssamjang (dipping sauce), lettuces, and perilla leaves for making ssam.

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

As I grow older, getting a group dinner together becomes more and more of a headache. Between finding a night that works for everyone and (if it's a dinner out) choosing a restaurant in a semi-convenient location that has reservations available for that one night, it can turn into a real hassle. Then you get to the meal itself.

Despite ubiquitous claims of menus designed for sharing, there are few times when they really work for parties of more than four people. Ordering with a larger group can be an ordeal. Unless you just allow one person to take over ordering for the whole table, it's madness. Even if you do designate a course curator, that person bears the weight of tracking everyone's aversions and allergies, plus the usual "did we order too much" anxieties, on their shoulders.

But there are exceptions to this familiar scene of dystopian group dining, and Korean barbecue is one of them. Korean barbecue is meant to be a collective experience. You can't take on waves of grilled meat, endless dishes of banchan, and bubbling bowls of jjigae all on your own!

Though it's certainly growing in popularity among non-Korean communities in the US, there are plenty of people out there who aren't familiar with the festive joys of Korean barbecue (or KBBQ, for the TL;DR crowd). And even if you've already been introduced to it, amid all the excitement and the whirlwind of smoky meat clouds flying overhead, you still might have ended the evening not fully aware of everything on the table, its relative necessity, and its significance. Of course, if you're planning to attempt your own Korean-style barbecue party, that knowledge becomes even more important.

Whether you're hitting the town with friends for a night out of Korean barbecue at a restaurant (ideally followed by classy private-room karaoke, where you can focus on butchering your favorite track without having to worry about strangers giving you judgmental side-eye), or hosting a feast in the comfort of your own home, every Korean-barbecue meal has certain components that should always be featured at the table. Here's a rundown.

The Main Event: Meat

Different cuts of raw beef and pork for Korean barbecue, including thinly sliced ribeye and pork shoulder, and pieces of pork belly.

Before anyone jumps in with a well, actually, I know that you could easily put together a phenomenal pescatarian Korean-barbecue meal, and, with a few tweaks, even a vegetarian one. There are plenty of meatless options available at a Korean-barbecue spot, but let's be real—meat is the star of the show.

If you want to split hairs with me on this, I have a little experiment for you: Send a group text to friends, family, or coworkers, proposing a Korean-barbecue excursion. Then, after you receive the initial volley of enthusiastic responses, clarify that this will be a meatless meal. Observe how long it takes for the "..." bubbles to turn into "Oh, I forgot, I have to help my cousin move that weekend." Just to be clear: Nobody helps cousins haul poorly packed boxes of junk up three flights of stairs, just like nobody wants to go out for a vegetarian Korean-barbecue meal.

Turning chunks of pork shoulder on the grill with kitchen tweezers.

The smoky richness of Maillard-charred meat and rendered fat is the foundation of Korean barbecue. The other elements at the table certainly play significant roles, and are delicious in their own right, but they're supporting actors that complement and provide balance to the waves of meat coming off the grill.

Pieces of pork belly sizzling on the grill.

So, let's talk about that meat. If you're throwing a Korean-barbecue feast at home, you have plenty of cuts of meat to choose from that can be prepared in a variety of ways. Beef and pork are the most commonly used proteins for barbecue. Depending on the cut, the meat can be simply seasoned and grilled, or it can be marinated before cooking.

Here's a small selection of heavy-hitter Korean-barbecue items that highlight the interplay of savory, spicy, sweet, bitter, and fermented flavors that's the hallmark of Korean cuisine.

Beef: Galbi and Bulgogi

Closeup side view of a serving platter piled high with grilled galbi.

Korean barbecue prizes the flavor of beef. As with most steak cookery, prime cuts generally hit the grill with minimal seasoning, while tougher ones are often marinated before cooking.

Galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (usually made with thinly sliced sirloin, ribeye, or brisket) are the best-known examples of the latter approach, and both employ a savory-sweet soy sauce–based marinade. This marinade is delicate and restrained, so as not to overpower the meat, with the toasty aroma of sesame oil lingering in the background, along with the sweetness of Asian pear, brown sugar, and mirin.

Beef galbi marinating in a glass casserole dish.

When purchasing beef for galbi or bulgogi, go with the cuts that you can easily find and that make sense for your grill setup at home. For galbi, you can seek out the LA-style, flanken-cut short ribs that I used for my recipe, but keep in mind that they cook quickly and you'll need intensely high heat to get any char on them, so a charcoal grill will work best.

If you can't find flanken-cut short ribs, or if you prefer thicker pieces of beef, don't let that stop you from making galbi. When I visited Seoul a few years ago, the best barbecue galbi I had was cut into long, hanger steak–like boneless pieces. I've also had galbi cut into thick planks.

Beef bulgogi and pork belly cooking on a charcoal grill.

As for bulgogi, don't even bother preparing it on the grill unless you have something like a wire mesh rack to keep the smaller pieces of beef from falling through your grill grates; it's not worth the aggravation.

Without it, you're better off cooking bulgogi in a skillet on your stovetop.

Pork: Dwaeji Bulgogi

Side view closeup of a serving platter of grilled daeji bulgogi.

In contrast with the one used for galbi, the gochujang-spiked marinade that gets tossed with pork for dwaeji bulgogi is anything but restrained. While beef is prized for its clean, meaty flavor, pork in Korean cuisine is considered more funky and intense, and therefore is often paired with more assertive ingredients.

Chunks of pork shoulder for daeji bulgogi grilling on a mesh wire rack next to beef kalbi.

I love the flavor contrast between dishes like galbi and dwaeji bulgogi, and they can easily be grilled at the same time. As with the beef, super-thin pieces of pork are hard to cook well on a grill; they're prone to sticking, and it's tough to get any char on the meat without overcooking it.

Your best bet is to go with cuts that have a good amount of fat on them, like belly or Boston butt, and that can be cut into half-inch-thick pieces for marinating and grilling.

Chicken: Buldak

Closeup of fire chicken cheese pull

If you aren't into red meat or pork, give buldak ("fire chicken") a try. Like dwaeji bulgogi, buldak is centered on a spicy-sweet sauce that, in this case, gets tossed with bone-in chicken thighs. The sugars in the marinade caramelize and char as the chicken cooks on the grill. It's up to you whether to simply cut up the juicy dark meat into bite-size pieces and serve them as they are, or cover them with a layer of gooey melted cheese.

The Sauce: Ssamjang

Spreading ssamjang on a piece of lettuce.

No matter what meats—or seafood, or vegetables—you decide to grill for your Korean-barbecue feast, you need ssamjang at the table for spreading on them. Ssamjang is the universal no-cook, stir-together dipping sauce of Korean barbecue, combining the savory funk of doenjang (soybean paste) with the sweet heat of gochujang (chili paste). (To learn more about these and all the different types of jang, check out our primer on essential Korean pantry ingredients.)

The sauce is rounded out by toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds, which provide subtle roasted, bitter notes, while fresh garlic and scallions wake everything up with a little allium bite.

Ssamjang translates to English as "wrapped thick sauce," which sums up its purpose: It's slathered on lettuces and perilla leaves, which are then wrapped around pieces of grilled meat for parceled bites of barbecue. The type of meat will determine the amount of ssamjang you use with it; the subtler flavor of beef galbi can take a heavier amount than the already-amped-up savory punch of dwaeji bulgogi.

The Ssam: Lettuces and Perilla Leaves

Side view of a table set with a Korean barbecue spread, with a plate of beef galbi in the foreground.

To make these wrapped meat parcels, you'll need some greenery, in the form of lettuces and perilla leaves. Perilla leaves, often sold as "sesame leaves" at Korean markets, come from the same mint family as Japanese shiso, and they have a grassy, slightly anise-y flavor that plays an excellent foil to the richness of grilled pork and beef.

As for lettuces, leafy varieties, like red leaf or Bibb, are key here, since the leaves need to be large and sturdy enough to hold ingredients without tearing, but also flexible enough to wrap around these items. Avoid rib-heavy lettuces, like romaine, which snap too easily down the center when rolled up.

The lettuce and perilla leaves act not only as handheld wrappers for grilled meats and ssamjang but also as a refreshing vegetal and herbal contrast to those ingredients. It's important to take good care of the leaves so that they stay bright and fresh and don't arrive at the table limp and sad. Wash and dry the leaves thoroughly, and store them on a platter under a damp paper towel in the fridge until you're ready to serve the meal.

Ssam Garnishes

Overhead shot of a serving platter of grilled daeji bulgogi surrounded by small dishes of garnishes and banchan.

Along with the ssamjang and grilled meats, there should be an array of finishing garnishes at the table for sprinkling into these leafy bites of food. Thinly sliced fresh green Korean chilies, sliced garlic cloves, and scallions are all good things to have available, along with toasted sesame seeds.

One of the best garnish moves I've seen was at a barbecue restaurant where sliced garlic and a few tablespoons of oil were combined in small metal bowls, then placed directly on the grill. We ended up with both toasted garlic and a bubbly, aromatic garlic oil for drizzling over the meats as they came off the grill.

The Side Dishes: Banchan

Small bowl of marinated seaweed with chilies

No Korean-barbecue feast would be complete without a spread of banchan to take up any extra real estate on the table. Banchan is an umbrella term for the small side dishes that help stave off the onset of palate fatigue from all the meat consumed during a marathon barbecue meal.

These can include pickled and fermented vegetables, including kimchi in all forms; marinated greens, like watercress or spinach; stir-fried dried anchovies; rolled omelettes (not exactly like but not very different from Japanese tamagoyaki); and more. Though you'll win major points for preparing banchan yourself, there's no shame in picking up prepared pickles and the like at a Korean market when you're meat-shopping for this meal. There's plenty to worry about already with the grilling; no need to bite off more fermented cabbage than you can chew.

Speaking of which, try throwing some large pieces of Napa kimchi on the grill while you're cooking the meat. You can thank me later.

Rice

Closeup of a hand holding a beef galbi ssam with perilla leaf, ssamjang, and rice.

As described in our general guide to Korean dining etiquette, rice is a key component of any Korean meal. While it's the most important part of most meals, I would argue that barbecue is a case in which it plays a supporting role and meat takes the spotlight.

Beverages: Beer, Soju, Makgeolli, or Wine

An array of different bottles of soju

With all the salty funk, heat, and meat at the table, you'll want plenty of beverages on hand to pair with this food. Korean barbecue is the platonic ideal of bar food: It gets you salivating and thirsty, and cries out for a chilled grown-up drink or three.

Drinking is a collective activity in Korean culture, and it comes with its own etiquette—such as pouring drinks for others and not yourself (in an ordered fashion based on seniority), receiving drinks with two hands, and drinking shots as a group—which makes a barbecue meal like this one all the more fun.

Because there's a lot of eating to be done, you'll want to keep the drinks on the lighter side, in terms of both body and alcohol content. This will help to keep you from losing steam and conking out in an early-onset, meat-sweats food coma.

A crisp pilsner pairs better with galbi than an aggressive IPA; I'm not a big beer drinker, but I know that much. Soju and makgeolli, a milky wine most commonly made from rice, water, and the unique fermentation starter nuruk, are also great to have around. Pour small shots of soju throughout the meal as a group pick-me-up when you start to see people get that glazed, too-much-meat look in their eyes.

Of course, you can also pair Korean barbecue with wine! The butcher's feast at Cote, a Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse in Manhattan (recently featured in our Chefs' Guide to Eating Out in New York City), is one of my favorite splurge meals in the city, and Cote has a phenomenal selection of wine to enjoy with all the beef. Personally, I like to pair Korean barbecue with lighter-bodied reds that can take some chill, or crisp, slightly effervescent wines, like a Basque txakoli.

If You're Feeling Ambitious: A Stew or Two

doenjang jjigae (Korean stew) in a serving bowl

Stews make regular appearances at Korean-barbecue meals, often dropping at the table just when you start to feel a little full from all the meat coming off the grill. Nobody will fault you for not whipping up a batch of doenjang jjigae while you're also grilling pounds of short ribs and pork belly, but it wouldn't be frowned upon, either.

The best jjigae I ever had was at the same barbecue spot in Seoul that served the hanger-like galbi. This was on a group trip with the entire staff of Parachute, the Korean-American restaurant where I cooked in Chicago. Incidentally, the jjigae was ordered for my girlfriend at the time, a vegetarian. Like I said, you can go meatless for a Korean-barbecue feast—but you'd be missing out on a lot of good stuff at the table.