A big part of Korean food is Korean BBQ~ if someone abroad says they love Korean food, chances are they are talking about BBQ. In Korea BBQ is cooked yourself at a table grill, usually with gas or charcoal in a variety of grill and pan styles. Meat can be marinated or cooked as-is~ what I will write about in this article is generally for un-marinated meats here, pork in particular!
♥ Lets talk about cooking un-marinated pork meat at a Korean BBQ restaurant! ♥
This plate is called “the whole pig” at our fave restaurant! It has Samgyeopsal (at the bottom) + other assorted pork cuts topped with a bit of pepper before grilling.
돼지고기 means Pig Meat in Korean~ The most popular cut of pork in Korea hands down is Samgyeopsal, which translates to roughly three layer flesh.
This name suits the cut perfectly since its the pork belly which has very visible layers of meat and fat! Pork belly is where bacon comes from, so its appearance should be very familiar to bacon lovers~ however Samgyeopsal is uncured so it will not fry up and have the same taste….much to my disappointment the first time I cooked it. This cut is very fatty, and it is not marinated~ just cooked on the grill and dipped in ssamjang 쌈장 paste or sesame oil.
Going into a BBQ place in Korea can be a bit daunting if you are new to Korea, cant read Korean, or don’t know the cuts of meat. These places usually have a text only menu posted on the wall, or even an erase board if the price of meat fluctuates a lot~ no pictures!
For newcomers it will be in your best interest to read up or write down the names before you go, or you may end up ordering something you don’t like by mistake haha! One time I was trying to order Samgyeopsal but ordered actual pig skin instead (*_*)
Things you will see on the menu..
Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) –
The star of the BBQ show here is Samgyeopsal. Above is what typical standard Samgyeopsal looks like, but it varies in thickness depending on the place or sometimes you are given the option to specify if you wish to order a thin or thick cut. It cooks moist and flavorful from the fat layers and since it is the most popular pork cut to order at BBQ places in Korea you will see a lot of people eating it!
Above is an option some places have, a very thin shaved cut of Samgyeopsal called debaksamgyeopsal 대박삼겹살. This type is a good if you find the average cuts too fatty because most of the fat cooks away~ but you have to keep a close eye on it because it is easy to overcook which will make it all dry.
ogyeopsal means “5 layer skin” so the difference is the extra 2 layers (dur!) one of which is the top skin of the pork that Koreans even love to eat alone! This cut is almost always served SUPER thick and is a bit fatty with the extra layers, but has a richer flavor in my opinion. The top skin cooks a bit differently and becomes a bit chewy, but it is very thin so it is not too bad even if you do not enjoy eating pork skin.
Byotjip Samgyeopsal (볏짚삼겹살) and Kaljip Samgyeopsal (칼집삼겹살 )
This cut is a very thick sliced cut of Samgyeopsal that has been slashed for tenderness, the name “Byotjip Samgyeopsal 볏짚삼겹살 ” means literally “Slashed Samgyeopsal”, so that’s pretty straightforward like the other names huh? The other name that may appear on the menu is “Kaljip Samgyeopsal 칼집삼겹살 ” which is the same slashed cut, just marinated with a sauce that varies from restaurant to restaurant.
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A final name in this slashed cut worth mentioning is “Boljip Samgyeopsal 벌집삼겹살” which translates to “Honeycomb Samgyeopsal” and is a chain here in Korea that specializes in this cut…it’s REALLY yummy. I cant speak for all areas, but we go to the one in Hongdae a lot!
Jeju Heukdweji (제주 흑돼지) AKA Jeju Black Pork
Another type of Samgyeopsal worth mentioning is the Jeju black pig version! Jeju Heukdweji is a special meat from the black pigs down on Jeju island, off the tip of Korea. This meat is famous for its amazing taste and because of this the price is higher, sometimes by just a few won and sometimes considerably. You can find restaurants that specialize in this type of meat, but smaller places often have Samgyeopsal Jeju pork available to order as well. The meat itself is not too different in looks, but if you eat Samgyeopsal often you will notice the meat is naturally very flavorful without the need to add salt! Jeju pork is “Fancy Eats” here in Korea ♥
Seng Ssamgyeopsal (생삼겹살)
Also worth mentioning~ Samgyeopsal is expected to be stored frozen, but in some places you will also see the option for “Seng Ssamgyeopsal 생삼겹살” on the menu. This option is fresh and from the butcher! Buying an order of the meat fresh is usually about 5,000~6,000원 more per order, but it is delicious and worth the extra cost if you can afford it!
Thin sliced debaksamgyeopsa with garlic and sauce
The very first time I came to Korea in 2003 I had Samgyeopsal and I hated it! I found it overly fatty and bland plus was grossed out that I was dipping something so oily in MORE oil and salt! For a time I would actually not eat that top layer of fat because it grossed me out, and I though it was just boring and plain to me overall vs the marinated cuts. I really think it often is an acquired taste for some foreigners here because everyone I have asked seems to have felt like I did at first and sticks marinated lean and sweet meat here….while this is meat, oil, and some salt essentially.
Nowadays Samgyeopsal is my absolute FAVORITE type of BBQ to eat here though, I did a complete flip after living here for a year. I think learned to appreciate the flavors of the meat with the panchan together, and now it is just the best thing ever to me and I crave it weekly. If the fatty parts are hard for you to eat the best thing to do is to cut the pieces smaller and let them cook a bit longer so more cooks away and becomes a little firmer.
according to the Wikipedia gods, 85% of South Korean adults surveyed stated their favorite pork is samgyeopsal and 70% of those surveyed eat the meat at least once a week. I totally believe this, because these restaurants are everyplace and always filled with people~ ESPECIALLY on Thursday night when the office workers all seem to go out for BBQ and drinks together + through the weekend with everyone else.
BBQ and drinking go hand in hand here in Korea, so expect most places to be lively!!
This is one of the Korean BBQ meals that you sit down and cook yourself, although if you look extra helpless sometimes the Ajuma’s working will step in to lend a hand. Normally samgyeopsal is cooked on a flat tilted pan over gas or coals, but it can be cooked on a grill directly of course~ depends on the place. My favorite method is with the tilted pan, because it allows the fats to drain down and be used to help cook AMAZING kimchi and the garlic.
Jeju ogyeopsal and pork skin
Here is a very typical setup for a samgyeopsal dinner~ we have the pan, lettuce for wrapping the meat, kimchi of some kind (which may come uncut in larger pieces at some places for grilling), garlic to add to the grill.
ssamjang paste 쌈장 or a sesame oil+salt combo is used for dipping with your Samgyeopsal to give it flavor!
a very simple side dish spread when compared to other Korean meals
Often a single soup is provided for the table like 된장찌개 (a soy soup~tastes much better than it smells) or 계란찜 (salty boiled egg pudding), often an onion side dish/salad of some kind, sometimes mushrooms/tofu/onion to grill, and sometimes a few other additional (but often basic and simple) vegetable panchan if you are lucky. Its’ mainly all about the meat at these places, so don’t expect a huge table of sides when you eat this kind of BBQ, just the basics!
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Usually one person takes charge of the grill, I cant speak for all situations~ Who cooks at the BBQ table is a kind of complicated ranking system that is easy to see once you are used to how Koreans handle situations, but it’s a little hard to explain quickly so I may dedicate a post just to that later. For now, just know that they have an unspoken system/etiquette so observe for now (especially if you are female and want to act “properly” here…sounds sexist, but it will come in handy ~ trust me, just watch to learn) since they will not expect a foreigner in the group to cook off the bat.
The meat pictured above is actually the pork cut 항정살 Hangjongsal (lower neck meat~ tender with a bit less fat!)
When the grill is ready simply place the raw meat with the clamps/tongs provided (as much as you need for one round usually) on the grill… I like to rub them a tiny bit once they start to sizzle because stick that very first time you place them down. When the oil starts to flow, its a good time to add kimchi to the bottom of the grill to cook and throw in the garlic! Make sure if it is a drip pan to leave a bit of the opening free to let excess oil still drain out a bit..
TIP: when dealing with the cooking and handling of raw meat during the Korean BBQ meal, ALWAYS use the tongs! When the meat is cooked you can use your chopsticks of course, but you should always handle raw meat and the flipping and cooking of it with the clamps they provide you at the table, this is to make sure that you don’t get sick from flipping a piece of raw pork with your chopsticks, and then using them to eat some rice right after.
Lay the meat down with the tongs (you don’t have to do it all at once either, just enough to eat for that “round”), let it cook for a min or two, flip again and it should start to look almost done. Koreans say flipping Samgyeopsal only once is the best because it keeps the meat from drying out, but in the end it depends on the thickness since pork can be table BBQed in a variety of thicknesses. Take care not to burn the meat, Koreans firmly believe that eating any charred bits of meat cause cancer~ so even if a tiny bit gets burned it can end up getting trimmed off which is a waste + annoying.
While this is going on you may need to flip the kimchi once or twice to make sure it does not burn and is getting some oil action! Finished cooked kimchi takes a few min longer to cook vs the meat~ you will know its “finished” when the color changes to more of a gold like above. Mmmm~ make sure it cooks in the dripping pig fat on the pan. I throw the garlic in this area as well so it cooks in the oil run-off with the kimchi.
When the meat is pretty much finished, this is when you take the scissors provided and cut up the meat into smaller pieces for eating~ just keep them bite sized, not huge and not tiny. With the pieces cut up you saute them a bit on the pan to finish it off and you are ready to dig in!
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If the heat is too high and is burning the cooked meat while you eat, a dial (on the gas grills anyway) should be on the table someplace for you to click to a lower setting while you relax and eat for a bit before the next round. You can also push the meat to the corner of the grill where it is not as hot and/or place the meat on a wrapping leaf from the table.
A samgyeopsal cut in Korea can have a small bone or two in each slice, so look out for them. Some people spit them out, I prefer to trim them out when the meat is done just to be safe because they are tiny (maybe the size of your pinkie nail) and biting down on one by mistake can hurt.The tiny bones are usually 1-2 small circular shapes and smooth. Not EVERY slice can have bones, but keep an eye out for them when you place the meat just in case!
Done with cooking, its time to eat!!♥
The “proper” way to eat Samgyeopsal is by taking a piece of the meat and dipping it in the sesame oil or adding the paste to a lettuce leaf, maybe add a bit of cooked garlic or kimchi, wrap it burrito style, and stuff it in your mouth! Koreans wrap lots of foods cooked on the grills here with lettuce, I am told its for digestion, nutrients, etc whatever~ lol it tastes good so that’s all you need to know. Sometimes white rice is not provided, so you will have to ask for that if you like to eat your meal with rice… I often order a bowl when eating this because it tastes great right after my lettuce,cooked kimchi, garlic wrap of awesomeness.
Many places will bring you a piece of fat to help clean your pan while you eat.
In between rounds your grill may start to get dirty, some places will switch out your grill for a clean one, other places will wipe it down, and some just leave you be unless you ask. My favorite way is when you have a pan style grill, they provide (or give you if you ask) you with a large hunk of pig fat that you use to rub all over the grill and help drain the burnt pieces off the pan~ its a delicious way to clean that sucker off and oil up the pan for the next round of eating!
Also, one thing to keep in mind with this (like all Korean BBQ) is you will smell like it after you leave! If you dress up you may need to air your stuff out a bit (jackets or whatever)~ but it is not so bad! Sometimes at the front they will have a body mist/febreze kind of spray you can spritz yourself with to help if you are going out after dinner! Since this is an oily meat it can splatter you a lot while cooking, in the corners of the room is usually a coat hanger with aprons OR they will usually provide you one if you ask… most restaurants dealing with BBQ cooking tables have these. Hang your coat up and take the apron, you never know when the oil will pop at you!
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Do you like Samgyeopsal Korean BBQ? What is your favorite type of BBQ and way to eat it?