Exploring Korean BBQ
K-pop is big, but K-BBQ is even bigger and found in every part of the United States. We explore why this legacy cuisine sizzles with opportunity for American operators. Grills are optional.
Forget low and slow, with big hunks of meat. Korean barbecue focuses on smaller cuts like strips of sirloin (featured in the signature dish bulgogi), sliced pork belly and beef short ribs, which come ready to sear hot and fast over a charcoal brazier right at the table, often by the diners themselves.
Also part of the experience is an impressive array of small bowls filled with flavorful accompaniments called panchan that line the table. These can include fermented kimchi, gochujang paste, sweet-and-sour cucumbers, a fresh mung bean salad, sesame salt, dipping sauces and crisp lettuce leaves or rice sheets to wrap it all up. Sweet, salty, spicy, savory, acidic, crunchy, meaty, juicy—everything is on the table to let diners choose their perfect balance.
“The barbecue is a gateway to Korean food. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like it,” says Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, an award-winning writer and author of Eating Korean: From Barbecue to Kimchi. “In Korea, barbecue is very much a restaurant experience only, saved for special occasions.”
Everything is done with purpose, according to Lee, so unseasoned beef is served first, and fattier dishes with more marinades follow. Steamed rice comes out after the accompaniments, so as not to sate appetites too quickly, and the final dinner touch is often a tasty fried rice made at the table grill.
For U.S. restaurateurs, paying homage to the cuisine can be as simple as adding a Korean barbecue burger to the menu, or using Korean-inspired seasonings and marinades on appetizers, wings, pizzas and sandwiches.
“That’s a perfect way to introduce Korean flavors to diners without the need for a lot of specialty ingredients,” says Mike Kostyo, Datassential’s “trendologist.” His top pick is gochujang, a spicy chili pepper paste that appeals to
“Everyone was looking for the next sriracha, and gochujang stepped in, offering a little bit of sweetness in an authentic way,” he says.