Throw a Korean-Style BBQ Party at Home
Korean BBQ is more than just cooking a hunk of meat over flame. It's a culture, an experience shared with friends and family around a table-top grill with slices and chunks of meat, small flavor-packed sides, vessels to wrap your meat and small sides in, sauces to flavor these handheld wraps, plenty of delicious sips, and even more chatter and laughter. Let's dive into the particulars required to make a Korean BBQ Party at home!
The Origins of Trendy KBBQ
The concept of Korean barbecue is relatively new. In the early 1970s, Koreans who immigrated to the States discovered that their culinary flavors complemented the copious amounts of chicken, pork, and steak in the American diet. The result was Korean BBQ, or "KBBQ," a marriage of Korean spices, sauces, and marinades with all manner of barbecued meats, served in a classic Korean way, but more on that to come.
These days Korean BBQ is ubiquitous in cities like Los Angeles and New York City, where each metropolis boasts a Koreatown—LA's is affectionately known as "K-Town" and NYC's is nicknamed "Korea Way." City-goers flock to these Korean hubs to get their fix with a big group of friends around an authentic Korean table with a built-in grill. And the secret is out about this unique, delicious, and fun experience, which is why it's trending across the country.
So, here's where you might be thinking: But I don't have a Korean BBQ joint in my town and I definitely don't have a table with a built-in grill. Not to worry. Here's how to create this communal experience at home!
What You'll Need for Your Korean Barbeque
If you're looking to recreate that restaurant experience, get a portable cooktop or portable Korean grill to place in the center of your table. Then grab a nice sizable cast-iron skillet. Keep in mind that the KBBQ experience is not a black-tie affair; it's hardly even business-casual. You're going to be surrounding a hot flame sizzling with the smells of smoke and meat, and eating sauce- and topping-laden bites with your hands. So wear a t-shirt and jeans—get comfortable. This is a laid-back, immersive experience meant for friends and family.
This smoky, meaty affair can get pretty smoky-and-meaty smelling, so you might want to consider ventilation with added fans or open windows—or take the whole affair al fresco. If you're cooking outside on the grill, you can go with gas or a flat-top, but charcoal does imbue the meat with great smoky flavor.
Next you'll need a pair of tongs for flipping the sizzling meat, as well as a pair of scissors for cutting the crispy-tender strips of meat into bite-sized morsels, which is also a good way to gauge whether the meat is done by checking the center for pinkness. Now you might be thinking, Scissors? But you'll see why all KBBQ tables feature this ingenious tool. You simply lift up the meat with the tongs and snip it into bite-sized pieces that fall onto the grill to crisp up—all of the legit KBBQ masters wield scissors.
Check out the 5 Essential Tools in the Korean Kitchen.
Meat for the Grill
With Korean BBQ, you can barbecue steak, pork, chicken, duck, and even seafood and veggies—either marinated or unmarinated. Among the most popular meats are the marinated short ribs (kalbi), marinated beef (bulgogi), unmarinated pork belly (sam gyeob sal), paper-thin beautifully marbled brisket, spicy pork (dwaeji bulgogi). A day to a few hours before the gathering, prepare your marinade and let the meats marinate for the allotted time. Some meats require a little pruning and slicing, so you can be doing that or you can opt to have your butcher take care of that in advance. And you'll benefit from the extra time, as you'll have some seriously fun sides to prepare.
Banchan, aka the Small Sides
Banchan is to KBBQ what bread is to butter. Banchan imbues the bites of meat with its soul-satisfying quality. These funky, fresh, crunchy, pickled, fermented, sweet, and savory side plates are what make Korean BBQ everyone's favorite meal—you can tailor each bite to suit your own unique palate. Like heat-foward peppers? Throw in a jalapeno slice or a spicy pickle. Funky taste buds can revel in kimchi and fermented chili paste. Lovers of veggies can add spinach, mung bean sprouts, or cucumber salad. Sweet sauces and pickles please those on the sweeter side of the spectrum. Savory pancakes, fish cakes, and seasoned egg also hit the spot.
But some of the staples you'll find on most KBBQ tables are raw garlic, jalapeño slices, scallion salad, and, of course, the sauces!
Explore more essential banchan recipes.
The Secret Sauces
Among the popular sauces to drizzle on your bites are toasted sesame oil laced with salt, hot chili oil, umami-packed fermented soybean paste (doenjang), and gochujang, Korea's most famous fermented red chili pepper paste. These sauces are what really make each bite sing, especially ssamjang—a beloved Korean barbecue sauce that is a 50/50 mix of gochujang and doenjang that is tangy, fermented, and absolutely delightful when you're eating your barbecue "ssam"-style.
Ssam, meaning "wrapped," refers to the culinary method of eating your KBBQ meat along with banchan and sauces—all wrapped in leafy vegetables. Some describe this as the "taco" of Korean cuisine. Red leaf lettuce and romaine are commonly used and give a nice, watery crunch, a cooling complement to the savory-spicy-sweet flavors of the meat, banchan, and sauce. Parilla leaves—similar to mint in flavor, but larger—are a traditional leafy vessel, as is Korean radish (daikon) wrappers, which are ultra-thin slices of the radish, often pickled. Some people double up on the leaves, mixing and matching, and tearing them to be bite sized. And some add in rice. It is your playground, so have fun and treat your taste buds!
Geonbae! Is Korean for Cheers!
Most Korean BBQs feature soju, a clear rice wine along with Korean beer. The culture features fun drinking games and many group cheers, or "geonbae!" which only enhances the celebratory sense of joy and togetherness that makes KBBQ so beloved.
So, grab your tools, ingredients, and t-shirt and get ready to toast to a full heart and a happy belly: Geonbae!
Check out our complete collection of Korean Recipes.