Since Korean cuisine has been a growing trend in the UK for a little while and seeing how Tesco now sells their own version of Korean BBQ sauce, it’s time to get a better understanding what Korean BBQ is, how you eat it and what the other stuff on the menu is.
It is quite confusing with so many little dishes, you wouldn’t know where to start!
One thing to consider is that Korean food is very unlike Japanese or Chinese food. Korean food is mostly very healthy but unlike some Japanese dishes they pack a punch in flavour and spiciness.
You will rarely feel like you need to add a ton of soy sauce to a Korean dish.
Koreans also don’t often eat anything that westerners would consider “weird”. No chicken feet, intestines or old eggs.
Of course you can get all these more adventurous things in Korea (for example raw, moving squid or intestine sausage) but they are unlikely to be on the menu in most Korean restaurants in the West, so don’t worry, it’s very much middle of the road food wise.
Korean BBQ – the breakdown:
A Korean BBQ means you have to cook your own food. In some restaurants, people come up and turn the meat for you but often, you have to be self sufficient and, let’s be honest, turning a piece of meat on a hot grill shouldn’t be THAT alien to most of you.
First you choose what kind of meat you want to BBQ. Apart from the usual types of meat (beef, pork, chicken) they will come in different marinades or plain.
Often associated with beef, it is one of the most popular Korean dishes. But don’t be fooled, it isn’t specific to beef at all. The literal translation is “flame meat” and can be used to describe other types of meat.
Most often though, especially on menus in the UK, they usually refer to thin beef strips marinated in a sweet, galicky soy marinade. It’s perfectly seasoned so you could just eat it with some rice and be very happy.
Some meats are marinated in a spicy tangy sauce which is made of Gochujang and usually some sesame oil and sugar. It’s spicy, slightly sweet and definitely delicious.
So if you fancy something more spicy, this is the one to go for.
A lot of meat, especially beef and pork might come without a marinade, this is where the side dipping sauces will give you the flavour.
Beef steak might come whole, that’s when the scissors will be handy on the side of the BBQ. Cook the meat first, then cut up into bite sized strips.
L.A. Galbi Is a special cut, very popular in Korea. It’s essentially beef short rib but sliced and without bones. So you get the tender meat of ribs without the hassle of the bone and in convenient slices!
It’s no wonder Koreans go mad for this cut. This type of meat became very popular in Los Angeles where many Koreans live, thus is was dubbed “LA Galbi” Galbi meaning ribs.
Koreans aren’t known to be big vegetarians but a lot of dishes are vegetarian by nature, you just need to know which ones don’t also contain fish sauce.
Ask your waiter if you’re not sure but because there is a lot of demand for vegetarian food in the UK, the restaurants will indicate which ones are safe to eat on the menu.
Most side dishes are vegetables, but some are pickled with fish sauce.
Sadly, most Kimchis are probably not vegetarian as “shrimp sauce” (a type of fish sauce) is usually used when pickling the cabbage.
For BBQs, Koreans often grill onions, mushrooms and other veg alongside the meat so there will usually be plenty of options.
“Banchan” – the side dishes
It wouldn’t be a Korean meal if you didn’t have many little side dishes to the meal you ordered. They don’t cost extra and are complimentary (or at least included in most meals).
These banchans aren’t exactly side dishes because more often than not, they are the main act with the rice being the side dish.
Kind of like the filling to your sandwich. You wouldn’t call a slice of ham the side dish to your bread, would you?
Kimchi is a staple. It’s cabbage pickled in chilli.
If you aren’t sure how to eat it, it’s simple: you can eat it with anything you like or even on its own. Usually eaten with rice, you can put it on the BBQ (delicious grilled) or in the lettuce wrap (which I will come to in a minute).
There’s no right or wrong with side dishes, they are the condiment to the plain rice and mostly not hot, though often quite salty as they season the rice.
Then there are other actual sides you can order which include dumplings or pancakes. Pancakes aren’t sweet, they are Kimchi or vegetables or seafood mixed in a batter then fried into a pancake.
Most pancakes are supposed to be eaten with some soy sauce for dipping. Kimchi pancakes are nicely seasoned in itself so the pancakes don’t really need any dipping sauce, but of course you can have some if you are so inclined.
Lettuce and Sauces
When ordering BBQ meat, you will get some lettuce leaves on the side. Why? Because they are there to wrap the food up.
You could eat the meat straight off the grill with some rice but the true Korean BBQ dictates that the meat shall be wrapped in lettuce with either rice and/or some sauces.
So don’t be confused about the basket of green next to you. Any Korean restaurant will refill this at no extra cost, don’t be shy and just ask!
It’s simple, once the meat is cooked, you grab a lettuce leaf, add a tiny bit of rice, put some sauce on it (just a smidgen), add the meat and then wrap it into a ball and eat the whole thing in one go. Yes! In one go, so may be worth making your lettuce wraps smaller.
In good restaurants, there will also be some spring onion salad with your BBQ, definitely put a little bit of it in the wrap, it’s delicious!
If you can’t fit the lettuce wrap in your mouth it’s ok to eat it in a few bites but you only get the whole flavour combo when you greedily shove the whole thing in.
“Can you put Kimchi in it?” Of course you can! You can put whatever you like in the wrap, it’s your wrap after all!
You then go on until your belly is so full you just end up eating the meat on its own!
Other Korean Dishes
If you don’t opt for a BBQ, here’s a list of foods you are likely to encounter on a menu and what you can expect.
This is my absolute favourite and the dish of the town I am from.
It’s a rice dish that comes in a super hot stone bowl. It’s topped with lots of stir fried veg and meat and with an egg on top. You can go for “Dolsot Bibimbap” which means the egg will be raw. Don’t worry, the egg will cook when you mix up the rice as the bowl is, as I said, SUPER hot. It essentially fries the rice, veg and egg.
The normal Bibimbap comes with a fried egg but both versions would be nothing without the Bibimbap sauce. It’s made of Gochujang and a few other ingredients. Don’t be shy, the sauce isn’t very hot and your Bibimbap wouldn’t be good if it wasn’t well seasoned. It relies on the sauce to give it that unique taste.
This is also a “side dish” even though it can be eaten as a main meal.
It’s stir fried clear noodles with vegetables, not spicy. The noodles are slightly chewy like soba noodles but have a much lighter texture as they are made of sweet potato starch. Great dish that’s eaten with rice. I know it sounds wrong but the noodles aren’t really carby. You can of course eat them on their own with some of the banchans presented.
Stews and Soups
I have a feeling not many people would opt for the stews and soups offered on a Korean menu which is sad because they are spectacular!
These stews are so deep in flavour and an absolute joy to eat with some rice and banchans. The stews in a normal Korean dinner setting are put in the middle. The family would get spoonfuls of it and pour it over their rice. They’d eat the meat and veg out of the stew and use the soup to mix with rice.
In a restaurant, you’d probably eat it by yourself. It’s normal to put your entire bowl of rice into the soup and eat out of the soup bowl. Some are very spicy but not all. The meat is tender as it has been cooked for many hours and unlike UK stews, they are the opposite of stodgy but very refreshing and healthy feeling. Think of them as a ramen base to which you add rice instead of noodles.
Some common stews:
Yukgaejang – spicy, deep beef stew with radish, onion and sometimes those japchae noodles)
Beef short rib stew – a clear soup made of beef stock and beef short ribs. The meat is often on the bone but they should just fall off it! Again eaten with rice and Kimchi. This one is not spicy at all.
Kimchi stew – A stew made with Kimchi, its juice and veg. Very delicious and a must if you enjoy Kimchi! It’s quite salty so definitely eaten with rice.
Daktoritang (or Dakmeyuntang) – translates to spicy chicken stew – this is made with pieces of chicken on the bone. It’s often the centre piece of a Korean meal. Pieces of chicken are taken out and eaten with rice. The stew will have some potatoes and other veg in it which are incredibly nice and also eaten with rice.
This dish is probably quite big and best shared with a few people.
Koreans love a tipple…or two… or an all night drink fest.
The go to booze in Korea is light crisp lager (the biggest brands are Hite and Cass) and Soju.
Soju is a clear liquor made of rice. It’s very much like vodka but with a nutty, light after taste. It is often drunk in shots, yes, Koreans are mental!
It isn’t as strong as vodka and if you are feeling especially brave, you can do Soju bombs by dropping a shot in a glass of Korean beer.
Hope this made going to a Korean restaurant less daunting. Good hosts will explain the ins and outs anyway but now you can go in and impress your friends with your vast knowledge of Korean food!