Last Saturday, we were having some people over to have lunch with us on our roof deck. I wanted to do something a little different than the usual summer cookout, but because there’s no real tables to eat at on our roof (just living room-ish outdoor furniture), the food had to be relatively finger friendly. So, I decided I would turn kalbi into tacos.
1. the meat: when you’re talking kalbi, you’re talking Korean style beef short ribs. Unlike an english cut short rib, the Korean short rib is cut thin and across three bones. Lately, the en vogue thing has been to serve kalbi off the bone. Even the Korean grocery store is accommodating this new trend. They say that you can get this at your regular grocery store if you just ask your butcher to cut it this way for you. I have personally never done this, nor have I ever heard of anyone having had this done. I just go to the Korean grocery store near the Belmont blue line. For party planning purposes, I planned on at least half a pound of kalbi per person.
I also happened to buy some chicken, as I thought chicken kalbi would be nice. Two things to note here: (1) I happened to buy pre-sliced chicken breasts at my regular grocery store, as it was on sale and was the same price as un-pre-sliced chicken, and (2) I used the same marinade for the chicken kalbi as I used for the beef kalbi. When you go to a Korean bbq restaurant, that isn’t always the case, which doesn’t make sense to me.
2. mince it: kalbi marinade only has like four ingredients. garlic is one of them. Mince up two cloves of garlic per pound of meat. Add it to a big bin that you will use to marinate the kalbi.
2. Mix it: the remaining ingredients are soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, and brown sugar. For each pound of meat, I use the following:
- 1/4C soy
- 1/4C rice wine vinegar
- 1/4C brown sugar
- 2T (or a half of 1/4C, which is easier for me to remember) of sesame oil.
Mix them, mix them like crazy (that’s a bibimbap reference), and then add your meat. You can be pretty approximate here. I’m not exactly sure how much brown sugar I put in, as my brown sugar always petrifies into small rocks. You know you’ve added enough brown sugar when the mixture (which is mostly soy sauce) no longer tastes salty but instead tastes savory and like meat.
When it comes to the sesame oil, find the kind that comes in the same shape as the bottle above. Even though it doesn’t say it on the bottle, the sesame oil is toasted. Toasted sesame oil is delicious and savory. Regular sesame oil is boring and tasteless. I found out this difference the hard way one time when I bought sesame oil at a Whole Foods.
I’ve seen a lot of other kalbi recipes with a ton of other crap in them. Green onion is the most common other ingredient you’d find. I don’t mind green onions, but we aren’t eating onions at our house these days.
The other kinds of ingredients I’ve seen are bizarre (cola) or are things I’ve never heard of putting into kabli (like Korean pear). Actually, given the assertive marinade ingredients and the super high heat kalbi needs, I really think that the other weird things in kalbi recipes are nothing more than cartographer’s copyright. I mean, seriously, korean pear?
3. marinate it: use your hands and make sure everything gets thoroughly coated and massaged. Let it sit overnight. This may seem like a long time, considering that there’s so much vinegar in this. But remember that this is short ribs and is going to be cooked on the grill for mere seconds. Braised short ribs, in contrast, slow cook for hours in order to get tender. Kalbi needs the long marinade in the vinegar to tenderize the meat, I hypothesize.
4. grill it: the next day, get your grill super hot. And, if you’re not going to let the meat come completely up to room temperature (which is something that always makes me nervous from a food safety perspective), at least let the meat sit out for a little bit to take some of the chill off. Once the grill is hot, lay everything out in strips on the grill. The meat is really thin, so it won’t take long. Once there’s grill marks on one side, flip it. When that side looks done, it is. This all cooks fast. So fast that I didn’t even have time to photograph it.
5. cut it: this was the step that I debated with myself the most. Traditionally, when you go to a Korean bbq, the Korean lady servers will cut the kalbi for you with scissors and set the bite sized pieces on the grill. I wanted these bite sized pieces for my kalbi tacos, but I also wanted to keep the kalbi intact for as long as possible to make grilling easier (small pieces would fall through the grates). So, I cut mine with scissors afterwards, which seemed like a nice compromise.
6. bottle it: tacos usually have hot sauce or salsa. So, in addition to chopping up some tomatoes, I put some sour cream in one squeeze bottle and some gochujang in another. Gochujang is Korean red pepper paste. Some say that it is like Sriracha. However, I would say that it is sriracha that is like gochujang, but that is likely because Koreans are fiercely ethnocentric.
7. crumble it: tacos also usually have cheese and lettuce. So, I bought some pre-shredded lettuce and some queso fresco. I have been loving queso fresco lately, but getting it crumbled is always a pain. This time, I tried using the thing I bought to cut butter into flour when I make biscuits. This worked, but it was a messy, messy success.
8. eat it: we paired the kalbi, the lettuce, the sour cream, the queso fresco, the tomatoes, and the gochujang with some corn tortillas. Overall, I didn’t really like these as tacos. But the meat was really quite fantastic. Maybe it wasn’t quite as nice as what I’ve had at some of the Korean bbq restaurants of the New York area, but it did remind me squarely of the kalbi that we used to have in the summertime growing up. Talk about comfort food.
The chicken kalbi was really nice too. It was the first time I had ever tried chicken kalbi, but I think that I am going to forever use a kalbi marinade for anytime I cook a chicken breast on the grill. I really enjoyed it, and I don’t usually like white meat.