"Kalbi is the king of Korean barbecue," says Edward Lee, whose Korean-influenced cooking got him into the final five on Top Chef: Texas. He's talking about the signature dish of Korean barbecue: quick-seared Korean-cut short ribs marinated with intense Asian flavors. "I don't care where you're from, I've never met anybody that didn't like kalbi," Lee says. Unlike the United States, where beef has long been plentiful and where barbecue grew up as a country-backroads tradition, South Korea's mountainous terrain has very little natural pasture. Red meat has always been a luxury of the ruling classes there and, to this day, the rituals and traditions of Korean barbecue revolve around the indoor, royal formality of a bygone age. In Seoul barbecue restaurants, outdoor fire pits generate a constant supply of fresh embers, which are then brought inside. Every party gets an elegant kettle full of embers with a grill grate on top, set on the table right alongside raw meats for custom-cooking throughout the meal.
Good luck getting a permit for that in the U.S. But, Lee says, plenty of Korean-American families still celebrate birthdays and graduations at Korean barbecue restaurants with grills built right into the tabletops. "You go with all your relatives and order pounds and pounds of kalbi, and you don't talk. There's no conversation – you just eat until Dad passes out." For the home cook, a backyard Weber works fine, as long as you find the right cut of rib and make a marinade with that distinct sweet-and-sour kick. "The soul of a great kalbi is that trinity of salt, sugar, and smoke," Lee says. "Every Korean believes their recipe is right and everyone else is a complete moron." Lee recommends going with the kalbi recipe that he, personally, loves above all others – his mother's. Then it's about the part all Koreans agree on: getting that grill as hot as humanly possible, slapping down each piece of kalbi just long enough to char a sweet-and-salty crust onto each side, and settling down to feast.
For the ribs:
• 5 lbs Korean-cut beef short ribs.
For the marinade:
• 1 cup soy sauce
• 1/4 cup white sugar
• 1/4 cup
• brown sugar
• 1/4 cup mirin or rice cooking wine
• 1/3 cup sesame oil
• 1 small onion, quartered
• 6 cloves garlic
• 1 small knob ginger, grated
• 3 scallions, chopped
• 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
• 1 tsp red pepper flakes
Find the right ribs. Korean-cut short ribs get sliced across – not with – the line of the rib bones. You can find them in any Asian market and most Whole Foods, or you can ask any good butcher to cut short ribs crosswise into what's known as flanken. "You're talking about a pretty thin slice, maybe 3/8 of an inch," says Lee.
Marinate the meat. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a food processor or blender. ("The marinade keeps," says Lee. "Make it a day in advance to save time later.") One hour before you're ready to cook, layer the short ribs in a baking pan and pour on the marinade, making sure to coat every rib. Do not refrigerate – this way the ribs will have time to reach room temp before cooking.
Give it a hot sear. Get your grill as hot as possible, ideally with charcoal or hardwood. "You want that meat to sizzle so the outside chars – but leave it only a minute on each side," Lee says. "You really have to watch it – it can overcook in seconds. Kalbi is meant to be charred outside but still a touch rare in the middle."
Essential Sides: Ssam Lettuce Wraps, Rice, and Kimchi
Traditionally, kalbi is served with white rice and a dab of Korean chili paste called gochujang (available in most Asian markets), all wrapped inside a large leaf of red lettuce – a style called ssam. But no Korean BBQ meal is complete without a side of kimchi, heavily spiced fermented vegetables, invented ages ago by Korean farmers to preserve their harvest during the cold months. It's fairly easy to make your own, but a reliable brand is Sinto Gourmet, sold in Whole Foods and specialty grocery stores.