Barbecues have long been a quintessential part of the Australian summertime and while the humble sausage "sanger" will never go out of style, it would be a serious mistake to neglect other barbecue traditions from around the world.
The Koreans have mastered the art of barbecue. A carefully composed combination of colours, flavours, textures and tastes, it is a culinary experience not to be missed. A social affair with a fondue-like vibe to it, participants gather around a table with a hotplate in the middle, cooking and eating as they go. Meat is both marinated and unmarinated, and is usually cut into thin strips before barbecuing. Grilled meat (known as gui
) is traditionally always eaten with rice (bap
Koreans traditionally eat all parts of an animal, but modern Korean barbecue restaurants generally stick to more conservative cuts that are either marinated or unmarinated. Modern favourites include:Beef
- Kalbi (beef ribs marinated in sesame oil and garlic)
- Deungshim (unmarinated thinly sliced rib-eye dipped in sesame oil and salt before eating)
- Bulgogi – (thinly sliced sirloin marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, sugar and pepper)
- Chadol baki (thinly sliced brisket)
- Dweji bulgogi (pork bulgogi)
- Jumulleok (short steaks marinated in sesame oil)
- Samgyeopsal (thinly sliced unmarinated pork belly)
Various cuts of marinated and unmarinated chicken are also used for barbecuing, but its use in Korean cuisine is much less common than beef and pork. “Korean barbecue is a big part of the Korean culture in the modern day,” says Peter Jo of Seoul of Sydney (SOS). “It is probably the most popular style of dining now, but rarely done at home.”
Jo’s parents owned one of the first Korean supermarkets in Sydney, as well as a number of Korean restaurants, including the popular Madang, which led him to start up SOS – a cooperative that aims to educate people about Korean food and promote it as a dining choice. Jo is particularly passionate about using quality Australian produce to create Korean-inspired dishes.
Side dishes are key
What really sets Korean barbecue apart is the vibrant side dishes (banchan
) that are traditionally served with the barbecued meat. “Koreans eat side dishes with every meal, where barbecued meat could almost be considered a main side dish,” says Jo.
In my primary school days, I remember marvelling at the lunch boxes of my Korean classmates. They were thermos-like containers with tiny compartments each filled with a different variety of colourful banchan
. “Sharing is a major part of the Korean food culture,” says Jo, “not only with barbecue, but across most styles of dining within the Korean culture. Commonly, each person gets a bowl of rice and sometimes soup and banchan
to share amongst the table.”
Vegetables form the basis for the majority of side dishes. Barbecued meats are always served with an array of vegetables that are either raw (saengch’ae
) or cooked (sukch’ae
). Key vegetable side dishes include: samsaek namul (three-coloured vegetables); manul changatchi (pickled whole garlic); pipim pap (rice mixed with vegetables); mu saengch’ae (daikon radish salad); and oi saengch’ae (spicy cucumber salad).
The most important and crucial side dish to any Korean meal is undoubtedly kimch’i – a dish made by salting and fermenting cabbages and/or radishes. In his book, Korean Food: An Illustrated History
, author Michael Pettid writes, “As essential as rice is to a Korean meal, a table without kimch’i is almost unimaginable.”
To make kimch’i, cabbages are soaked in brine for about 10 hours, then washed and drained. Spices and seasonings such as garlic, chilli, salt and ginger are then liberally added and the mixture is left to ferment in jars. Kimch’i is traditionally made during the winter months as its ideal fermentation temperature is 5°C. Kimch’i is so synonymous with Korean cuisine and culture that there a museum in Seoul dedicated to it.
A touch of soy
A Korean barbecue would not be complete without the many seasonings and sauces that are served with the meal. The two main soybean-derived sauces are toenjang
, the former being a thick version and the latter being a runnier, salty version. These sauces are made from soybean malt or meju
that is mashed, shaped into blocks and allowed to ferment for about three months. The blocks are then soaked in brine and made into a sauce. Thick chilli paste is also usually present at most tables.
It’s been a long time coming, but Korean food is slowly gaining a following in Australia with more and more Korean restaurants popping up in all of our major capital cities. The traditional way of eating Korean barbecue at a restaurant is to place rice and a small piece of meat in a lettuce leaf. Add a small amount of sauce (fermented soy and chilli), a piece of raw or cooked garlic, and enjoy! “This is what we refer to as ssam
which literally means 'to wrap'," says Jo. Not only is Korean barbecue a celebration of flavours, colours and textures, it is also a hands-on, collaborative and incredibly fun dining experience, best shared with good friends.Seoul of Sydney
runs regular dinners and events that celebrate Korean cuisine and culture.