Bul-go-gi (Korean "Fire Beef")
“East is East, and West is West, and Never the Twain Shall Meet”?
I have found myself strangely reluctant to try a successful local upscale Korean restaurant. Perhaps “upscale Korean” seems like an oxymoron to me, or perhaps I fear my American husband will like the modified Korean cuisine at this trendy bistro better (and will not eat with required gusto the copious amounts of food that my mother, an excellent cook, insists on making us every time we visit!). Or perhaps—my own assimilated ethnic identity notwithstanding—I dislike the notion that somehow fusion-cuisine equates to better cuisine. What I do know is that this minor aversion of mine is decades old, and it might bear some scrutiny.
Many years ago, I was surprised to open our front door to see that my American best friend’s father stood at our steps alone, with no daughter in sight. He wanted to talk to my mother. My mother??? He hardly talked to me much, and I was flabbergasted (and, truth to tell, slightly afraid—of my mother’s irritation) that he wanted to talk to my mother, a woman who spoke very little English and who had never really even seen this man. Having enjoyed a dish called “Korean beef” at a business lunch, he apparently found a use for the fact that his daughter had an immigrant friend. Surely, her mother would give him the recipe for this exotic dish (which many people know now by the Korean name Bul-go-gi). Well, that was easier said than done. After some headscratching from my mother and attempts at translating from me, it was determined that there wasn’t a box from which my mother could draw out a 4x6 index card listing ingredients and directions. No, there wasn’t even a cookbook! (My mother was laughing by then.) Not to be deterred, he stood at the doorway and interrogated us: “Well, what kind of spoon? Tablespoons or teaspoons of soy sauce?” You get the idea. Somehow, my mother’s “some beef, some soy sauce, some sesame oil” had to be laboriously converted to measures that he felt could respectably be called a “recipe.”
Now, decades later, as a cook of both Asian creations (most of which I just put together) and western dishes (most of which got their genesis from recipes), I understand both my mother’s amused confusion and our guest’s frustrated persistence. Being an excellent home cook himself, my friend’s father did successfully unveil his version of “Korean beef”—except, as reported by my friend, the beef was in thin regular slices woven unto skewers and grilled like kabobs. The dish was a big hit with the family, and occasionally I was invited to come over for dinner so that I could have his “Korean beef.” He even contemplated sending his version into a recipe contest—with due credit to my mother, of course. But I never did find the time to have his Korean beef, in my mind a conscious decision which I attributed to not wanting to be disloyal to my mother’s less fancy but more traditional version.
Of course, traditions and family recipes and variations have to start somewhere. So, here I am going to give the most basic instructions that my mother gave me herself when I asked her to teach me how to make this best-known of Korean dishes. Bear in mind though that, true to her form, I am only giving approximations. Of course, I’ve modified this recipe since for my own cooking techniques and tastes, but I am curious to see how other reader-cooks might personalize these basic directions in this brave new age of kogi-taco trucks and Pan-Asian fine dining. Feel free to write us with your best variations.
Bul-go-gi (My mother’s “recipe”)
1 lb beef
2 tbs sesame oil
2-3 tbs sugar
3-4 tbs soy sauce
3 tbs water
Note: I swear, this is what she told me—and even that was with pleas for more specific information. One thing I will say though is that the beef should be in very thin slices. You can get pre-sliced beef for such marinating needs at some Asian grocery stores (like H-Mart if you live near one), most likely labeled “sliced ribeye.” Also, yes, you marinate the beef for a few hours, and then you grill/pan-fry and garnish to your taste. That’s it. Enjoy!