While dishes like gimbap, and tteokbokki are dominating the street food scene, sticky sweet Korean fried chicken and fare like bulgogi and galbi are probably more familiar to you. For those of us who love marinated meats and controlling the cook of our cuts, Korean BBQ is the promised land.
But can you recreate the Korean restaurant experience in your own home? After living in South Korea for 3 years, I know you can, because I have— and I’m gonna teach you how.
In this article we cover the basics of making Korean BBQ at home, from the meats & marinates to the setup, sides, and sauces you’ll want to prepare ahead of time.
What is Korean BBQ?
Korean BBQ is a social experience built around a central grill where you cook marinated meats, then feast upon each one alongside an assortment of side dishes meant to make each bite different from the last.
In Korea, eating is a social activity. From the school lunch room or your favorite café to having a staff dinner at a local restaurant, you can’t eat without company. Korean barbeque is the ultimate expression of that, because in Korea, making KBBQ at home actually isn’t very common.
This is because it’s inexpensive to dine out and unusual to invite friends home. Most of the time people enjoy meals out over soju and various anju, like raw spicy crab, japchae, tteokbokki, and many more.
Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, public gatherings were discouraged. But this didn’t stop people from buying portable stoves and stovetop grills to recreate this fun dining experience at home. These are central parts of the experience, because Korean BBQ is all about the grill.
If you come to Korea, one of the first things you’ll notice are restaurants with tables featuring large grills and tubes hanging above each one. Just imagine a long, thick silver tube coming out of the ceiling, settling just over your table; this is a vent meant for sucking up any smoke.
A traditional Korean BBQ setup will use a charcoal grill, though in the US most restaurants use gas grills, and that’s by far the easiest to use when learning how to make KBBQ at home.
These restaurants are mostly samgyeopsal jip, or “pork belly houses (restaurants),” and eating at one is a favorite social activity amongst locals. There you’ll see friends, family, or co-workers gather around the grill to cook and eat together.
Most Korean BBQ restaurants specialize in just one type or cut of meat, most popularly pork belly, galbi, or bulgogi. So in the US we’re quite spoiled for choice, both at KBBQ spots and when preparing KBBQ at home.
Plus, Korean BBQ sauces are quite distinctive, and each special blend tastes sweet, salty, and spicy to varying degrees. The most common ingredients in KBBQ sauces are soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, pear juice, and brown sugar, and at the bottom of the post I’ll show you how to make the best KBBQ sauces at home.
Pro-Tip: if you and your friends tend to eat a lot of meat, then remember to look for KBBQ restaurants with a sign that says muhan lipil (무한 리필) just before it says ‘kogi (고기)’ in the menu. This means that it’s all-you-can-eat, so you can order as much as you want without breaking the bank!
Basic History of Korean BBQ
Making KBBQ at home or in a restaurant is a wholesome experience best done with a group of people rather than individually. In Korea, you can often spot people playing drinking games until the break of dawn.
This element is exactly why eating K-BBQ is popular in countries that use drinking as a way to bond with others (like Philippines or the US, for example). While it seems like an indoor twist to a favorite Western outdoor gathering, typical KBBQ goes back thousands of years.
Modern Korean barbeque can be traced back to the cooking practices of the Maek Tribe of the Goryeo era (37 BC to 668 AD), when they would skewer meat and roast it over a fire.
This results in maekjeok, a dish believed to be the inspiration behind the famous Korean bulgogi, or thin slices of flavorful beef, which are usually grilled but can also be stir-fried.
To make this savory dish, sirloin, rib-eye, or brisket beef are most traditional, though any marinated cut could work. Other beef cuts like the ribs were not thrown away, but served raw and cooked individually on tabletop grills as galbi instead.
From there, other forms of gogi gui (meat grilling) emerged, like the popular samgyeopsal (pork belly) and spicy dakgalbi (diced chicken bits). These come with various side dishes called ban chan, which depend on the season but usually include kimchi, gyeran jjim (steamed egg in hot pot), and oyi namul (stir-fried cucumbers).
KBBQ Sauces, on the other hand, are sesame oil, doengjang (soybean paste), gochujang (red pepper paste), and ganjang with different proportions of salt, pepper, and garlic depending on the group’s preference. Gochujang aioli is another great dipping sauce for KBBQ.
Koreans also love wrapping their meat with leafy vegetables into tavos called ssam, and most restaurants provide napa cabbage, dried seaweed, or lettuce for this. Lately, people are particularly enamored of perilla leaf because of its minty licorice taste that really goes well with meat.
Best Cuts of Meat for KBBQ
The best thing about KBBQ at home leaves is that it you with plenty of cuts to choose from. Whether you prefer pork, beef, or chicken, you have the power to choose how thin and tender you want your slices to be (almost any Korean BBQ restaurant in the US and in Korea can cook it for you).
Personally, I prefer my meat sliced thin because it sears nicely & quickly on the grill, and the resulting marbling makes the cut tender and flavorful. Below are the best cuts of meat for your next KBBQ experience.
- Spicy Stir-Fried Chicken (dakgalbi)
This popular Korean BBQ meat blends boneless & diced chicken in gochujang mixed with an assortment of vegetables (mostly cabbage), tteokbokki, and noodles. In Korea most restaurants, like Yoogane Dakgalbi, have circular pans that can hold tons of melted cheese on top once you’re done with just the marinated meat.
After eating all of the chicken, you can have servers bring you an extra bowl of fried rice or cheese rice to mix with the leftover sauce (I highly recommend the cheese version). The best part?
Dak galbi is quite cheap and is a hundred times better than the fried chicken + beer combo (chimaek) for those of us who crave a bit of veg. The creamy, cheesy sauce you end up with is a fantastic flavor combination.
- Pork Belly (samgyeopsal)
Known and loved worldwide, samgyeopsal is a famous favorite of pork lovers everywhere because it doesn’t take long to cook and tends to come in generous portions. Grabbing pork belly KBBQ is the perfect group activity, especially if all of you have empty stomachs, this is an affordable and easy-to-find option whenever you’re out and about in Seoul.
Additionally, if you feel like recreating K-BBQ at home, this is the kind of cut that is cheaper to buy in the supermarket and online stores like Coupang! Also don’t forget to buy your favorite KBBQ saucesand various leafy vegetables to use as your ssam for a more authentic samgyeopsal experience.
- Pork Belly with skin (ogyeopsal)
If you visit a typical Korean supermarket, like H-Mart, you may be surprised to find pork belly strips labeled ogyeopsal. They’re essentially samgyeopsal without the fat removed.
What I love about this cut is this tastes a bit earthier & stronger, like Western pork cutlets. Keep it in the grill for a while and the fat becomes crunchier, which leaves an ASMR-like sound whenever you chew.
- Machine-planed pork belly (daepae samgyeopsal)
These are pork belly cuts machine-planed while still frozen. While this hits less flavorfully compared to regular samgyeopsal, it’s cheap and quick, and is easier to wrap into a ssam. If money is tight, order this with bokkeumbap (fried rice) for a more filling experience.
- Shaved beef brisket (chadolbaegi)
Prepare to break the bank if you order chadolbaegi, because it is thinner than bulgogi, but has a heavier marbling than most meat cuts. There is also no need to marinate this cut, as its quality promises strong flavor, perfect to enhance by dipping it in salt, sesame oil, and pepper.
Try it as a ssam or with pa muchim (scallion salad), typical Korean side dishes known to accent this cut particularly well.
- Boneless Short Ribs (galbi, kalbi)
Galbi is a rich, often marinated cut of meat, and one of the most popular meats for Korean barbecue. Kalbi is usually pork, but some places also offer beef or even lamb galbi, though they’re usually available at separate restaurants in Korea.
Whether you go for beef or pork, these are a slightly pricier option than samgyeopsal. Just keep in mind that you’re paying for a thicker slab of meat with a rich, delicious flavor and the typical Korean marinade. Best part, this meat goes well with any kind of Korean BBQ sauce.
- Marinated thin beef slices (bulgogi)
If you’re craving something savory, this is a great option and one of the most common outside of Korea. Plus, out of all the Korean BBQ meats and sauces you’ve probably heard of, this one is the most legendary.
All you need to make bulgogi at home is a mix of soy sauce, sugar, sesame seed oil, garlic, ground black pepper and pear juice. However you can’t use just any soy sauce and pear juice in your bulgogi recipe. Use the ones you find at your local H-mart to get closer to the flavor of the bulgogi marinade people are raving about (see below).
Ban Chan for Korean Barbeque (Side Dishes)
Westerners may find it weird that every Korean restaurant offers different sides for their meat, but there are dozens of types of ban chan in Korea. If you were to serve them all alongside your meat, you’d need a second table just to hold the plates (no exaggeration).
Some of the sides served with KBBQ may include glass noodles, cucumbers, and the world-famous kimchi. Keep in mind that the variety of ban chan served will depend on the season and how formal the setting of the restaurant is.
Sometimes, some restaurants also take into consideration your social status and will provide a spread that they believe equals that, though this is much less common these days Below is a list of 7 side dishes commonly served with KBBQ.
Ah yes, the world-wide favorite kimchi. The presence of this ban chan automatically makes any experience “Korean,” and locals swear by its health benefits and anti-aging properties. It is also nearly a requirement to put some in your ssam to add that much-needed kick of spice.
Homemade kimchi takes a while to produce, and can get messy and frustrating, but if you’re patient enough to make it then you’ll want to check out this homemade kimchi recipe.
- Seasoned spinach (sigeumchi namul)
Also known as Korean spinach, this is an easy-to-make popular Korean side dish that goes well with KBBQ and doenjang-jjigae (stew). Whenever you get invited to a gathering, expect to see this dish along with the mild and spicy kongnamul-muchim (soybean sprout side dish).
Best part, if you don’t have spinach, you can use bok choy or arugula, according to Korean blogger Maangchi.
- Spicy radish salad (mu saengchae)
Mu saengchae is a quick substitute for kimchi. This radish salad pairs well with bibimbap (mixed rice with meat and assorted vegetables), and it adds a slightly sweet and peppery flavor to your meat.
Mostly seen in KBBQ places during fall, this side dish adds a sweet, juicy, and somewhat peppery taste to your meat. In Korea it’s seen as a refreshing treat to reset your palate after eating too much meat.
- Stir-fried cucumbers (oi bokkeum)
It may sound weird to stir-fry cucumbers, but Koreans love doing it because it brings out the natural sweetness of the vegetable. It also adds to the nice crunch inside the ssam, if you choose to make them.
- Stir-Fried Zucchini (hobak bokkeum)
If you feel like having homemade KBBQ in the summer, this is a yummy side dish that tastes sweeter than stir-fried cucumbers. Also, its sweetness is accompanied by a hint of umami with a garlicky aftertaste. It’s hard to explain, so if you see it, try it— you won’t regret putting this in your mouth.
- Seasoned Bean Sprouts (sukju namul)
This is a crunchy Korean side dish that isn’t spicy and is a great option for those who cannot tolerate the heat. Although, personally, I feel that this seasoned bean sprout dish is best served with gochugaru to add a little kick and flavor to your meat.
Like sigeumchi namul, this is commonly seen in lunch and dinner tables, and is a crowd favorite amongst children because the taste isn’t too overwhelming.
- Steamed Eggplants (gaji namul)
Eggplants are a hit or miss, and even if you happen to be one of the people who loathe this vegetable, this recipe might change your mind. This delicious summer side dish requires a slender eggplant with a rich purple color and shiny skin; other varieties won’t do.
A bit challenging to make, the process covers the bland taste eggplants are notorious for, and offers a delightful blend of garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and gochugaru.
Korean BBQ Sauces
I’m no Korean chef, but with my experience with KBBQ, I’ve realized that there are three types of sauces often offered alongside Korean grilled meats. These are all combined in differing ratios to make various kinds of dipping sauces; feel free to experiment until you find the flavors you like most.
- Soy Sauce (ganjang)
In Korea I discovered that there are two main types of soy sauce: the traditional one and the modernized version. The traditional one made with 100% soybean meju is called Joseon ganjang or jaerae ganjang. These are commonly added to soups and stews, but are also perfect for seasoning vegetables used in ban chan.
As for the other, that’s known as jin ganjang, which is chemically processed to make the flavor of soybeans and wheat stronger. This one is perfect for meat marinades, though it can be harder to find in some countries.
- Sesame Oil (chamgireum)
This oil comes from toasted sesame seeds, and is quite fragrant. A generous amount of this oil enhances the taste of your meat, especially if you add salt & pepper to the mix.
- Red Chili Paste (gochujang)
An incredibly sticky paste, gochujang is a strong, savory, and pungent condiment that works well as a base ingredient in meat marinade and in ssam. Combine this with doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and you’ll make everyone’s favorite KBBQ dipping sauce: ssamjang.
Best Drinks for KBBQ
Soju is what makes the Korean dining experience ten times more exciting, especially in larger gatherings. Through soju, people introduce drinking games, which are also a good icebreaker if you run out of things to bring up with coworkers.
An example of a famous Korean drinking game popular with the youth nowadays is called the ‘Sense Game’. Here, the group is asked to do a countdown without assigning a particular order. In this game, people will have ‘sense’ when they say their chosen number.
If two or more players say the same number, they immediately lose.
As a foreigner, I most enjoyed one called the ‘Image Game,’ wherein people say a random impression and vote on who they think fits that description the most. The person with the highest number of votes gets to drink.
Games like these build interest and identify commonalities, which has worked out pretty well for me when trying to relate to coworkers. So, the next time you find yourself in a KBBQ place with friends, I suggest the following drinks for Korean BBQ to spice up your night.
- Soju (Korean Liquor)
Obviously the most famous drink on this list, soju is a clear liquid usually in a green bottle, made from rice and grains. While most say it has a ‘clean’ taste like vodka, I believe it is a bit sweeter and less powerful than vodka.
Plus, while most locals say it tastes like juice to convince you to drink, it does not taste like juice at all (not even the grape flavor, though it ain’t bad). Just remember to pace yourself, because this stuff is strong.
- Makgeolli (Rice Wine)
Makgeolli is a sweet, sour, and somewhat bitter carbonated rice wine that leaves a tangy and viscous feeling on your tongue. Better known as the ‘farmer’s wine,’ this Korean liquor is commonly enjoyed after work in Korea, especially by those with physically laborious jobs.
Moreover, makgeolli is often the go-to whenever it rains or when people go on hikes; it’s popularly sipped from small copper bowls in more rural parts of the country. Even though this beverage is somewhat less harsh than soju, it takes a while to actually feel the effects, so always remember to drink in moderation.
- Bokbunja (Raspberry Wine)
This is a traditional Korean alcohol made from wild raspberries; it’s sweet and tart – which is why most classify this as a dessert wine. Perfect for KBBQ, this drink is said to help in digesting the heavy portions of Korean food in your belly.
- Maekju (Beer)
In other words, beer. Commonly preferred by the younger generation, maekju is a good choice if you don’t feel like having the type of night that soju brings (read: a hangover). I highly recommend Cass, because it is seriously cheap but also not terrible (about as good as Korean beer gets).
Go for Hite if you want something lighter. Corona is a tasty option, while Kloud has a fruity aftertaste that allegedly improves the taste of grilled meat in your mouth. But I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Tips for Making Korean BBQ at Home
The pandemic was a bleak and dreary period for all of us, but in Korea locals found a way to recreate their favorite group dinner activity in their very own home.
To recreate the KBBQ experience at home, you must get a grill or a hot plate that can be placed on top of a portable gas stove. Other than these two things, here are three important things to keep in mind before prepping Korean BBQ at home.
- Don’t get just any meat cut.
For beef, opt for the sirloin, short ribs, chuck eye, and finger short ribs. But if you’re gunning for bulgogi, make sure that your home grill is compatible for cooking this delicate slice (like a griddle surface or a grill pan). You’ll also need to prepare your marinade ahead of time, to flavor the meat overnight.
As for pork, get sliced pork belly that isn’t cured or smoked; either fresh or frozen will work. In other words, bacon is not samgyupsal, even though it is the exact same cut of the animal. As for chicken, for easier grilling, it is recommended to choose boneless cuts when doing at-home KBBQ.
- Prep beforehand!
Even though the idea of KBBQ at home is quick and easy, you do still have to marinate the meat. You also need to make enough Korean BBQ sauces to give people plenty of flavors to choose from.
The fun thing about KBBQ is that the taste of the marinades is meant to be bold, tangy, sweet, sour – basically, anything but bland. Also make sure that you have enough vegetables for ssam, but if you run out, rice is a fantastic alternative.
- Don’t forget the drinks!
Drinks for Korean BBQ is a no-brainer. All you have to do is visit the nearest H-mart and buy Cass, Terra, or if you want something stronger, try makgeolli and soju. Liquor free options at Korean restaurants are usually just cola and sprite, but you can try Milkis and Chilsung if you spot it in your area.
- Don’t just grill the meat.
Aside from ensuring that there’s oil on the pan (or that it’s nonstick), you would typically rub the cut end of an onion over the grill to spread the oil evenly. Once hot, the grill is not just for the meat— you can actually cook some of the ban chan served on your table (especially the kimchis).
If you like them, various types of mushrooms, garlic slices, thick-cut onion, and whole hot peppers are also typically cooked on the grill.
- Cook from the middle.
The hottest part of your KBBQ grill will be the center, even if using a charcoal grill rather than gas. When making KBBQ at home, you’ll want to preheat the grill for a few minutes and then use your tongs to place your first meats in the middle of the grated pan.
As the different-sized meats cook, you can use those same tongs to move the pieces to the outer part of the pan once done, where they’ll stay warm but won’t keep cooking. The same goes for any vegetables or side dishes that you put on the grill.
How to Eat Korean BBQ (Etiquette)
Korean BBQ home style or in a restaurant is definitely the kind of meal best enjoyed with other people. This communal experience is the perfect way to understand the second half of the “work hard, party hard” mindset most Koreans have.
Here you get to cook meat together, share conversation to get to know each other more, and drink ‘til dawn. If you’re in Korea or an authentic Korean restaurant, upon arrival, check if you can open your seat or take off the lid.
This is because some chairs double as bins to put your bags and coats in to prevent the KBBQ smell from sticking to your clothes. Also, to ensure that the smoke will not sting your eyes, make sure to pull the air vent hose down close to the grill so that it can suck the smoke as the meat cooks.
When you’re at a restaurant in Korea, ring the bell for service if you’re too shy to yell “jeogiyo,” though sometimes servers get too busy to mind the pings and neglect your table until someone yells for them. Oh, and it is totally okay to ask for more ban chan and to have your grill pan changed if it starts charring.
As for grilling the meat, only offer to cook and serve others if you know what you are doing. And never, ever over-flip the meat. Just once or twice is okay, and if it’s already cooked and you’d like to keep it warm, carefully place it on the side on your grill.
Serve the eldest people first, and then put meat on your own plate last.
You’ll want to order a modest amount of meat to start, and order more if needed. Outside of Korea you may need to order all your meat at once, so to get the proper portions of Korean barbeque meat per person, make sure to ask how much comes in each order & get 200-300g per person.
When ready to eat, Korean BBQ is not authentic without the ssam. Newbies to Korean cuisine or Korean cooking tend to overload their lettuce and dip their ssam into too many of the Korean barbecue sauces, but this can destroy the taste and the experience.
To make a proper ssam, on top of a crisp piece of lettuce, layer a perilla leaf, then a small or medium-sized piece of meat, two different pieces of ban chan, and a sauce. Eat this lettuce wrap whole with your hands, and then repeat; I’ve always affectionately called these Korean tacos.
After eating KBBQ in Korea, my co-workers always told me that the meal isn’t complete unless you enjoy a bowl of rice or stew afterwards, preferably dubu jjigae (tofu stew). I was always too full, but occasionally I would indulge in my favorite cold noodle soup alongside the piping hot grilled meat.
The soup is known as mulnaengmyeon (‘water cold noodles’) and can be ordered while or after grilling meat or seafood.