Korean BBQ 101 - How To Order & Eat KBBQ.

As I'm planning our San Diego Korean BBQ HIRL, I thought it perfect timing to transfer this post to the new blog. :)

Notwithstanding that this is how I mostly feel about the whole cook-it-yourself KBBQ dealie these days, I still totally get why it's fun and exciting for other people.

If you've never been before, the whole experience can be a little daunting and overwhelming. As with any new dining experience, the first best option would be to have a savvy friend go with you and show you the ropes. Hopefully, this quick overview will be almost as helpful.

Much of this information applies to Korean meals in general.


Most Korean restaurants, whether or not they specialize in Korean BBQ or offer the cook-it-yourself (CIY) option, will offer the basics, boohlgohgi (bulgogi) and kahlbi (kalbi), a la carte. But if you're in a restaurant with the CIY option, i.e. there's a grill at your table, you'll usually have the first two of the following options, and possibly also the third.

1) A LA CARTE - you order one kind of meat with a certain kind of marinade, and it comes with an assortment of bahnchan/panchan (see next section), and a bowl of rice.

If you're like me and the thought of cooking your own food while dining out does not excite you, keep in mind that you almost always have the option when ordering a la carte to have the kitchen cook your meat for you. There are at least two benefits to this approach: a) You don't have to cook it. b) They're usually firing a much hotter grill in the kitchen, and your meat is much more likely to get a proper char on it than when you cook at the table.

2) SET MENU (Prix Fixe) - For a set price per person, and usually with a minimum of two people ordering this option, they dictate the variety and quantity of proteins you get. The set menus can vary widely in the assortment of meats, and you can go from the basics of beef and pork BBQ to that plus all kinds of seafood and offal as well if you're into that kind of thing. Variety and quality of proteins will of course factor into the price.

As with any proper Korean meal, the bahnchahn and rice come with (though sometimes you have to ask for the rice because they don't want to serve it up only to have it uneaten and have to throw it away - kinda like the deal with water these days).

In addition to the bahnchahn and rice, your set menu may also include a soup (goohk) or stew (jjigae) to go with your meal. They are meant to be eaten with and during your meal, between and with bites of everything else you're eating and not as a preliminary and standalone course.

3) BUFFET/ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT (AYCE) While the general truth is that you won't get the highest quality ingredients in a buffet setting, this option, in my opinion, is the best one for a KBBQ virgin.

You always cook your own meat in a KBBQ buffet, which is a new and novel experience for the uninitiated. And here you can choose from a variety of proteins and marinades, bahnchahn and other offerings (some even have a limited variety of supermarket quality sushi), dipping sauces and salads, and sometimes even a dessert assortment, if not a soft serve machine, to end your meal on a sweet note, for a set price.

So while you might not be getting the highest quality cuts, this is a great way to taste the different preparations and determine what might be worth spending a little more money on the next time you go to a non-buffet place.

Many places that feature an AYCE buffet will usually also offer up an a la carte option, which again, you can request to have cooked in the kitchen for you.

Some places that don't have a buffet setup still have an AYCE option where you pay a certain amount and eat your fill of certain proteins and cuts that are pre-specified on the menu as well.


So if there's a grill at your table, and you haven't asked that the meat be cooked in the kitchen, the waitstaff, in addition to lighting your grill and changing out your grill pan for you as needed, will probably start the cooking process for you by placing the meat on the grill. But if the place is busy and/or your server is not specially astute and quick, you're probably better off taking over the cooking yourself and not waiting for them to return to finish the job for you.

As with cooking at home, try not to overcrowd the pan because you'll lose char that way. And if you need to, and you have access to the dial, turn the flame up or down as appropriate. If you can't access it, don't be afraid to ask them to come and adjust it for you.

Also, because so much of the meat is heavily marinated, if they're not on top of changing your grill pan out for you before the caramelized bits form too much burnt crust on your pan, don't be afraid to politely flag them down and ask them to change it out for you.

BAHNCHAHN (aka Banchan, Panchan)

Bahnchahn is usually the first thing brought to the table at a Korean meal. So in your Western culinary frame of mind, you might think them a sort of appetizer, but they're really not.

Think of bahnchan as a condiment for your rice and overall meal. Steamed rice in Korean culture, in addition to being the staple grain, functions as a foil to complement and contrast the often bold, pungent and assertive flavors of the cuisine. So while you might want to take a nibble of the bahnchahn here and there to keep yourself occupied while you're waiting for the rest of your food, you might want to do so sparingly and leave some bahnchahn to eat with your meal, the way it's meant to be enjoyed.

Any and every self-respecting Korean restaurant offers an assortment of bahnchan that comes with your meal. However, just how self-respecting (and authenticity-oriented) might be reflected in the breadth and depth of the assortment.

+Dean Robinson asked me a good question on Mother's Day: "Did they serve us the right bahnchahn at our meal?" The answer? For the most part, the only WRONG assortment of bahnchahn would be one that doesn't include Napa cabbage kimchi (baechoo kimchi). All else is discretionary and often dependent on what's economical and what the customer demographic will sustain. (Well, actually, if you delve a little deeper into Korean cuisine, there are certain kinds of kimchi that are considered more appropriate for some dishes than others, but we're speaking generally here.)

While the traditional spectrum of bahnchahn is vast all by itself, the constant evolution of contemporary Korean cuisine to adapt new ingredients, influences and flavor profiles has practically made bahnchahn possibilities infinite. To some extent, whatever enough Koreans deem delicious to eat with a bite of steamed rice, if served in a little side dish, can be considered bahnchahn.

Which is why, for instance, in addition to kimchi, nahmool (various veg side dishes), and all kinds of interesting salty and/or sweet and/or spicy preserves and preparations, you'll often get a bowl of, say, potato salad in your bahnchahn assortment. (In case you were wondering, mayonnaise is not a native condiment. ;))


In addition to the regular bahnchahn, there are some sides that are specifically meant to be eaten with KBBQ.

1. SALAD OR LETTUCE LEAVES: More often salad than plain lettuce leaves these days, and usually lightly dressed with a soy based dressing, the salad/lettuce side reflects an old and practical wisdom that roughage is not only good for you generally, but also helps you keep all that meat moving through the bod. (We'll leave it at that.) I prefer the lettuce leaves and I find that, around here at least, I have to specifically ask for them, because the salad seems to have become the default.

2) DIPPING SAUCES: Each KBBQ restaurant has its own selection of dipping sauces. Very traditional are the seasoned fermented chili and soybean pastes - gochoojahng and dwenjahng/ssahmjahng respectively - and salted toasted sesame oil. But the past couple of decades have seen the increased popularity of sauces made with non-Korean condiments like sriracha, chili garlic and sambal, as well as each restaurant's own doctored soy sauce based concoction.

3) THINLY SLICED SWEET & SOUR PICKLED RADISH: While there is another bahnchahn very similar to this one, these usually come round sliced, to facilitate the whole ssahm (wrap) thing I'm going to discuss in the next section.

4) RICE PAPER: Not native to Korean cuisine, this is actually a square cut adaptation of Chinese chow fun or Vietnamese banh cuon noodles to facilitate the general Korean love of wrapping a bunch of tasty shit up in a parcel and shoving it in yo mouff. (See afore- and after-mentioned ssahm.)

I can't find my closeup of the rice paper, but it's the stuff to
the upper right of the three sauces.


Ssahm is the generic Korean word for "wrap." And there are a few traditional dishes in Korean cuisine - sahngchoo ssahm and goohl bossahm for instance - in which the diner places fillings in the center of some kind of pliable foodstuff (usually a leafy green veg), wraps it up, and crams the whole resulting ginormous but supertasty parcel of food in their mouths in what would be a wholly unacceptable table manner in most Western cultures.

That general practice of taking a bunch of flavors and packaging them up in a single bite of food carries over to Korean BBQ as well, which is where the immediately aforementioned four components come into place.

And I don't think you've fully experienced Korean BBQ if you haven't made ssahm with it at least twice - once for practice, and twice to really savor it. Even if you're veg averse. Even if you're clumsy and have a hard time making a wrap that doesn't fall apart.  Because this experience, to me, epitomizes and encapsulates the best of how Koreans eat

- With thought and care and a certain anticipation as you determine what, from that array of flavors and textures you're going to put in that parcel

- With a certain fearlessness as you think to yourself, Self, should I put a piece of Bahnchahn X or Y or Z in that parcel? Well, why the fuck not!

- With willingness to put a little effort into your food as you find a way to fold the sides and corners into a manageable thing

and with TOTAL GUSTO as you cram that bighugedelicious flavor bomb into your mouth


To be authentic-ish at first, try a minimum of a leaf of lettuce filled with a small spoonful of rice, followed by a bite-sized piece of meat, and a dab of gochoojahng or dwenjahng or ssahmjahng. Everything on top of that is gravy.

Sahngchoo ssahm (literally lettuce wrap) with rice,
pork belly, and ssahmjahng (seasoned dwenjahng for ssahm)

Do the roll, the fold, the scrunch, or whatever works best for you to get all that food into something you think you'll be able to cram into your mouth all at once, shove it in there, cover your mouth like the polite person that you are (or don't), and start chewing. It takes about 3 or 4 chews before you can detect all the different flavors and textures, but once they're all out in the great wide open that is your mouth, it's the most deliciously raucous symphony.

This one is, from bottom up, rice paper, lettuce salad,
pickled radish, kahlbi, and piece of soy sauce pickled onion,
and some chili garlic based dipping sauce...

...and it is nowhere near as big as a proper ssahm should be.
But much more polite. :)

And if you want to be really Korean-style about it, before you finish swallowing that bite of ssahm, take in a spoonful of piping hot jjigae to introduce yet another wallop of that pungent, spicy, hearty, and complex deliciousness that is the hallmark of Korean cuisine.

Soohndooboo (Silken Tofu) Jjigae

And really for the most part, unless it's dessert, it's all good to be eaten together, at the same time, in the same bite, in the same mouth. Not the best place to take that one friend whose food can't be touching, and maybe a little challenging at first, but then totally intoxicating and addicting.

The sounds of the grill and exhaust, of the bahnchahn dishes hitting the table, of chopsticks clicking. The dizzying array of rice and bahnchahn dishes and earthenware jjigae pots. All those strong and assertive flavors from which to mix and match...

Order yourself a cold beer and prepare to go big. It'll be delicious. I promise. ^^



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