SBS Korean

Beyond the sizzle: How Korean barbecue transcends social barriers

SBS Korean

Korean BBQ

Korean BBQ (Picture by BBQ 1988 in Melbourne)

Published 20 February 2019 at 5:06pm
By Sung Hoon Baik, Peter Theodosiou, Justin Sungil Park
Source: SBS

The Korean barbecue experience goes beyond the amazing taste of the food.

Published 20 February 2019 at 5:06pm
By Sung Hoon Baik, Peter Theodosiou, Justin Sungil Park
Source: SBS

There was a time when the term 'Bulgogi' was used as a pronoun for Korean barbecue.

Bulgogi, meaning "fire meat" is a dish made of thin, marinated slices of pork or beef grilled on a barbecue or on a griddle. 

Over recent decades, however, additions have been made to the list of meats used, including pork belly, ribs and rib eye steak. The variety has heralded the growth in popularity of the popular method of cooking.

SBS Korean took to the pavement to ask why the Korean cooking style was so popular. 

Why is Korean barbecue popular in Australia?

Su Wan-han, the owner and chef at Melbourne restaurant BBQ 1988 said: "As the Korean culture became more popular through K-Pop, I think the Korean Food and Korean barbecue are also known here.” 

“I think it is popular because they can grill meat directly themselves at the table," he said. 

"While eating meat, they enjoy Korean side dishes and Ssam (wrapping meat with lettuce) is very popular as well. I think they are thinking that it is a very interesting method to eat.”

He said Australians tend to appreciate that Korean barbecue offers a "different dining experience".

“China eats meat by using skewers and Japan is cooking meat in de fan yaki style," he said. 

"Korean barbecue uses a fireplace with charcoal to grill meat. This method is very unique and customers can grill the meat with charcoal taste.”

'Different dining experience'

Liz Griffin, executive director of the Australia-Korea Business Council, emphasised that the way people grill meat themselves and eat together was an interaction that was exclusive to Korean barbecue.

“The biggest difference with other barbecue is the dining experience - cooking yourself and the atmosphere in the restaurant that it creates - everyone is cooking their own meal so it feels more communal,” she said.

Singaporean-Australian Nurul Ida Othman described Korean barbecue as a "socialising process of roasting meat". 

“The fact that everyone is seated and gathered together around the hot sizzling pan is such a great idea! We all appreciate home cook meals, but with Korean barbecue, everyone has to do it. Like teamwork.” Ms Ida Othman said.

“The difference between Korean barbecue compared to other countries' barbecues is the social quality. Other countries would have a designated person or two to cook the food.

"Some would even hire for a personal chef! Korean barbecue is the total opposite. The fact that you’re either getting served or cooking the food yourself, you’re continuously interacting with your company. You would kindly ask, would you like your beef cooked medium, well done, etc.”

Jiyoon Lee, who is studying medicine at the University of Sydney, said there was something intimate about cooking meat with friends in a restaurant. 

“I think what makes it so popular is the unique cultural experience,” Lee said.

“Most Korean barbecues are about the communal dining experience.

“When I asked my friends what they considered a unique feature of K-BBQs, I was quite surprised to hear that preparing and cooking food together and sharing lots of food was uncommon outside the family home in many cultures, so it was nice for them to be able to have that intimate experience at a restaurant.” 

Why is Korean BBQ popular in Australia?
Picture from BBQ 1988 in Melbourne Source: Supplied

Variety of side dishes

Dr Adam Zulawnik, with Monash University academic who is proficient in Japanese and Korean, said Korean barbecue was a great example of the fusion between Western and Eastern cooking.

“When I first ate Korean barbecue, I'm pretty sure I thought it was delicious, and I enjoyed the idea of wrapping (Ssam) meat, rice, and side dishes (banchan) in lettuce/mustard leaf before stuffing it all in my mouth,” he said.

“The biggest difference for me between Korean barbecue compared to other countries' barbecue is the side dishes (banchan). Side dishes are Korean (things like kimchi, mustard leaf), which gives the food a distinct flavour.”

Seongmin Eom, an international student studying at the University of Melbourne, said many Australian friends liked to order cold noodle and stew together when they ate Korean barbecue.

“My friends in Australia liked to order not only meat but also cold noodles and stew. And they prefer a place where the side dishes are served neatly.” Eom said

Bohyun Kim who is working in Melbourne said: “Now, I think Korean barbecue has become an internationally famous food. Many friends in Australia mentioned Korean barbecue at first reference rather than Kimchi when I ask them what they tried to eat. I think only a small majority of people don’t know about Korean barbecue.”