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BBQ Without Borders: Korean BBQ

korean bbq

It’s undeniable – Korean culture has become very popular throughout the world. Wherever you live, it’s likely that you have been exposed to South Korea’s films, television shows, and pop music. And if you live in a big metropolitan area, you may even have access to what could be this East Asian country’s biggest cultural export: Korean BBQ.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing Korean BBQ (gogi-gui), you are in for a treat. This type of food is a culinary event unto itself. It offers distinctive dishes and flavor combinations not found anywhere else. In short, this is an exclusive cuisine that makes for a special dining experience.

This short primer will introduce Korean BBQ by explaining how it is different from American BBQ. We’ll compare some key differences to explore the unique characteristics that make this unique food so enjoyable.

Korean BBQ Difference #1: DIY Grilling

The key difference you’ll notice about this amazing food is self-evident. That’s because when it comes to grilling, this type of cuisine is “do-it-yourself.” This means if you go to a Korean BBQ restaurant, you should be prepared to do your own grilling.

Every table at a Korean BBQ restaurant is equipped with its own barbecue grill. Built into the table and equipped with a fan exhaust, these small grills allow each group of diners to grill their food. This means that one person can perform the grill tasks for the table. Or, it means that each diner can cook their food according to their preferences.

Here’s how it works. After selecting your order, raw ingredients are delivered to your table. Once the in-table grill is fired up, diners can barbecue however they want. They can keep stacking the grill if they want to eat quickly, or cook a few ingredients at a time to slow things down.

Although their kitchens aren’t as busy as their peers, Korean BBQ restaurants are quick to offer great service. One thing you can expect in this situation is for the waitstaff to regularly change your grill. Instead of being stuck with a sticky grill, your waiter or waitress will simply provide you with a new one.

What you’ll find with Korean BBQ is a wonderful dining experience. It is nothing short of a gastronomical adventure. Don’t be afraid to try new things; you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you may find!


korean bbq

Korean BBQ Difference #2: The Meat

Before going on, one thing must be said about Korean BBQ: It’s not actually BBQ – at least, not in the same way as American BBQ. 

Instead of being about which is better, this difference shows the difference in cooking philosophies. American BBQ has traditionally been about slow roasting or smoking large cuts of meat for hours. On the other hand, Korean BBQ is more about grilling meat quickly. 

This type of cuisine is able to accomplish this through proper preparation. Before the grill is even turned on, the meat is cut into thin strips. By doing this, each piece of meat will take a short time to cook. Additionally, diners have no need to cut their meat, making these meals very easy to eat. 

That’s not the only difference. Korean BBQ favors fast-cooking meats like beef and seafood. Not only that, meats are often prepared on skewers, allowing for easy grilling and eating.

Although their grills are located in the front of the house, you can be sure that these restaurants spend a lot of time preparing their meats. One such preparation that we’ll touch on next is the use of marinades.

korean bbq

Korean BBQ Difference #3: The Flavor

American BBQ is infamous for its regional differences. Having evolved over several generations, it’s entirely possible for neighboring US regions to have very different BBQ traditions. And yet, if you’re looking for a new BBQ experience, you should really try this one-of-a-kind cuisine. 

Compared to the smokiness of American BBQ that favors vinegar-based sauces, Korean BBQ is rooted in sweet and savory marinades. Once thinly sliced, some meat ingredients are given marinades for extra flavor. Common ingredients found in these marinades include sugar, honey, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil. As well, in addition to the marinades, diners can choose from a wide selection of dipping sauces to further customize their meal. 

And yet, the tapestry of flavors that encapsulate Korean BBQ doesn’t stop there. Another shining attribute of this cuisine is the inclusion of numerous side dishes (banchan). These tiny, bite-sized appetizers encompass a wide spectrum of flavors. 

Often included for free when dining at these establishments, you can expect to sample tasty appetizers such as kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage) and seasoned soybean sprouts. Inspired by royal court cuisine, the use of mini-dishes greatly adds to the enjoyability of the Korean BBQ experience.

Final Thoughts

By outlining all of these differences, it’s clear to see that Korean BBQ is something that every BBQ enthusiast should experience at least once in a lifetime. 

If grilling meat (especially in a new environment) sounds difficult, you should know that there’s something that can help. To find out if your food is properly cooked, use an instant-read thermometer like the ThermoPro TP605. For more cooking thermometers, consider ThermoPro for all your cooking and grilling needs!


Photos: Hyun Woo KangMr.kototo and Laura D’Alessandro via Flickr


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