Kalbi: Korean BBQ Short Ribs
This weekend was full of friends and food. All I’ve done for the last three days is cook, eat, cook a little bit more, and feast until even my eyeballs felt bloated. I am officially out of clean empire waisted tops, and since Friday I’ve ingested enough wine, beer and spirits to pickle an egg. On Sunday I only ate one meal at the potluck my friends hosted at their fabulous new house (thanks Annie!)….but it was a meal that lasted for 6 hours, and included mind numbingly tasty melted Brie, devilled eggs, sausages, chicken, Panzanella, and a Mexican “lasagna” which I wish I had found the foresight to record for you, because dang that was spicy and deliciously cheesy. All 30 pounds of it. Next week I’m going to have to face down a serious detox, but oh my, this was good while it lasted.
As far as sinning goes, our Friday night dinner was the least of my worries. After all, we were eating Korean cuisine! It’s known for being healthful and relatively light, with the added bonus of many metabolism boosting add-ons like kimchi, a spicy/sour fermented cabbage condiment. The main event was kalbi (otherwise known as ‘galbi’, ‘kelbi’ and even ‘kalby’ by the heathens of the Western world), which is tantamount to the flagship dish of Korea….next top kimchi, of course.
Kalbi, or Korean barbecued short ribs, is ubiquitous in your average Korean household. Each cook has their own recipe, and there can be substantial variation in the balance of sweet to salty, savory to spicy, and even preparation technique. At the basis of kalbi, however, is a sweet and simple marinade made with salty soya, sugar, garlic and ginger. Every kalbi marinade contains those basic ingredients, but then the variations start. Some recipes call for sesame oil or seeds, rice wine, onions, spicy chili paste, and even grated fruit (often Asian pear or green apple). Basically, you start with the ‘home sauce’ and tweak it until you’ve found your household variation that suits your family’s particular tastes.
Now I know that it might be a hard sell to tell you that something requiring 4 hours of marinating time is ‘convenience’ food, but…..kalbi is. I promise. Cross my heart and swear on a lousy ex-boyfriend’s grave if I’m lying. The marinade comes together in no time at all, and the thinly sliced kalbi grill up in less time than it takes to say, “Just one more, please.” I went to preheat the barbecue at the same time that I put the rice on to steam, and 20 minutes later everything was on the table.
I’ve been a big fan of kalbi for years. Before I gave up my rights to singledom and moved in with Mike, I used to live in a peculiarly ethnocentric but very diverse neighborhood. Immediately surrounding my skeevy apartment building, my neighbors were mostly Jewish of Eastern European descent. But if you drove 45 seconds down the road, you’d be in a Little Korea. Three street lights beyond that all the signs were in sultry and voluptuous Arabic script. It was like a mini United Nations (but angrier and slummy. Also, I don’t think the United Nations would approve of leaving piles of rancid chicken bones in your stair well. Just saying…) and of course I took full advantage of that fact.
There was one little Mom ‘n’ Pop Korean restaurant that I adored, and it just happened to be within walking distance. They had the most delightful Kalbi, and I used to go in there all the time when I felt like having a Tina Date (ie., going out for dinner and a movie alone and feeling no shame in that fact, because sometimes the only company I want is ME.). The best part was their ridiculously extravagant panchan, the small bowls of side dishes and condiments that accompany your meal. You see, this is where dating yourself is particularly lucrative. On a table for 4 they would lay 8 little bowls of panchan. On a table for 1 there would still be 8 little bowls of panchan……but without that pesky ‘sharing and cooperation’ aspect. I wouldn’t think twice about stabbing you with a chopstick if you got between me and my marinated bean sprouts….or my spinach salad. Or the salty cured fish, garlic and chili tofu cubes, spicy cucumber salad, or cellophane noodles. Consider yourself warned.
Oh yes, but the Kalbi. I do veer off track, don’t I? Kalbi is quick to throw together, even quicker to cook, and deliciously tasty. If you’re new to Korean food, or if you happen to be suspicious of things that you can’t pronounce or identify within a 45 second window of opportunity, START WITH KALBI. There’s nothing frightening about kalbi. You have meat, it gets grilled, and it’s delicious. The flavor of kalbi isn’t too challenging, and the marinade is based on things that people know and find comfortable: soy, garlic, ginger, and ‘sweet’. If you’ve never had Korean BBQ but you’re thinking of giving it a try? Do yourself a favor: make kalbi. You can thank us later.
Kalbi: Korean BBQ Short Ribs
- 2 lb flanken beef short ribs, 1/4″ thick *
- 2 green onions
- 3 fat cloves of garlic
- 3/4″ ginger (about 1.5 tbsp minced)
- 1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
- 1 large Asian pear **
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 1/4 cup mirin ***
- 1/2 cup soya sauce
* Short ribs are commonly found in two cuts. First, there are the English style chubby 3-4″ lengths of short rib which are essentially a large hunk of delectable meat surrounding a portion of bone. These are best when braised for a long time in a flavorful broth until the meat is fall off the bone tender, like Stout Braised Short Ribs. The second common cut is often referred to as “flanken style”, “Kalbi” or “Korean Short Rib”. The flanken ribs are cut across the first five ribs of the rib cage into a long thin strip (typically 1/4″ thick) of meat with wee cross cut bones running along the bottom. For this kalbi recipe you want to use flanken style ribs. However, if all that you can find are the English style ribs, you have two options:
1. Butterfly the meat until it is a scarce 1/2″ thick. Increase the cooking time and be aware that the meat will be somewhat tougher.
2. Use the ribs as is and dump them, along with the marinade, into a crock pot or dutch oven and cook the ribs for about 4 hours at a low temperature (300ºF). Enjoy succulent Korean spiced fall off the bone short ribs for dinner.
** Asian pear isn’t in season? You can use a juicy Bosc pear or a small tart/sweet green apple. The acid and enzymes in the fruit will do wonders towards tenderizing the meat. As an added bonus, the extra sweetness will help the ribs to craft those lovely grill marks and delicious caramelization.
***If you can’t find mirin, a good substitute is a sweet sake/rice wine or sherry.
Flanken short ribs can usually be easily found at an Asian market in fresh or frozen form. However, your friendly neighborhood butcher might also be willing to cross cut a slab of short ribs for you. Sometimes you just need to ask sweetly, but particularly if you leave a fat tip when you pay the bill. A well compensated butcher is a helpful butcher, and that makes a world of difference when you need a bovine related favor.
Because I’m a cheapskate I have a habit of buying a mess o’ ribs from the local Asian grocers when they go on sale. They keep relatively well in the freezer and it warms my wee heart to know that I’ve got a pile of meats on reserve, ready and waiting, safely tucked in their wintry home.
Finely mince the peeled garlic, ginger and green onions.
Core the Asian pear and shred the fruit using a box grater. I suppose that you could peel the fruit first, but I feel that’s unnecessary…..and boring. I only peel fruit when it’s absolutely unavoidable, or when I’m trying to avoid a lecture from my mother on the pesticides and toxins I’m ingesting with each bite of non-organic clearance priced apple.
Add the minced aromatics and Asian pear to a medium sized bowl and measure in the rest of the marinade ingredients. It’s not necessary to season the meat with salt and pepper because the marinade is already well seasoned.
Stir the marinade well and pour it over the short ribs, making sure that they’re well covered. Let the ribs stew in their tenderizing Korean juices for 3-4 hours to make sure they’re sopping up that flavor punch.
Shake the excess marinade off and grill the kalbi over high heat for no more than 2-3 minutes per side, flipping regularly. Because the meat is so thin, you need to show fairly constant attention to your grill. Even if you JUST flipped your kalbi, in the time it takes to run inside and grab another lemongrass “saketini”, those delicious meaty morsels may have turned into shoe leather jerky over the flames. Be patient, my friend. You can stand attentively over the barbecue for 6 whole minutes. I have faith in you.
The one and only caution of kalbi is that you don’t want to overcook the meat. Even if you don’t like your meat “pink”, you can still take the short ribs off the grill when they’re blushing shyly on the inside. The ambient heat will continue to cook the ribs through to well done. If you DO like your meat rare (I like my steak so blue that I might as well just be chewing on Bessie’s rump down in a farmer’s field), you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that grilling kalbi and grilling steaks are along the lines of never the twain shall ‘meat’. Don’t bother trying to achieve rare kalbi, because you’ll miss out on the tantalizing burnt sugar caramelization – achieved through just minutes more of grilling time- which makes Korean barbecue so delicious.
Kalbi is best when it’s served with panchan, a selection of brightly flavored Korean condiments and side dishes. Although I’m no minimalist, and you just read about my passion for panchan, I opted to go basic for this meal because:
a) For those of us who aren’t too familiar with Korean food yet (*cough* Mike *cough*), many of those delicious little bowls can actually seem a little bit daunting.
b) We were destined to be out and about for the next three days, which meant that fermented foods like Kimchi would be joined by ferment-ing foods before we got around to eating them.
So what does ‘basic’ mean? Kimchee, long grain white rice, and fresh Boston Bibb lettuce.
For a simple and healthy kalbi dinner, all you need to do is make an….um…..Asian beef taco. Note to self: If “Asian Beef Taco” becomes the most popular search query for this recipe, for people who clearly aren’t looking for dinner options, I’m really going to have to rethink the phrase.
Take a medium sized leaf of fresh Bibb lettuce and dollop in an elongated finger of steamy white rice. Pull off a hunk of short rib and discard the bone (yes, it will be tender enough to just pull it apart, as long as it’s not too over cooked) and lay this on top. Garnish with a nice dollop of spicy pickled kimchi, and your ‘taco’ is a-ready for the eatin’.
One last thought: I can’t help but mention the whole cooking options thing, because I lived for so many years without access to a grill. Barbecues aren’t allowed in your building because of silly things like “civic legislature”? That’s okay, you can still feast on kalbi. Lightly oil 1-2 metal racks (I use my cooling racks, because they’re just as able to multi-task as you are) and lay the kalbi across. They should be close but not touching. Set your oven on it’s highest temperature and broil the short ribs for no more than 2-3 minutes per side. The broiling can be a bit tricky if your oven doesn’t heat evenly, so you’re better off doing smaller batches and turning them frequently. But the point is, you can still have delicious Korean BBQ without the benefit of something fussy like a barbecue. Now you know.