How do you solve a problem like Korea?: Korean bulgogi

North Korea and South Korea are indisputably two different countries. However, this didn’t become the case until the end of World War II (and thus the end of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea) in 1945, and this served us a problem: how can countries that have only been separated for 70-odd years have distinct national dishes? Searches for ‘North Korean national dish’ and ‘South Korean national dish’ yielded the same result – kimchi – which then presented another problem, given that kimchi is a dish that requires at least a week of fermentation, and we wanted to push on with our cooking challenge. So that left us with two problems to solve, and two dishes to make.

Our masterful solution ending up killing both of those problems with one piece of sirloin. We decided that rather than trying to find dishes specific to the two halves of Korea, we would just make two dishes. We’d bypass kimchi (neither of us is really a huge fan of it anyway) and would instead pick things that we could easily cook and actually want to eat. The first of these is bulgogi, which is simply marinated beef (literally ‘fire meat’). In an ideal world, it would be barbecued over coals, but it wasn’t particularly nice weather the day we made it, and setting up the BBQ would have taken away from valuable kitchen painting time, so we cooked it in a pan, which is apparently nearly as common a method these days anyway. There are no real rules for what to serve with the meat (the marinade recipe for which we got from Maangchi), so we opted to make lettuce wraps, as per The New York Times’ suggestion.


250g sirloin steak, cut into thin slices (about 1/8 inch thick)
1/4 cup crushed Asian pear (for us, ‘crushed’ meant finely chopped – other recipes suggest pureeing it, which may have made some difference)
Half a small onion, finely chopped (or, again, pureed)
1/2 tsp minced ginger
1/2 spring onion, chopped
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
A pinch of ground black pepper
1/2 tbsp sesame oil

To serve:
Iceberg lettuce leaves
About 1/2 cup hot cooked short grain rice
Finely chopped birds eye chilli
Finely chopped garlic cloves
Carrot sticks
Cucumber sticks
Toasted sesame seeds (for sprinkling on the cooked beef)
Korean BBQ sauce (see below)

For the BBQ sauce (ssamjang):
1/4 cup fermented soy bean paste (doenjang) (we couldn’t find this so we just left it out, but apparently it’s the key ingredient)
1-2 tsp chilli bean paste
1 garlic clove, minced
1 spring onion, chopped
1 tsp honey
2 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sesame seeds, toasted

1. Hours before you want to eat (or even the night before), mix all the marinade ingredients together, add the sliced beef and mix well. Cover and leave in the fridge to marinate.
2. When ready to cook and serve, prepare your garnishes. Make the ssamjang by mixing all of the ingredients together.
3. If cooking in a pan (which is easiest given the size of the beef strips), heat the pan over high heat and add all of the meat and remaining marinade. Cook, stirring constantly, until the meat begins to brown around the edges. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.
4. To serve, lay a lettuce leaf on your palm and fill with a small lump of rice, a few pieces of meat and any other garnishes, then dab with sauce. Wrap up the leaf into a tight bundle. Korean tradition would have you make a small bundle so as to eat it in one bite, but we supersized ours!
Serves 2

639a Marinating bulgogi compressed

640a Accoutrements compressed

641a Bulgogi meal compressed

642a Bulgogi wrap compressed
We perhaps could have chosen a more picturesque leaf to photograph…!

643a Bulgogi wrap compressed

Both of our reactions to this were the same: we were reminded of how much we like lettuce wraps, we enjoyed the punchy flavours of the BBQ sauce, and we said we’d do this again, but probably wouldn’t bother with the expensive sirloin option when it could probably be done just as successfully with beef mince. We’re FINALLY getting some nice summery weather here in London, and this is a perfect light meal for alfresco dining on a hot day, so we’ll probably experiment with it again before the season is out! The fact that there was really nothing complicated about the process also has the advantage of making it accessible to anyone, as long as you have access to a few unusual Asian ingredients (although presumably any sort of pear could be used in the marinade, really).

Stay tuned for our second Korean experiment!

2 thoughts on “How do you solve a problem like Korea?: Korean bulgogi

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s