I have to admit, the first time I cooked bulgogi was in Northern Kentucky. The farmer I was interning for requested I cook “authentic” bulgogi during my stay on his farm. He had eaten it at a local Korean restaurant and remembered it fondly. As generations of my family have hailed from Seoul, I felt somewhat obliged.
Bulgogi generally refers to thinly sliced beef marinated in a sauce that is a mix of soy sauce, sugar or honey, sesame oil, garlic, onion, and often pureed Asian pear. Many Korean home cooks tend to marinate the beef overnight and then grill or stir-fry it with sliced onions, scallions, mushrooms, and other vegetables. Of course, there is no single way of making bulgogi because every restaurant and household has its own recipe with their own little tweaks. My grandmother experimented with replacing Asian pear puree with kiwi puree on a chuseouk (Korean Thanksgiving), and my mother often skipped fruit puree all together.
I never made bulgogi back home in South Korea because, for us, it is such a mundane dish. It’s common in school lunches, meals at home, and any mom-and-pop restaurant. Also, every supermarket sells pre-marinated bulgogi. In spite of its ubiquitous presence, many contemporary South Koreans perceive bulgogi to be an old-fashioned dish as it has been on the wane after its peak from the 1960s to ’80s. The South Korean millennial generation is unfamiliar with our country’s previous bulgogi craze; many bulgogi specialty restaurants have started to disappear as American fast food and casual dining restaurants have permeated the South Korean dining scene since the 1990s. As a teen, I hated going to bulgogi or naengmyeon (cold noodle) restaurants with my grandparents, but I documented every trip to Pizza Hut or Outback Steakhouse.
However, I was intrigued by bulgogi’s appeal to non-Koreans in America, so I set off to prepare the dish for my American host. I informed him that I needed either ribeye or sirloin, “sliced so thin I can see through it.” Keep in mind that we were in a rural area, and it was a bit of a challenge to source shaved beef that would meet my need to make the “authentic bulgogi” he requested, so he purchased a used meat slicer from an auction and brought it to the local butcher. We also drove a couple hours to a tiny Asian grocery store in Cincinnati to get “Asian” ingredients—soy sauce, scallion, sesame oil, etc.—that were hard to find in national supermarkets. Having acquired the necessary supplies, I Skyped my mother in South Korea so she could walk me through her recipe.
On a Sunday evening, I began preparing the long-awaited Korean meal. The first step was to wash the short grain white rice. I took out the marinated beef from the refrigerator and sliced the onions, scallions, mushrooms, and carrots. I remembered my mother always stir-fried a few slices of meat first to check the balance between sweetness and saltiness. I channeled my mother and did the same. The test batch tasted good, as I expected, so I poured the entire bowl of marinated beef and sliced vegetables into the heated frying pan. When the sauce and meat turned beautifully caramelized brown, it was done.
I brought my very first batch of bulgogi to the dining table to a group of eagerly awaiting Americans. It felt as if I had become a culinary ambassador of the Republic of Korea. As they reached their forks out to the bulgogi, I was nervous yet curious about what they think of the dish. I didn’t expect my host’s reaction.
“This is not bulgogi!”
I was stunned and confused. Sensing my bewilderment, he added, “The bulgogi I had at a Korean restaurant did not have any juice to it.”
I explained to him that bulgogi is a versatile dish that comes in many variations. The type I made was a family recipe, a home meal-style. It comes with enough sauce to be mixed with rice. I also told him that since the majority of my relatives are from Seoul, our version is similar to Seoul-style. Somewhat different from Korean barbeque, Seoul-style is closer to a stew that is cooked on top of a concave grill pan with broth. This pan allows juice to drain and mix with broth on the edge where you also boil dang-myeon (sweet potato noodles) or rice to accompany your meat. Two other regional bulgogi styles—Gwang-yang and Eon-yang—in the southern provinces are charcoal grilled. These versions more closely resemble the Korean barbeque-style bulgogi served in the United States.
While the name “bulgogi” has became an umbrella term for thinly sliced meat marinated in sauce, this classic dish continues to evolve in both South Korea and the United States and has fused with other cuisines and culinary traditions. In South Korea, bulgogi pizza and burgers have been common menu options at most chain and franchise restaurants for decades. One of my favorite ways of eating bulgogi was my mother’s bulgogi sandwich: toasted sandwich bread with a schmear of mayonnaise, stacked with bulgogi and red leaf lettuce. Here in D.C., I’m no longer surprised to find food trucks serving bulgogi tacos or vendors selling bulgogi hoagies at Nationals games.
Is it even possible to define which version of bulgogi is “authentic”? It is important to cherish culinary traditions that have been transmitted for generations. Yet, we also should not forget that cuisines change constantly. Whether in Korea or in the United States, the recipes and methods of cooking bulgogi have been altered, modified, and transformed so much over time. Confining a dish to national or regional boundaries to determine its authenticity might be meaningless. As a matter of fact, the adaptability of bulgogi may have allowed the dish to spread globally and be incorporated into new culinary landscapes.
Recipe: Home-Style Bulgogi
1 1/2 lbs shaved beef or thinly sliced sirloin or ribeye
1/2 yellow onion, sliced
4 stems scallion, diagonally sliced
1/2 cup mushrooms (optional)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup honey
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp crushed black pepper
Fruit Juice (advanced version)
1/2 Asian pear
1/2 lemon, juiced
1/2 yellow onion
1 inch of ginger (or 1 tsp minced ginger)
For the optional fruit juice, put apple, Asian pear, onion, ginger, and lemon juice into a juicer (or use a blender and then squeeze through a cheesecloth).
For the marinade, mix soy sauce, honey, sesame oil, black pepper, and fruit juice in a bowl.
Use half of the marinade to cover beef, onion, scallions, and mushrooms. Gently massage to incorporate the sauce. Refrigerate for 20 minutes, or overnight if the beef is sliced thick.
Stir-fry marinated beef and vegetables on a heated pan with a little bit of cooking oil. Add more marinade as needed. Serve with steamed rice and greens or in a taco or sandwich.
* Any types of mushroom go well with bulgogi, but I prefer to use oyster or enoki mushrooms.
* For a more refined marinade flavor, I recommend boiling the fruit juice and mixing with soy sauce, honey, and sesame oil as the juice cools down.
* Asian pear can be replaced with half a cucumber for a more refreshing flavor, or other fruits such as pineapple or kiwi.
Crystal Hyunjung Rie is a former digital asset management assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and currently works as digital archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian. In her spare time, she works on oral history projects in Washington, D.C., and refining Korean home-cooking.