What Made Bulgogi a Worldwide Hit?

  • By Yeon Dana

    July 24, 2010 08:14

    Sizzling soy sauce blended with sugar, sesame oil, garlic, spring onion, and rice wine to accompany juicy marinated beef grilled to perfection -- the literal meaning of this mouthwatering dish is "fire-meat."

    Bulgogi is popular among Koreans and foreigners alike. In Los Angeles, for instance, food stalls on wheels like Kogi BBQ that serve bulgogi are hugely popular and have some 50,000 local fans. In most surveys on Korean food, eight or nine out of 10 foreigners name bulgogi as their favorite Korean dish.

    One reason for this is that bulgogi is seasoned with more familiar condiments than other Korean dishes. As bulgogi's taste is relatively mild, it is easier to integrate it into a Western diet. The dish is usually enjoyed by making vegetable wraps with kimchi, not unlike Mexican fajita or taco. If so, why not wrap bulgogi like them? This kind of mix-and-match is already happening in many fusion restaurants.

    Bulgogi is believed to date back to the Koguryo Kingdom (37 BC - 668 AD). The first form was called "maekjeok" and contained a generous serving of beef, chives, and garlic seasoned thoroughly with soy sauce. But as Buddhism took hold, vegetarian food came to be preferred. This marked a brief hiatus for the carnivorous diet and the evolution of bulgogi.

    However, with the Mongol invasion, the consumption of meat returned to the peninsula. In the Chosun Dynasty, bulgogi was called "neobiani," meaning thinly-spread meat. It was more heavily seasoned with soy sauce than today according to a Chosun-era book on living and farming, as sugar was expensive then.

    To make the most of the dish, make sure to preheat the grill for about a minute. If the grill is not sufficiently heated, the meat tends to stick to the grill and get dry. Bulgogi should be taken off the grill when the juices start to run in little droplets, not when they flow freely.

    An assortment of vegetables like mushroom, onion, ginseng, cabbage, and pepper can add to the flavor.

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