If you have even the smallest interest in Korean food you’ve probably heard of Bulgogi and maybe even tried it. But now you’re visiting Korea and you want to try the real deal, authentic Korean Bulgogi.
The first time I tried bulgogi was at a Korean cultural event in my home town of Wellington, New Zealand, way back in the 90’s when I was studying tourism. I realise now that it wasn’t just a random dish they had chosen but that bulgogi was an obvious choice because it is a Korean food national treasure.
A bit of background on Bulgogi
Gogi (고기) is the Korean word for meat (a great word to know when trying to navigate a Korean menu). Bul (불) means fire, so technically bulgogi means ‘fire beef’. It’s not spicy, but ideally the meat will be cooked in front of you over a hot charcoal fire or BBQ. Bulgogi can be made with any type of meat, but it is almost always made using beef.
How to find Bulgogi in Korea
Bulgogi is best found at Korean BBQ style restaurants. So look out for the little cookers on the tables with individual extractor fans overhead. Next look for restaurants with a cow on them. Because it’s such a popular food, you’ll probably find that the word ‘Bulgogi’ is written in English somewhere on a sign, which makes it so much easier!
When there’s no English, here’s what to look for on a Korean menu: 불고기
Can find these characters in the picture above?
And here’s a bonus tip: Hanwoo or Hanu (한우), is the name of the native Korean cattle. To be guaranteed of the best quality beef, try to find a restaurant serving Hanu gogi (Korean beef). It’s said to rival Kobe beef in its flavour and quality, due to the very high marbling content. It might be more expensive, but it will be well worth it. South Korean’s are justifiably very proud of the quality of their local beef.
You’ve found the restaurant, now let’s eat Bulgogi
Bulgogi is such a special dish for a variety of reasons. Firstly, you need good quality tender beef. It must be a cut that is suitable for quick cooking so no slow cooked cheap meat is allowed here. Bulgogi literally translates as ‘Fire Meat’, so ideally you want it cooked on a bbq in front of you.
The meat is sliced very thinly and mixed with a specific marinade which is usually quite sweet. This helps give bulgogi it’s crispy caramelisation which is so magical.
Typically, the marinade will include the usual suspects such as soy sauce and garlic as well as rice wine, sesame oil and often both sugar and honey, but interestingly, the secret ingredient is Asian pear, which is either grated or pureed and added to the sauce. This adds a little sweetness but most importantly, it contains a special enzyme that helps to tenderise the meat. Apparently, kiwi fruit (a little shout out to New Zealand) also does the same thing.
Bulgogi is eaten the same way as all bbq’d meat is eaten in South Korea. You can enjoy it simply over rice or make what is called a ssam. To make a ssam, take a lettuce leaf, then layer a perilla leaf on top, add a little rice and some ssamjang, which is red pepper paste mixed with soy bean paste. And finally, a little of the bulgogi. Note that it’s just a little!
You then fold it into a little parcel. This shouldn’t be like a burrito, but the Korean style is to gather it like a little money bag and then eat it all in one mouthful. The trick is not to make it too big!
I hope you enjoyed our first post of the 101 K Food Challenge, you can follow along on YouTube and Instagram plus you can sign up to our email list, so you’ll be notified when the next articles and videos are coming out. Thanks so much for reading. I would love to hear about your experiences eating bulgogi in Korean or in you home country.