Until recently, Korean food was a bit of mystery to most Australians. Probably the nearest thing was the occasional Mongolian BBQ restaurant where you’d cook your own meat on a smelly kerosene-fuelled hotplate in the middle of the table. Remember those? Well, lately Korean restaurants have been popping up all over the place and to my amazement (and to be honest, just a weeny bit of horror) I discovered pre-packaged bulgogi beef in the meat section of our supermarket. Not imported authentic pre-packed bulgogi, mind you, locally prepared try-hard-wannabe stuff.
So, as our home is a bit of a bastion of bulgogi ( well, for a pack of Aussies it is anyway), I thought I’d share the secrets of this popular Korean dish. Unlike other Asian cuisines, Korean does not use a great many spices: garlic and chilli—that’s about it — with soy and sesame coming in close behind. Koreans use their spiciest mix with chicken and squid. Beef is treated with respect for the flavour and so bulgogi has no chilli, making it popular with even the fussiest of eaters. And because you often eat it rolled in lettuce leaves, bulgogi makes a great picnic treat too, no cutlery or plates required.
Here’s what you’ll need:
600 g scotch fillet, porterhouse or rump steak
4 chopped spring onions (both the white and the green parts)
1 finely grated medium-sized carrot
1 lettuce washed and separated into leaves (Cos lettuce work well for this but a good-old iceberg will do.)
1 nashi pear – peeled and mashed or grated finely (a kiwi-fruit will do if there are no nashis)
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons soy sauce
6 cloves garlic (more if you like)
¼ teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Here's how to do it:
1. Slice the beef against the grain of the meat as finely as possible. The easiest way to do this evenly and without trimming your fingernails at the same time is to slice the steak when it is par-frozen.
2. Mix the mashed pear/kiwi and sugar in a bowl with the sliced beef . It’s best if you squash it all together a little with your fingers, as your body heat will help start the tenderising process. Yes, that’s what the fruit is for: the acid is a natural tenderiser. Set this aside while you prepare the rest of the marinade. The longer the better. If you can be bothered, leave it for half an hour, but really a couple of minutes will be enough. Korean cooking’s an ancient art, not a precise science.
3. Pound/grind the sesame seeds and pepper, then add the garlic and pound it all together.
4. Transfer the garlic paste to a large bowl and combine with soy sauce and sesame oil.
5. Add the chopped spring onion, grated carrot and meat mix to the marinade, combine well, cover and leave to stand at room temperature for at least an hour. If you want to make this up ahead of time, just put it in the fridge overnight.
6. Remove the meat from the marinade and bbq on a preheated hotplate for two or three minutes.
7. Spoon into lettuce cups and tuck in!
Once you’ve tried this basic recipe, you can make it your own by adjusting the amount of sesame/garlic that your family prefers. Some people like to add a bit of crushed ginger to their marinade, others increase the vegetable content with finely chopped green capsicum and/or bean shoots, while some go for the straight carnivore version, ditching the veggies completely.
Of course, if you want to serve it with rice instead of lettuce cups, go right ahead. There’s no rule preventing that. And if you want to spice it up, add a sauce made of red chilli and soybean paste that can be spooned on to the beef by anyone who likes things hot.
Koreans would always always serve bulgogi with kimchi — the national dish of pickled, chillied vegetable (usually cabbage). It’s pungent to say the least, and most definitely an acquired taste for most Aussies. Kimchi became a staple in Korea as they could preserve the veggies in huge ceramic pots which they buried in the earth or under the snow for when green vegetables were scarce as a way to prevent scurvy. The rooves of modern apartment blocks in Korea are still dotted with kimchi pots over the long freezing winter months, and a great many homes have a separate kimchi fridge.
Koreans also always serve a range of little side-dishes to pick at with chopsticks during every meal: things like seaweed, spinach, cucumber or mung bean salad; blanched zucchini strips; steamed eggplant; pickled white radish; honeyed sweet-potato or tiny potato pancakes. And of course there's rice.
So maybe next time you have friends over for a bar-be, you can switch things up a little bit and serve bulgogi and sausages. We do!