2020 Hale ‘Aina Award Winner: The Beginner’s Guide to Korean Barbecue
Switching things up, Korean style, can make your next turn at the grill so much better. Learn how to gogikui at the best yakiniku and Korean barbecue restaurants in Hawai‘i.
Korean barbecue? Chances are you’ve been doing it wrong. Or rather, you’re doing it local style, which is fine, but we say you are missing out. The world of gogikui, or Korean barbecue, is a fluid and evolving one, so although there are no hard and fast rules, we checked in with Grace Ryu of Frolic Hawai‘i, our digital dining voice, for her best tips. Whether you’re eating at Gen Korean BBQ House (where this photo was taken), Million Restaurant, Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ or Sura Hawai‘i—chosen by Hale ‘Aina voters as the Best Yakiniku/Korean Barbecue restaurants—here’s how to up your experience.
Ask what cuts the restaurant is known for.
Every place is different: Gen is known for its Hawaiian steak, a sweet marinated beef; brisket; pork belly; and spicy pork. Sura has delicious pork belly (and that famous corn cheese).
Marinated or nonmarinated meat?
Start with one of each. “Order kalbi, because it’s tried and true,” Ryu says. “I always order at least one of my other favorites: brisket, beef tongue, pork belly or jumulleok (seasoned beef steak chunks). And I like my nonmarinated meats super-thinly sliced—they cook fast and the sauce-to-meat ratio works out better.”
Different sauces go with different meats.
The basics are ssam jang, a pungent, super-savory mix of Korean miso and gochujang; and sesame oil mixed with salt and pepper. The sesame oil “adds an earthy, deeper, nutty umami,” Ryu says, “and you get little bits of crispy salt in the meat and it’s just really good.” Go with the combo that works for you.
Ask for lettuce.
This is the move that will put you in legit territory. Sangchu ssam, or lettuce wraps, are bites of rice and grilled meat slathered in sauce, folded inside lettuce and stuffed whole into your mouth. Lettuce, meat and rice are meant to be eaten together—and note we said bite-size. Creating burrito-size wraps will send you back to the amateurs. Ryu likes to add kim chee or strips of pickled daikon for a crunchy, cool, acidic element that cuts through the richness of meat. “Wrap as many things as you can fit into your mouth,” she says.
Throw some kim chee on the grill.
It’s cabbage, after all, so a little sesame oil and heat will sweeten the leaves. “Pack it into the lettuce with crispy pork belly,” Ryu says. “It is heavenly.”
If you’re still hungry, finish with doenjang chige or naengmyun noodles chilled in icy beef broth.
These dishes soothe the stomach and soul after rich, meaty meals. Some restaurants will offer smaller portions, so be sure to ask. If you’re really traditional, ask for shik-hye, a sweet cold rice drink, or a sweet tea of cinnamon boiled with ginger and sugar. Any of these choices is a sure sign you’re gogikui-legit.
Traditional Korean Etiquette
- Eldest members of the group eat first. Show respect by waiting for them to pick up their chopsticks, then dig in.
- It’s polite and friendly to serve guests and elders. Use the clean ends of your chopsticks to pick the best pieces of meat from the grill and place them in their bowls.
- Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese pick up their rice bowls; Koreans do not. Those stainless-steel bowls will conduct the full heat of freshly cooked rice (ouch!) and are meant to be left on the table. If you want to be super traditional, eat your rice with your soup spoon.
- It’s OK and even expected to dip your spoon into the chige, the soup that arrives still bubbling in a communal cast-iron bowl, though many places will bring smaller individual bowls if you ask.