My love affair with the Korean dish bulgogi started many moons ago, when I was studying at the University of Alberta, Canada. My roommate Cha Hyung Kyung introduced me to it. At our joint monthly dinners, when we would cook to show off our culinary skills, I ate bulgogi numerous times. Three roommates — two Korean and one Filipino — and I ate delicious meals, dug our spoons into a huge pail of ice cream after, and talked late into the night.
Bulgogi is thin beef slices that are marinated in a sweet and spicy sauce, and cooked over an open fire on skewers. It literally means fire meat. When eating this ‘senses-awakening’ dish, you can’t help but wonder about its history. Well, quite a few researchers trace this dish’s origin to the Goguryeo era (37 BC to 668 AD) in Korea. However, they contend that the gradual Buddhist influence saw the decrease of meat consumption and bulgogi was off the table. Yet other researchers say, it was the Mongolians who introduced this dish to the Koreans when they invaded the country in the 13th century. Bulgogi is similar to Mongolian beef barbeque and many countries in Asia, particularly those the Mongols invaded, also barbeque meat, which is usually called kebabs.
The tantalising taste and aroma of bulgogi may make it your favourite meal
It’s amazing how, when sharing meals with friends, one often discovers things common to each other. When I moved to New York, it was over dinner with Korean friends that I learned of Princess Suriratna of Ayodhya, India, who married King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya, Korea. Being of South Asian descent, this news intrigued me, and even more when they said that there were language and food similarities between these two cultures as well. At this point, I thought of bulgogi which I was chowing down. Could this be one of the foods in common?
Legend goes that, in the 13th century or as far back as 47 AD, the princess’ father, the King of Ayodhya, saw her marry Suro in his dream. He then sent her to Korea, where her nuptials with this king saw the commencement of the Karak Dynasty. Those Koreans, who consider themselves descendants of this dynasty, trace their roots to India. And despite a lack of clear evidence to support this tale, hundreds flock to Ayodhya annually.
The fact that my friends had mentioned earlier that some foods were common to both cultures, prompted me later to Google search this information. And indeed, this was the case; lentils and dishes made out of fermented rice were some of those listed. However, probing deeper, I found that meat cooked in kebab style is quite common in Ayodhya cuisine. And just like bulgogi these days is cooked in a pan as opposed to on skewers, so are these Ayodhyan kebabs. Though this last connection may seem a stretch, just like the Ayodhya King, we are free to dream a little. Who knows what will come of it?
When you cook bulgogi, its tantalising taste and aroma will soon make it your number one favourite meal. The several names of this dish used over time — maekjeok, seoryamyeok, neobiani or bulgogi sanjeok — depend on the dynasty, conqueror, war, economics and mode of cooking. It is usually eaten over boiled rice, with kimchi (Korean pickles), and assorted veggies. Rib-eye steak or sirloin cut into very thin slices is recommended. Many Korean restaurants in New York City have a grill at your table where you can prepare your own barbeque. And yes, I have grilled at such a table in Koreatown, Manhattan, quite a few times, and the food was fantastic and the ambience perfect. Some homes have an indoor grill but, because it is more convenient to cook in a pan — particularly at home — many have resorted to that mode of cooking.
And now, I’m sure you are ready to make your own bulgogi, so here’s the recipe.
- 1.5 pounds sirloin or rib-eye steak
- 5 spring or green onions
- 1 regular onion
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1.5 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 2-3 tablespoons Korean sauce Gochujang (can be found online at Daraz or shoppingexpress.com)
- 1 pear
- 5 cloves of garlic
- Thimble-sized piece ginger
- 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- 2 carrots
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 4 tablespoons oil for cooking
Cut meat into very thin slices (freeze for two hours before; meat is easier to cut when firm). Crush ginger and garlic in a mortar with a pestle or mince. Peel pear and cut into small cubes, and crush with a fork. Cut green onions and regular onion into thin slices, and cut carrots into thin small strips. Combine Gochujang sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar in a bowl. Take meat, onions, ginger/garlic, carrots, sesame seeds (leave some for garnish) and pear, and add to the bowl and keep it overnight in the fridge, occasionally stirring the marinade.
Next day, heat oil in a heavy-bottomed or cast-iron pan, on medium-high flame. When the oil is hot, take small (and not big) batches of meat and veggies, and toss into the pan. Cook the meat for two to three minutes on each side until it begins to get charred, and remove meat and veggies from the pan. Keep cooking until all the meat is fried and keep aside and adjust flame as needed. Put honey in the same pan with leftover oil and let it caramelise for no longer than a minute. Put all the meat and veggies back into the pan, stir into the honey for a minute and turn off stove
Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, and then spoon bulgogi over already boiled rice and enjoy. It’s best to eat fresh!
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, March 22nd, 2020