Here it is.
What so many of you have requested and been waiting for.
Mother’s bulgogi (Korean bbq beef) recipe.
Let me tell you something about my mother’s cooking. There is no binder of recipes, no handwritten notations, no secret stash of recipe cards like some of your mothers have so thoughtfully kept and which you hope to one day inherit. No, all of my mother’s recipes are stored in the sometimes useless gelatinous mess inside her skull (and of course, I say that in THE most loving way possible, despite her penchant for putting the cereal in the fridge and the milk in the pantry, and filling the half-empty SUGAR tub with SALT, ARGH!), the same way my grandmother’s were, both women taught by standing by their mother’s side and learning to hone their instincts, not through weights and measures, but through colour, sight, touch, smell and taste.
Despite my mother attempting to teach me in this manner, my love of purchasing cookbooks and baking have meant that as I’ve grown up, my cooking method has varied greatly from hers. While I have some of her instincts and can eyeball some of my ingredients fairly decently, I am still desperately in love with my measuring spoons, cups and kitchen scales and cannot bear giving them up.
What this means is that mother and I often butt heads when I’m trying to take down a recipe of hers, from her insisting that ‘halmoni’ (grandmother) would be rolling around in her grave at my determination to measure everything to my telling her that her sheer refusal to measure is the reason that dish X/Y/Z turned out utterly bizarrely. To be honest, to her credit, though she rarely measures anything, there is an astonishing accuracy to her cooking, and any different outcomes are 99% due to forgetting or not having an ingredient, and trying to substitute something else in it’s place.
The bulgogi recipe was something I mastered fairly early on in my cooking journey – it’s extremely easy and straight-forward, and you can marinate batches of this and leave them in the fridge or freezer to be defrosted and cooked for a quick meal later, but despite the ease of this recipe, it took awhile for me to get right (according to my mother) as she outright refused to give me measurements, instead getting me to slowly mix in one ingredient at a time, tasting along each stage and seeing how each addition built upon the flavour. As I got the hang of it, I understood why my mother insisted upon teaching me in this manner.
Nothing is ever the same.
Though the ingredients rarely vary, the produce itself does. For example, one time we may buy an extremely sweet Nashi/Asian pear, but the next time we make it, the pear we’ve bought may turn out to be more watery than sweet. The meat can vary in thickness, depending on which butcher we’ve purchased from, and though we usually use the same brand of soy sauce, there have been a few occasions where we’ve been caught out with a different brand that has a different level of pungency and saltiness to our regular variety.
It is for all these reasons that my mother cooks the way she does, and why she values her own kitchen intuition above any kitchen implement that they can create.
However, since the techno-whizzes have yet to create computers that engage any senses other than sight, I’ve taken the liberty of writing down the basics of our recipe for your ease of use. Just remember that, like most marinates, it’s best to taste the marinade along the way, tweaking it to suit your tastebuds so you end up with a final product that is perfect for you!
I can’t stress this enough, PLEASE don’t buy those atrocious ‘Korean bbq marinade’ bottles they sell, that sh*t is disgusting and to be honest, putting in the work to make it yourself will result in a FAR more pleasing product. Just be warned that when you are making it yourself, doing things like replacing the ingredients or using utterly foreign additions (for example, I’ve seen one bulgogi recipe that involved SHERRY. You have GOT to be kidding me, my grandmother would start spinning in her grave if she saw that – and I’d bloody well like to hear a native F-O-B Korean SAY sherry, let alone use it!) will result in a completely different end product.
(Bulgogi – Korean BBQ beef)
Ingredients (to marinate 1kg beef)
1kg thinly sliced beef sirloin (sliced to about 2-3mm thick) *
5 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medium-sized brown onion, peeled
1 nashi/Asian pear, peeled
1 sweet apple, such as fuji, grated
2/3 cup Korean soy sauce (‘kanjang’), but you can substitute it with Japanese tamari soy or Chinese light soy sauce in a pinch
2 tbsp toasted sesame seed oil
2-4 tbsp caster sugar (this will depend on the sweetness of your pear)
2 spring onions, washed and finely sliced
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
* – Most Asian butchers will be able to slice the beef for you if you let them know. If not, then the way to do it yourself is to half freeze it so that the piece of beef is almost solid through, then use a sharp kitchen knife to slice pieces, about 2-3mm thick, against the grain. If the beef thaws and becomes soft and hard to slice during this process, just pop it back in the freezer to firm up for an hour or two before continuing.
1. Use your hands to squeeze the juice from the apple over the sliced beef and set aside. Using an extremely fine grater, turn the onion and pear into pulp (alternatively, you can just blend till liquid but this makes the marinade a bit watery), then mix together with the soy sauce and crushed garlic, then taste for sweetness. If it’s not quite sweet enough for your tastes, add all the sugar, but if it’s close, just add 1-2 tbsp of sugar, mix and taste again.
2. Add the sliced meat to the bowl, then pour the marinade over the top, then add the sesame seed oil, sliced spring onion and cracked pepper and massage all the marinade into the meat for about 1-2 minutes, making sure none of the slices of beef are stuck together and that the marinade has been distributed evenly throughout.
3. Pour into an airtight container and store in the fridge for at least a few hours, ideally overnight, and cook over a griddle or in an unoiled non-stick frying pan – the reason for that is that the pan juices are extremely tasty, and can be very nice poured over your bowl of rice!
Though the common translation of this is ‘Korean bbq beef’, a direct translation of the name is actually ‘fire meat’. It really should not be cooked over a traditional Western bbq as the meat is sliced so thin that you’ll lose a lot of it through the grill! Instead, if your bbq has a flat plate then use that or a flat griddle pan, or just use your frying pan in a pinch!
Bulgogi is extremely tasty to serve cooked together with other ingredients – some of our favourite veggies to add to the pan when cooking bulgogi are enoki mushrooms (about 1-2 bunches with the roots trimmed, washed and patted dry), (mung) bean shoots, grated carrot or baby bok choy, briefly blanched and drained.
Another great addition is some ‘dang myun‘, or cellophane noodles made with sweet potato flour (very different in taste and texture to regular Chinese cellophane noodles), which can be boiled, rinsed under cold water, drained and added to the pan when cooking the bulgogi, they will absorb the pan juices and become delicious!
The final way that bulgogi can be enjoyed is in the Korean ‘ssam’ style – as a lettuce leaf wrap. Take a few crisp lettuce leaves, washed and spun dry, then place a spoonful of rice in the middle, a piece of bulgogi, ‘ssam jang‘ (a fermented soybean/chilli paste specially made for this style of eating) and a few banchan, then wrap up and enjoy! If you can be bothered, grilled garlic cloves taste GREAT in this combination, so if you’ve got a grill pan, peel a few cloves, pop them on and leave to cook through before adding them to the spread!
Others who have tried this recipe: