Chef Hooni Kim says that if you’re only going to make one recipe from his new cookbook, “My Korea,” braised beef short ribs should be it.
Being the contrarian I am, I instead went straight for the Beef Brisket Bulgogi, which is the basis for the sliders that happen to be the best-selling dish at Danji, one of Kim’s two New York restaurants. Because this is 2020, Kim and I jumped on Zoom to chat about this Korean staple, and the more we talked about it, the more Kim realized that bulgogi is in fact the ideal starting point for anyone looking for a way into cooking the food of his heritage in their home kitchen.
There’s a lot to like about bulgogi, and Kim’s rendition in particular. Instead of the more traditional tenderloin or sirloin, it uses brisket, a cheaper cut of meat. Then you have the overnight marinade, which includes soy sauce, Asian pear (an especially effective meat tenderizer, but an apple will do, too), mirin (a sweet cooking rice wine), sake (an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice) and sesame oil. The marinade helps break down the tougher brisket and also means a little advance prep gets you a quick-cooking meal the next day. The ingredients are accessible enough to be at most well-stocked grocery stores. I got all of mine from my local Wegmans.
Easier ingredient sourcing is one reason Kim is glad his cookbook, written with Aki Kamozawa, came out now, rather than five years ago. Kim notes that staples from naturally fermented foods, a foundation of Korean food, to higher-quality soy sauces have become more commonplace — which means this recipe should be, too.
The flavors are an excellent balance of sweet, savory and salty. Take a page from Kim and serve the meat on slider buns with spicy mayo and marinated cucumbers. Or go more traditional by offering lettuce leaves and banchan, or side dishes, such as kimchi, for people to build their own wraps. How you cook the meat can also dictate which direction you go. Smaller batches of the sliced brisket (freezing the meat for a bit makes it easier to cut thinly) cooked over higher heat gives you a good sear and turns the marinade into a lacquered glaze, perfect for those sliders or even tacos. Larger batches cooked over lower heat will create more juices that don’t cook down. “It’s great to serve that over rice, because the juice completely drenches the rice and seasons the rice,” Kim says. The leftovers you’ll likely have make for great sandwiches or fried rice. Or take a page from Kim’s 11-year-old son and serve it over spaghetti.
Kim says he’s long wanted to write a “very, very traditional and authentic” cookbook that would help diners at his restaurants delve deeper into Korean food and get them to want to visit Korea. He thinks there’s still an intimidation factor to cooking Korean dishes at home for some American cooks, compared to other international cuisines, but in general, people are “always surprised how easy they are.”
Beef Brisket Bulgogi
Active time: 1 hour 5 minutes | Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes, plus overnight marinade
Make Ahead: The brisket needs to marinate for at least overnight and up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Storage Notes: Bulgogi is best the day it is made, but leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
1 Korean or Asian pear, peeled, cored and chopped (may substitute 1 apple)
2 pounds beef brisket, sliced about 1/8-inch thick against the grain (have your butcher slice the meat or briefly freeze for easier cutting at home)
1 small carrot, scrubbed and cut into matchsticks
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 cup soy sauce (see headnote)
1/2 cup unsweetened apple juice or cider (not from concentrate)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, plus more as needed
Using a food processor, blender or immersion blender, puree the pear until smooth.
In a large bowl, combine the pear puree, brisket, carrot, onion, soy sauce, apple juice or cider, sake, mirin, sugar, garlic and sesame oil and mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least overnight, and up to 24 hours.
Heat a large, well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the vegetable oil, and then immediately add the beef, working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Let the marinade drip off the meat as much as possible; you can leave behind the carrot and onion in the bowl or cook it with the meat.
Sear the meat on one side, undisturbed, until you can move it without sticking, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then, cook, stirring and flipping constantly to ensure the marinade evenly glazes the meat and doesn’t have a chance to burn, 3 to 5 minutes total, reducing the heat as needed to prevent burning. Work quickly between batches to keep the pan from drying out and burning any pan juices. Transfer the meat to a platter and keep warm; if you notice burned bits, remove the skillet from the heat and wipe it out. Return the skillet to the heat and repeat with the remaining meat, adding more vegetable oil as needed.