Does your dream night out consist of freshly-grilled meats with a side of kimchi and karaoke?
Korean barbecue is the experience of cooking pre-marinated meats (usually beef, chicken or pork) over a hot grill found in the center of a communal table. Many may be familiar with bulgogi, one of the most-ordered items from the cuisine, made with thinly-sliced marinated beef tenderloin. While popular in its home country, the cuisine is enjoyed worldwide and throughout the U.S.
Korean barbecue itself is a cooking method, but the term now often describes restaurants that specialize in preparing Korean barbecue and the experience of eating at one.
Sister chefs Jennifer and Michele Kaminski recently brought their fresh and modern spin on Korean specialties to the Shelborne South Beach, a hotel in Miami, Fla., opening 2 Korean Girls along with their mother and James Beard Award-winning chef, Allan Susser. The restaurant concept focuses on the delicious, nutritious and beloved Korean staples of rice, meat, vegetables and egg. Made from the family's generations-old recipes, the traditional dishes are created with a contemporary twist: 2 Korean Girls garnish their dishes with a heart-shaped egg and golden edible stars, adding an Instagrammable surprise for each diner.
The dynamic duo says with the right knowledge, it's easy to know what to order when visiting a Korean barbecue restaurant.
Korean barbecue 101
Korean barbecue is focused on grilled meat served alongside vegetables and sauces, but there are key aspects that make the culinary method unique. "Korean barbecue is an experience of cooking marinated meats on a gas or charcoal grill built right into the table," shares Jennifer Kaminski, co-founder of 2 Korean Girls. Beef, chicken or pork are commonly marinated in soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and other flavors before being cooked. Meat is the main attraction while the flavor is all thanks to the marinade.
"It's accompanied by banchan, an assortment of side dishes like kimchi, salad, marinated veggies and usually some seasonal items," adds Kaminski.
The banchan, typically composed of fresh and preserved items, is served in small bowls placed in the center of the table and shared amongst guests. Other popular side dishes include egg roll omelettes and radish salad.
Many diners are familiar with hibachi, another Asian cuisine that involves cooking meat in front of guests. But Japanese hibachi restaurants typically do not pre-marinate their meats, instead relying on dipping cooked meats into sauces. The meat style is also different from Korean barbecue.
"Korean barbecue is unique in the sense that the marinated cuts of meat are typically smaller and cooked raw as opposed to a larger cut of meat that is usually smoked first, such as brisket," Kaminski explains.
How to eat Korean barbecue?
Meat cooked during a Korean barbecue meal can be eaten alone, but a popular way to enjoy it is wrapped in lettuce or perilla leaves (an aromatic plant with a mint-like smell) and topped with desired condiments.
"While a delicate balance of flavors enhances the taste of the meat, it never overpowers it," says Kaminski. "The smoky richness of the meat combined with lettuce leaves or perilla with a touch of ssamjang turns it into a handheld wrapper to deliver a savory and refreshingly delicious contrast of flavors."
The handheld wrapper is known commonly as ssam, which means 'wrapped.' Ssamjang is the most popular condiment in Korean barbecue. The spicy paste is made by combining gochujang (red chili paste) and doenjang (soybean paste). Ssamjang is meant to subtly enhance the flavors of the ssam.
Korean barbecue is a true experience
Depending on the restaurant, either the guest or restaurant staff will prepare the meat on the tabletop grill.
At its core, Korean barbecue is all about the experience, which Kaminski calls "interactive and progressive in nature." Food is just as important as the socialization aspect. Karaoke or 'noraebang' is also a popular component of some Korean restaurants — and much more fun as a group.
Meals are typically served by the entree or as an all-you-care-to-enjoy portion.
What to drink with Korean barbecue
An important part of Korean barbecue is pairing your meal with an alcoholic beverage like wine, beer or Kaminski's preference of soju.
"Pro-tip, don't forget the soju," she says. Soju is a colorless clear Korean distilled alcoholic beverage with varying alcoholic content, typically consumed neat. It's either sipped during the meal or taken as shots throughout.
Consider the soup course
"Any Korean soup is always a solid choice," shares Kaminski. "There are entire restaurant concepts dedicated to just that because they are so popular."
Soups are naturally versatile and can be tweaked based on preferred flavor, ranging from mild to serious heat in the form of spices.
3 best items to order as a beginner
Still not sure what to order off the menu? Kaminski recommends going with the following items that should be found on any menu, for the best first time-experience.
Bibimbap: a mixed rice dish that includes meat and vegetables. "For me, this brings together so many quintessential flavors of Korean cuisine — perfectly fluffy yet slightly sticky rice, Korean red pepper in the gochujang, toasted sesame in the marinated veggies — not to mention the freshness and textures," says Kaminski.
Wok-fired Bulgogi: The most popular variety of Korean barbecue typically sees the meat marinated in a combination of sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger before being cooked at a high temperature. This results in a tender piece of meat with just the right amount of sweetness and a flavorful char. "It's comforting, delicious and you'll be hooked on Korean food forever," Kaminski promises.
Kimchi-jjigae: For the spice lover, this kimchi stew is made with over-ripe aged kimchi, tofu, green onion and pork belly. It comes served bubbling hot in earthenware with a side of rice to add into it. "The dish is warm, spicy, hearty, savory and you may even start sweating while you're eating it," says Kaminski. "It has also been noted as a magical antidote for colds."
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