A Foodie’s Guide: Korean BBQ for Dummies
How to order & eat Korean BBQ like locals,
Plus 7 Insider’s Tips
If you ask me what is one local dish you must try in Korea, I’ll say barbecue. I love Korean barbecue. Smokey yet aromatic juicy meat straight from the sizzling barbecue grill in front of you, who can resist?
Korean barbecue is a great way to experience the local culinary culture. Similar to America’s Fourth of July barbecue, Koreans often choose to barbecue for a celebration or hang out. However, unlike in the U.S., Korean barbecue is often an indoor event where people sit around a table grill and cook together. How fun!
Are you ready for some party in the mouth? Ok, good! When you go to a local barbecue restaurant, just remember these simple steps below. You will rock it like locals!
>> Heading to Seoul? First, read this 4-day Seoul itinerary. It shows how best to spend your time to see the highlights of Seoul.
Beef or Pork? (Duh!!!)
The first step is to decide on beef or pork, which is simply up to you.
If you prefer beef, the most popular choice is galbi (marinated beef short ribs). It is considered prime beef cuts, typically marinated in soy sauce base for hours in advance.
Hanwoo (Korean beef) is considered premium, hence comes with a higher price tag. These cows get extra TLC like massages and classical music for tender and juicy meat. I don’t think you can get hanwoo outside of Korea, so not a bad idea to try if your budget allows.
A Korean classic is samgyupsal, which literally translates into “three-layered meat,” referring to the marbling of the pork belly. The best samgyupsal comes from Jeju Island’s black boar. So if you happen to be in Jeju, you know what to get! It’s more expensive than regular samgyupsal but tastes a thousand times better.
If you prefer lean meat, samgyupsal might not be for you. You can opt for moksal (pork shoulder), which has a leaner flavor profile compared to samgyupsal.
One Cut All the Way vs. Taster Set?
The next question is whether you would like to try different cuts or prefer to stick to one. I personally like to stick to one kind. But many of my friends prefer to try various cuts, not a bad idea especially if this is your first time.
I’m no meat expert. So I’ll leave it up to Anthony Bourdain to introduce you to various cuts. I’ll just say, a general rule of thumb is to move from lean to fatty meat. If you are ordering both beef and pork, I would suggest starting out with the beef first. And, any marinated meats should always come later. Many restaurants offer a set menu where you can taste different cuts. Most likely, they will serve in the order you should eat.
Korean BBQ restaurants usually serve alcoholic beverages such as beer, soju and makgeolli, as well as carbonated drinks (sorry, wine lovers!). There is only a personal preference, no right or wrong. Just enjoy your drink of choice.
Do-It-Yourself Grilling, or Not…
Do you remember that scene in the movie ‘Lost in Translation’? Bill Murray complains in a Japanese restaurant, “What kind of restaurant make customers cook their own food?” Well, Asian ones!
Generally, servers will shuffle amongst the restaurant tables to help you grill. But when it gets busy, you might have to take matters into your own hands. If you are not sure what to do, ask the server to help you.
Wrap It Like a Pro: Make Your Own Ssam
You may choose to go —what I call — the beast style (a.k.a. eating meat by itself). But when in Seoul…I highly recommend eating like locals, the ssam style. In-N-Out Burger’s protein style might be the closest western concept I can think of to Korean ssam.
Allow me to explain how to do it right:
- Put a lettuce in your palm. Layer with a sesame leaf.
- Stack a piece of cooked meat in the middle.
- Add side dishes to your liking. My favorites include pickled radish, pajeori (spicy green onion salad), grilled garlic and chopped green pepper. If with samgyupsal, I add grilled kimchi. Kimchi is the pork’s best friend!
- Add a dollop of ssamjang (Korean BBQ paste)
- Eat your ssam in one bite. Yes, chug the whole ssam into your mouth. I’m not kidding. Biting in half will create a whole mess. (Tip: This is why you can’t be too greedy when stacking your ssam!)
Finish Strong with Naengmyun
Koreans like to finish barbecue with naengmyun, which is a spicy cold noodle. Some people even like to eat a piece of meat with the noodle while others prefer a bowl of rice with hot soup like doenjiang jjigae (soybean paste stew). It’s a great way to finish your barbecue, so if your stomach space allows, go for it!
Bonus Insider’s Tips:
- Wear casual clothes & leave your eyeglasses at home. From head to toe, you will smell like barbecue. If you wear something you can toss into a laundry, it will work best. For the same reason, don’t plan on going anywhere fancy afterward.
- Pull that hose down close to the grill. That hose dangling from the ceiling is a vent suctioning out smoke. You can adjust the length by pulling.
- Utilize your chair (stall) if it opens up. Inside you will find a huge plastic bag. It’s not for trash. You can put your jacket and bag in the plastic bag and close the stall lid. It will help protect your belongings from smoke and odor being permeating.
- Ring a bell for service. If you find a bell on the table, just press it to get the server’s attention.
- Ask for more side dishes. Restaurants in Korea usually refill side dishes at no extra cost. They are essential to enjoying your barbecue in the ssam style, so don’t be shy.
- Cut your meat with scissors. It may look strange to foreigners. But this is a preferred way to cut your barbecue meat in Korea, so go for it. After meat is cooked a bit, lift it up with tong, use scissors to cut it into a bite size.
- When your grill grate starts charring, ask for a new one. Burnt meat doesn’t taste good, plus inhaling the smoke is not pleasant.
Congratulations! You’ve mastered how to order and eat Korean barbecue like locals. Hope you get to enjoy Korean barbecue experience. Just a fair warning, though; one experience is enough to get you hooked on for life. Good luck!