Thursday, September 20, 2018

[Food] Bulgogi (불고기, Korean-style marinated beef)



(불고기, Korean-style marinated beef)

Chusok (추석, Korean Thanksgiving Day) is a few days away, and I will be heading to Busan by overnight coach after work on Sunday (Yes, the city of Dwaeji Gukbap) where my parents currently live.

Chusok is one of the biggest national holidays in Korea, alongside Korean New Year in February. During Chusok, Koreans give thanks to God and their ancestors for all the harvested fruits and blessings they have received that year. To express gratitude towards God and their ancestors, they carry out a ceremonial service (in the case of a Christian family) or perform ancestral rites by offering all the yay fruits and foods to them. Moreover, Koreans visit a cemetery where their ancestors are buried or a columbarium where their urns are kept.

And in my family's case? We have ancestral rites the traditional Korean way :) whereby I bow to my grandpa and his parents, to my maternal grandparents, and to my great-aunt (my dad's older sister). 

Common ancestral rites in a Korean family

A cemetery placed in a mountain
So my grandma, who is 94-years-old, is now the oldest member of the Kim family. I always remember her as being a very kind and loving grandma, often nagging me 'When are you going to marry?' 'Get a better job than what you have now' 'Study hard' 'Improve yourself in all ways' etc., but she welcomed my sister and I whenever we visited her house in Busan on vacation. My father used to tell me how unfortunate it was that she was born during the Japanese colonial era in Korea when women had few opportunities to develop themselves into successful professionals. In spite of her intelligence, memorisation abilities, mathematical and linguistic gifts, there were few options other than becoming a good housewife, tailor, dancer, singer or cook. Well, I think that, from her children's perspective (my aunts, uncle and dad), she achieved her dream of going to university and getting a good job because they all went to top universities in Korea then secured well-paid jobs.

Meanwhile, for me, if anyone asks me 'what pops up in your mind when you think about grandma?' I would answer 'Bulgogi (불고기, Korean-style marinated beef) - her signature Bulgogi that only I can eat when she cooks in
her kitchen'.

It's quite astonishing that most - if not all - grandpas or grandmas has his/her own secret recipe. My grandma also has a few secret Korean recipes. My favorite is her Bulgogi :)

A typical Bulgogi

I don't know where she learned or how she figured out her Bulgogi recipe, but it has always been more than delicious and indescribably tasty. I once asked her how she makes her marinating sauce for Bulgogi, and she answered:

"Just put in the ingredients you need, then it's done. It's no different from any other Bulgogi's nothing special, son.."

Wow....No, grandma, your recipe should be registered to UNESCO and published in Korea and throughout the world for eternity! Bulgogi's main flavor is mild saltiness, sweetness and tenderness of soy sauce with marinated thinly sliced sirloin. My grandma's Bulgogi has an extra tender soy sauce with marinated meat and mild spicy flavor from minced garlic - in addition to normal Bulgogi recipe :) No one can guess how she does it. My mom and aunt also tried her recipe but it was not as tasty as grandma's....I think grandma's Bulgogi recipe is a mystery in the Kim family.

Well, unfortunately, Bulgogi's origin is uncertain compares to its certain fame. It is said that Bulgogi has existed since 300 or 400 A.D., but the official record is that it was written in the Korean cookbooks of the 1800s. The recipe had been passed down future generations and Pyeongyang Bulgogi (N.Korea's current capital city) became very famous in the early 1900s in Korea. There are a few more types of Bulgogi that differ by city. Bulgogi and Korean BBQ culture later spread and crossed into Japan, becoming 'Yakiniku (Japanese BBQ)'.

Seoul-style Bulgogi - sweet soy sauce flavor with lots of veggies and soup. This is the most famous type of Bulgogi in Korea and in the world.
Unyang style Bulgogi - scored and coarsely chop the meat and marinate it. Then grill it on a charcoal fire.
Bonggye style Bulgogi - Only Bulgogi that doesn't use any seasoning or sauce but rather salt. 
Gwangyang style Bulgogi - No marinating process. Sliced meat is roasted on charcoal right after shower of Bulgogi sauce, similar to Unyang style Bulgogi.

To make Bulgogi you'll need:

Thinly sliced or chopped sirloin

Fine sugar

A Juicy Korean pear

Korean's favorite ingredient: minced garlic

Soy sauce

Popular topping for Bulgogi : Sweet Potato Noodle
To make Bulgogi: first of all, thinly slice Bulgogi is scored then marinated with sugar, Korean pear juice to be tendered. Then Bulgogi sauce (soy sauce, minced garlic, sugar, honey etc.) is poured onto the marinated meat. Then you roast, stir-fry or boil it to cook the meat :) You can choose the style you want.

Instant Unyang style Bulgogi that you can easily cook at home :)

Until some years ago, I could look forward to tasting my gandma's Bulgogi at Chusok, but now I can't. She is now 94, which means she doesn't have enough power to cook for her family aunt cooks the Kim family style Bulgogi, but frankly-speaking, it is not as good as the original (Sorry, Mrs. Park. I love your food though) :(

Although we can't eat grandma's Bulgogi anymore, I'm sure that her warm heart and kindness to her family will pass down through her children and future generations through her Bulgogi recipe :)

Bon appétit!

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