Recipes and Essays


Bulgogi, Korean barbecue “my way”

IN traditional societies and cultures, certainly, the passing down of recipes from mother to daughter (usually) is one way of keeping taste, national, local and familial culture and food intact. Traditional recipes may change little as they are passed down the generations because one learns 'the right' way to do them, i.e. mother's (or grandmother's) way. However, today, with families often living far apart, the extended family no longer reality for most of us, the ties that bind are nowhere near as strong, so inevitably more radical recipe mutations may occur down the line.

In my own personal experience, this evolution can be rather like a game of chinese whispers (or should I say korean), with our own end results often very different, sometimes hardly recognisable, from, say, my grandmother's original, yet still undeniably rooted to that original. Such variations may be as much a reflection of place and culture as time and space since we literally inhabit very different worlds (physically, culturally, generationally, emotionally). To raise the dreaded 'f' word again, this is how true fusion foods are often created, as a perfectly natural evolutionary process.

An example: one of the most delicious mainstays of the Korean kitchen is bulgogi, marinaded barbecued beef. My grandmother liked to prepare bulgogi in the classic traditional Korean way: she'd cut the meat in fine, thin strips, then marinade in soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and toasted sesame seeds. The meat ideally ought to be cooked at the table, on a domed brass shield as part of a communal cooking-and-eating experience. Halmoni would always insist on doing this herself, as she liked to be in control, using metal chopsticks to pick out the choicest titbits for those in her favour — I usually scored big since I was a favourite (if prodigal) grandson. As the meat was cooked you'd take a piece of lettuce, add a spoon of steamed white rice, perhaps a bit of chili-tinted kochujang, and finally a bit of the char-grilled meat; then you'd roll it all up and eat with the fingers. Wonderful!

My mother, growing up in Hawaii and California, on the other hand, where meat was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, would keep the meat in fairly large pieces, scored deeply in a diamond pattern with a knife then beaten thin with a meat hammer. The marinade was basically similar, though Mom added vinegar and heaps of springs onions, didn't bother with the toasted sesame (a very distinctive, and to my mind, essential flavouring). She always like to cook Korean barbecue (rarely called it bulgogi) over a charcoal-fired hibachi in the backyard. The meat was served more like an American style char-grilled steak, together always with a huge pot of rice and a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. Equally wonderful and probably my all-time favourite desert island meal.

Me, I love both of the above but I still can't help fiddling around with variations, attempting, perhaps, to gild gold. I love to use the basic marinade for sirloin steaks: cooked over charcoal, then served with a fusion sauce that is a sort of Cabernet-infused beurre blanc made with the strained leftover marinade. It works well.

Tonight I'll do something different. I've got a thick piece of rump steak, scored but not hammered, marinading in the pugent mix of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame. I plan to cook this over charcoal for only the briefest period, say 5 minutes in total, and then leave to rest for 10 minutes. Then I'll slice the meat on the slant into the thinnest pieces — nicely charred on the outside, pink closer to the surface, bloody red and raw in the middle. Spoon a heaping mound of organic shortgrain brown rice (what, brown rice?!) into the middle of a huge wooden platter, and all around and over, I'll arrange a bed of organic mizuna, peppery wild rocket, and herbs, all from our local organic farm, Highfield. The sliced char-grilled meat goes on top of this, and on top of the sliced meat, a heap of thinly sliced radishes, shredded spring onions, chopped coriander and of course a sprinkle of the toasted sesame seeds. Then I'll dress the whole lot with the strained marinade together with a generous squeeze of the juice from a couple of limes.

Purists may throw their hands up in horror, but this to me is undoubtedly bulgogi — Korean barbecue — though unmistakably a product of this particular moment in time and space. And indeed the mix — of soft lettuce leaves, steamed rice, and fire-grilled meat — makes this a variation or perhaps a, oh, what shall we say, 'a post-modern interpretation' of Halmoni's lettuce-and-rice-and-grilled-meat ritual, the classic Korean sangchussamjang.

I wonder if Halmoni, who passed away earlier this year age 94, would have liked it? Though she lived in the United States for nearly 80 years yet still never really learned to speak English, she was in many ways a modern woman and not all that resistant to change. So my guess is that, yes, this might just pass muster.

4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped

1 inch piece of root ginger, peeled, crushed and finely chopped

6 spring onions, shredded on the diagonal

1/2 cup of Kikkoman soy sauce (no other brand will do)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1 large piece of lean rump steak, at least an inch or more thick (flank steak or sirloin would also be suitable), say about a kilo and a half

Mixed wild greens and herbs, such as organic mizuna, wild rocket, dandelion leaves, mesclun, fresh basil, flat leaf parsley and/or coriander

6 spring onions, shredded on the diagonal

A little light vinaigrette made with peanut oil, sherry vinegar, and a splash of soy sauce

A bunch of radishes, finely sliced

A large handful of coriander, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

2 limes

1. Trim the beef of fat and any connecting tissue. Score lightly in a diamond pattern. Place in a large flat dish. Mix together all the marinade ingredients, pour over and massage into the meat with your hands. Leave for about an hour.

2. Prepare a charcoal fire, heat up a grill or ribbed castiron skillet to very hot. Drain the meat, reserving the marinade, pat dry, and cook briefly, only about two or three minutes a side. The meat should be charred on the outside but still virtually blue inside. Remove to a wooden board and leave to rest for about 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, place the marinade in a small saucepan, and bring to the boil for a few minutes. wash and dry the salad leaves and herbs, if necessary. Dress lightly with the vinaigrette and pile onto a large platter. Slice the beef on the diagonal and arrange the slices over the dressed salad leaves and herbs. Pile on top of the meat the shredded spring onions, sliced radishes and coarsely chopped coriander. Squeeze over the juice of a couple of limes, garnish with the toasted sesame seeds, then strain the cooking marinade and drizzle over everything.

Wine suggestion: The deeply flavoured, almost pungent Korean marinade combined with the peppery, hot wild leaves demands an equally assertive wine, perhaps something rather wild and untamed, such as Aglianico del Vulture, from Italy's deep south, or a rustic Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Or, since this is undoubtedly a fusion meal, how about going back to my childhood roots and serving with a good Californian Sangiovese.


© Copyright Marc Millon 2001