Bulgogi is a Korean dish that usually is made of marinated barbecued beef or chicken or pork. Bulgogi in Korean literally means ‘fire meat’ which actually refers to the cooking technique – over an open flame – rather than the dish’s spiciness. The word is also applied to variations such as dak bulgogi (made with chicken) or dwaeji bulgogi (made with pork) having different seasonings and taste.
Traditionally bulgogi is usually made with beef hence the word bulgogi is used by itself and refers to beef bulgogi. For making the beef bulgogi, tender cuts of beef are used such as sirloin or tenderloin which is seasoned with spices before cooking. Generally some grated pear is added to tenderize the meat.
Bulgogi is believed to have originated during the Goguryeo era (37 BC – 668 AD) when it was originally called as maekjeok, with beef being grilled on a skewer. During the Joseon dynasty this dish was called as neobiani which means ‘thinly spread’ meat and was traditionally prepared especially for the wealthy and the nobility class. Recently Bulgogi is served in most of the barbecue restaurants in South Korea and are flavored or served with hamburgers. The hamburger patty is marinated in the delicious bulgogi sauce and served with lettuce, tomato, onion and sometimes cheese. It is very similar to a teriyaki burger in flavor.
The origin of Bulgogi relates to the ancestors of the Korean people who appeared to have been nomads from Central Asia and later gradually migrated eastwards to settle in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. In China they became known as the Eastern Barbarians of Maek and probably because they were nomads they enjoyed a diet centering on the meat of their livestock.
The favorite dish of the Maek people was maekjeok, a kind of kebab made by skewering beef or other meat and roasting it over a fire. This is thought to have been the predecessor of Korea’s popular dish, bulgogi. Though there is some regional variation, the Han people who make up the majority of the Chinese population generally add spices to their meat only after roasting or boiling it, while jeok is made by seasoning the meat before cooking, as is bulgogi, and this is why the two are thought to be related.
Traditionally this classic Korean dish is made from thin slices of sirloin or other prime cuts of beef. Before cooking, the meat is marinated to enhance its flavor and tenderness with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic and other ingredients such as scallion or mushrooms especially white button mushrooms or shiitake. The bulgogi recipe varies by region.
For preparing the Bulgogi, cut the beef diagonal into flat 1/8 inch thick slices about 3 to 5 inches long by 1 ½ inches wide. Place the pieces in a non corrosible bowl. Add the remaining ingredients (finely minced garlic, scallions, freshly ground black pepper, rice vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar and toasted sesame seeds) one by one in the bowl. Mix all the ingredients gently and thoroughly with your fingers. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours.
Mix the ingredients occasionally. Remove the bowl from the refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking the marinated beef. Drain the beef mixture before cooking being careful not press out its succulent juices or to rub off the clinging sesame seeds. Discard the marinade or reserve it for future sauce making.
Barbecue the marinated beef slices in a single layer (careful as the slices should not touch each other) over hot coal for about 25 to 40 seconds per side depending on the thickness of the meat and the intensity of the heat or heat the grill over the flame and cook the meat until evenly done on both sides. It is best eaten as soon as it is cooked. The meat can be cooked on an iron plate also, but it is much tastier when barbecued directly over a hot flame.
Bulgogi is one of the perfect dishes for all beef eaters and especially the ones who love eating barbecued food. Since the protein solidifies on the surface of the meat during cooking, no tasty juices or valuable nutrients are lost, and the meat can be enjoyed for its flavor as well as its nutritional content. Moreover, the mouthwatering smell of meat cooking at the table stimulates the appetite.
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Tip: The cooking time and temperature must be just right to get the maximum flavor from beef. If cooked for too long over a low flame, the flavor and goodness can drain away before the surface protein solidifies. On the other hand, if the flame is too high as to burn the meat, it will become hard and not give off the unique aroma of bulgogi.
Bulgogi is sometimes traditionally served with a side of lettuce or other leafy vegetable which is used to wrap a sliced of cooked meat or other side dishes or then eaten as a whole.