In a decades-old, spiral-bound police community cookbook, Songza Park’s recipe for “BUL KOGI (Barbecued Beef)” calls for 2 pounds of sirloin steak that you have to slice “very thin on the bias” before scoring each piece with an X. In 1965, when Park immigrated to the United States from South Korea, she had no access to Korean grocery stores, where today entire cases are dedicated to pre-sliced meat often labeled “bulgogi beef.”
For Park, a forensic chemist for the New Jersey State Police who has since retired, bulgogi was a weeknight workhorse. An adaptable staple of Korean cuisine, bulgogi is most often made from thin slices of marinated and grilled beef. If you grew up in a Korean household, then the dish wasn’t just occasional barbecue; it was dinner on the regular, a quick pan-fry on the stovetop.
Just as there is no one way to make kimchi, there is no one way to make bulgogi. Versatility is a chief characteristic of the dish, its many forms through history serving as evidence of its long journey from modern-day North Korea to South Korea and all across the Korean diaspora.
During the Goguryeo kingdom (37 B.C. to A.D. 668), the Maek people in the northern Korean Peninsula ate maekjeok, a dish of grilled pork marinated in doenjang, a fermented soybean paste. Years later, maekjeok evolved into neobiani, a dish of broad, thin slices of beef tenderized and grilled over flames. A feature of royal court cuisine during the Joseon dynasty (1392 to 1910), neobiani is considered a predecessor to today’s beloved bulgogi.
At Cho Dang Gol, a restaurant that’s been on the 35th Street of Manhattan for more than two decades, bulgogi finds its way into lacy zucchini jeon, a spicy octopus stir-fry and ttukbaegi bulgogi, a dreamy caldron of tender beef swimming in its own powerful juices where, once again, those familiar thin slices make an appearance.
These variations on the original grilled preparation, which the restaurant also serves, hint at the many ways in which bulgogi has, over the years, become culinarily both a noun and an adjective. As an adjective, bulgogi describes the combined taste of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sugar, among other ingredients, depending on how you cook it.
This expansive definition has made room for delicious innovations. Where bulgogi is a noun in bulgogi cheesesteaks, it’s an adjective in bulgogi eggplant, which coats its main ingredient with a garlicky, soy-tinged sauce, sticky with sugar. Bulgogi means “fire meat” in Korean, but vegetarian alternatives allow the sweet and salty flavors of the heirloom dish to sing in any application, even meatless ones.
But is it bulgogi if there’s no meat? That depends on who you’re asking.
Bulgogi means something different to everyone, and that’s part of its lure. The most popular menu item at the New York chef Hooni Kim’s restaurant, Danji, is a bulgogi slider that uses brisket. Though the presentation is modern, the bulgogi in question is still thinly sliced marinated meat.
Most seem to agree that thin, tender slices are a must, but the specific cut of beef is negotiable. Maangchi’s bulgogi recipe calls for “well-marbled boneless sirloin, tenderloin or skirt steak.” Other cuts require even less culinary deftness: Skirt steak, flank steak’s more marbled cousin, comes pretty thin already. Cut into segments and pounded with a meat mallet, it mimics the pre-sliced beef that stocks the many H Marts across New York, New Jersey and beyond.
These skirt steak segments — not unlike the neobiani that the royals ate — work well on a charcoal grill, too. Their broadness and heft mean that you can flip the slices over flames without losing them to the fire.
Skirt Steak Bulgogi
• 2 pounds skirt steak, cut into 4-inch-long pieces
• 1 medium Asian pear or Fuji apple, peeled, cored and chopped
• 1 cup chopped yellow onion, plus 1 more large yellow onion, cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds
• 10 large garlic cloves, peeled
• 1 piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
• 1/4 cup soy sauce
• 1/4 cup maple syrup
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• Kosher salt and black pepper
• 2 bunches scallions
• Neutral oil, such as vegetable or canola, for grilling
• Steamed white rice, for serving, optional
On a large cutting board, pound the steak until it is 1/8-inch thick using a meat mallet or heavy skillet. Transfer to a large bowl.
In a blender, blitz the pear, chopped onion, the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, maple syrup, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper until smooth. Pour the wet mixture over the steak, cover tightly and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
When ready to cook, prepare a charcoal grill for direct high-heat cooking, or heat a gas grill to high. On a sheet pan, coat the sliced onions and the scallions with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt and pepper.
Carefully grease the grill grate: Use tongs to grip a wadded paper towel dipped in oil and then rub the grates with the oiled towel. Wipe off any mari nade clinging to the steaks and place the steaks on the hot, greased grate, along with the onion rounds and scallions. Grill the steak until charred and caramelized at the edges. Grill the onions and scallions until charred but still crisp, 1-2 minutes per side. If using a gas grill, close the lid between flips. Discard any remaining marinade.
Arrange the steaks on a large platter, and top with the grilled onions and scallions. Serve family-style with steamed rice.
Total time: 30 minutes, plus marinating; serves 6-8.
You can cook the steaks and onions on the stovetop in batches in a lightly oiled large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Sear the steaks until charred and caramelized at the edges, 2-3 minutes per side. Cook the onions and scallions next, until charred but still crunchy, 1-2 minutes per side. Discard any remaining marinade.