(The MICE=Crystal Hagen) Beef and Leaf is the slang term American G.I.’s use for what is undoubtedly their favorite Korean meal: Kalbi. Also referred to as Korean Barbeque, Kalbi is one of the most popular and famous types of Korean cuisine. However, it is not just restricted to beef. Kalbi also includes pork and in some cases, chicken. The varieties of Kalbi are numerous and vary based on region in Korea as well as the individual restaurants specializing in Kalbi. In this article I will give my observations on my love affair with Kalbi.
Kalbi (which means ribs and by coincidence also means skinny in Korean because you can see the persons ribs) preparation has several key factors. First is the meat. Unlike western ribs that come in big long slabs of bones with barbeque sauce on them, Kalbi has the bones specially butchered so that the bone is at the center and a thin long strip of the meat is wrapped around the bone. The meal is marinated in special marinades that vary based on restaurant and region.
When you order Kalbi at the restaurant you order based on the number of people and they will bring you so many grams per person. The Kalbi comes pre-marinated and raw but ready to barbeque. The next key ingredient is the grill. The grill is built into the table and all good restaurants (cheaper ones may use a table top gas burner; however, these are not the best places). Around the base of the grill is a water ring to collect the fat dripping off the meat. In the center is where the charcoal is placed.
The restaurant will light the charcoal outside and bring it in when it is ready and place it in the center of the grill. Over the charcoal is placed the cooking grill. Above the grill is an articulated vent that allows the smoke and gases to be safely removed from the restaurant. Some of the more modern restaurants have electric grill systems; however, for true Kalbi flavor I highly recommend the places that use charcoal.
When your meat arrives it will also arrive with many other smaller dishes to include a cabbage type salad, lettuce leaves, sesame leaves, kimchi, garlic, red bean paste, a bowl of rice and many other types of small dishes that may vary depending on the restaurant. (My favorite was corn on a hot plate that they served at our favorite local Kalbi place in Uijeongbu.)
You do the cooking yourself; however, if you get in a bind, the restaurant personnel may give you a hand. Your key cooking implements are the tongs and a pair of scissors. You unroll the meat from the bone while holding it over the grill and cut it into bit size pieces with the scissors. (You can also put the bone on the grill to cook the last little bits of meat on the bone so you can nibble it later.) You should also put some of the garlic pieces on the corner of the grill to roast them as well. You eat the meat pieces off the grill as soon as they are cooked to your liking. If the meat is ready faster than you can eat it, use your rice bowl, dipping sauce bowl, or other dish to temporarily store the cooked meat.
Now here is where the leaf comes in. You hold a lettuce leaf in the palm of your hand. Place a piece of meat in the center. Dip a garlic pieces in the red bean paste and place it on the meat. Add some rice, other vegetables, and then wrap the lettuce around it to form a ball. Then shove the whole ball in your mouth. Repeat the process and experiment to get the perfect lettuce, kalbi, veggie mix. If you run out of lettuce or any other ingredient just ask the restaurant personnel for more. (If you don’t know what it is called just hold up the empty dish.) Sometimes I get tired of wrapping the Kalbi and enjoy just dipping it in the red bean sauce or other sauce, placing it in my rice bowl, and then eating it with the rice.
Your place setting at a Korean restaurant is call a Han Shik or place setting. It includes chop sticks and a spoon. You use the chop sticks to load up you lettuce leaf. The spoon is for soups and can also be used for your rice if you want. At Kalbi restaurants you also get a set of tongs and scissors as previously mentioned. The restaurant staff will periodically change the grill so you always have a clean cooking surface. Make sure to rotate barbeque duties at the grill so everyone has a chance to eat.
In most Kalbi restaurants you sit on the floor, Korean style. However, in some of the more modern places they do have chairs. I like either style; however, I lack the flexibility to sit on the floor for a long time and do favor the places with chairs. In most regions you have the choice of beef (seo) or pork (dwaeji). Originally I stayed with the beef kalbi; however, over the years I have switched my preference to the pork (which is also less expensive at most places). Another tip, especially when you are out with Korean friends, always leave a few pieces of kalbi uneaten. The reason for this is if you clean you plate (eat all the kalbi) like we are trained to do from childhood in the west, your Korean friends will think you didn’t get enough and as gracious host order more kalbi. This can be a never ending cycle and you get so full you need a forklift to get up from the table. So the best option is to leave a few pieces and say paebulayo (I’m very full).
As I mentioned before, most Kalbi restaurants have either beef or pork kalbi. However, one time I visited a Korean friend of mine who lived near Chuncheon in the center north part of the country. Chuncheon is accessible from Seoul by train connected to the subway system and you can use your metro card for the entire trip. In the Chuncheon region they have a special Kalbi made from chicken. It is called Dakgalbi and it is absolutely delicious. It is eaten similar to the other types of kalbi; however, the meat is separated from the bones differently and they have a special barbeque sauce for the meat as well. After having a special Dakgalbi dinner with my friend, my wife and I made a special trip back to Chuncheon to get some more at a later date. We took the train and then a taxi to Dakgalbi Gil or Chicken Kalbi Alley. There are many restaurants that all specialize in Dakgalbi. They all looked good so you could take your pick.
Some really fancy restaurants make a kalbi meat loaf called deok kalbi (same pronunciation as the Korean rice cakes). Basically they take the kalbi meat off the bone, grind it up, add the sauce, and cook it like meat loaf. It is much more expensive than regular kalbi, very delicious, but not as fun to eat. I recommend sticking to the regular kalbi.
When I get back to the United States you can find Kalbi restaurants in and around some of the major cities and they are good but just not as good as your basic kalbi place in Korea. They are also much more expensive in the U.S. One of the big issues in the U.S. is finding the right cuts of meat. U.S. butchers don’t know how to wrap the rib meat around the bone. Instead, they do what is called a flanken cut of the ribs that gives you a strip of rib meat with three or four bones it. This type of kalbi is called L.A. (Los Angeles) kalbi. It is still good (especially with my wife’s special kalbi sauce), but still not the same as you basic beef and leaf.
Of course at all resturants you can also have your beer and soju with your meal. It is always a great way to start your evening off no matter where you are. Enjoy!
Photo: Howard Jungchan Lee