Bulgogi — Korean bbq — Topsham style

Topsham, Devon April 2, 2001 In traditional societies and cultures, certainly, the passing down of recipes from mother to daughter (usually) is one way of keeping taste, national, local and familial culture and food intact. Traditional recipes may change little as they are passed down the generations because one learns 'the right' way to do them, i.e. mother's (or grandmother's) way. However, today, with families often living far apart, the extended family no longer reality for most of us, the ties that bind are nowhere near as strong, so inevitably more radical recipe mutations may occur down the line.
In my own personal experience, this evolution can be rather like a game of chinese whispers (or should I say korean), with our own end results often very different, sometimes hardly recognisable, from, say, my grandmother's original, yet still undeniably rooted to that original. Such variations may be as much a reflection of place and culture as time and space since we literally inhabit very different worlds (physically, culturally, generationally, emotionally). To raise that dreaded 'f' word again, this is how true fusion foods are often created, as a perfectly natural evolutionary process.
An example: one of the most delicious mainstays of the Korean kitchen is bulgogi, marinaded barbecued beef. My grandmother liked to prepare bulgogi in the classic traditional Korean way: she'd cut the meat in fairly fine strips, then marinade in soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and toasted sesame seeds. The meat ideally ought to be cooked at the table, on a domed brass shield as part of a communal cooking-and-eating experience. Halmoni would always insist on doing this herself, as she liked to be in control, using metal chopsticks to pick out the choicest titbits for those in her favour — I usually scored big since I was a favourite (if prodigal) grandson. As the meat was cooked you'd take a piece of lettuce, add a spoon of steamed white rice, perhaps a bit of chili-tinted kochujang, and finally a bit of the char-grilled meat; then you'd roll it all up and eat with the fingers. Wonderful!
My mother, growing up in Hawaii and California, on the other hand, where meat was plentiful and relatively inexpensive, would keep the meat in fairly large pieces, scored deeply in a diamond pattern with a knife. The marinade was basically similar, though Mom added vinegar and heaps of springs onions, didn't bother with the toasted sesame (a very distinctive, and to my mind, essential flavouring). She always like to cook Korean barbecue (rarely called it bulgogi) over a charcoal-fired hibachi in the backyard. The meat was served more like an American style char-grilled steak, together always with a huge pot of rice and a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. Equally wonderful and probably my all-time favourite desert island meal.
Me, I love both of the above but I still can't help fiddling around with variations, attempting, perhaps, to gild gold. I love to use the basic marinade for sirloin steaks: cook over charcoal, then serve with a fusion sauce that is a sort of Cabernet-infused beurre blanc made with the strained leftover marinade. It works well.
Tonight I'll do something different. Some of my cycling and chef friends are coming around this evening, first for a farewell cycle then a final communal meal which we'll all cook together. Our great friends the Brandons are emigrating to New Zealand in a few weeks. John, deputy headmaster and renowned local chef, is both a great cycling as well as foodie mate. So tonight is the last chance to ride and cook together, perhaps for a very long time. David'll go down to the docks at Exmouth to pick up some live crabs from his trawlermen friends. Jeremy is doing his party piece mushroom risotto, the only dish he can cook, but boy is it good. Michael will make a flying cameo appearance after his stint in the kitchens at Gidleigh, no doubt with some incredible offering. And John will make us, for the last time ever, his amazing bread and butter pudding, the best I've ever had.
Me, I've got a thick piece of rump steak marinading in the pugent mix of soy sauce, garlic, ginger and sesame. I plan to cook this over charcoal for only the briefest period, say 5 minutes in total, then leave to rest. Then I'll slice the meat on the slant into the thinnest pieces — charred on the outside but almost raw inside — and I'll lay the slices over a bed of organic mizuna, peppery wild rocket, and herbs, all from our local organic farm, Highfield. Over the sliced meat, I'll pile a heap of thinly sliced radishes, shredded spring onions, chopped coriander and of course a sprinkle of the toasted sesame seeds. Then I'll dress the whole lot with the strained marinade together with a generous squeeze of the juice from a couple of limes.
Purists may not agree, but this to me is undoubtedly bulgogi — Korean barbecue — though unmistakably a product of this particular moment in time and space. I wonder if my grandmother, who passed away earlier this year age 94, would have liked it? My guess is that, yes, she would have (but she might have struggled with the cycling).

Bulgogi, Topsham style

4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
1 inch piece of root ginger, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
6 spring onions, shredded on the diagonal
1/2 cup of Kikkoman soy sauce (no other brand will do)
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons coarsely crushed black peppercorns
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds

1 large piece of lean rump steak, at least an inch or more thick (flank steak or sirloin would also be suitable), say about a kilo and a half
Mixed wild greens and herbs, such as organic mizuna, wild rocket, dandelion leaves, mesclun, fresh basil, flat leaf parsley and/or coriander
6 spring onions, shredded on the diagonal
Some light vinaigrette made with peanut oil, sherry vinegar, and a splash of soy sauce
A bunch of radishes, finely sliced
A large handful of coriander, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds, crushed with salt
2 limes

Trim the beef of fat and any connecting tissue. Score lightly in a diamond pattern. Place in a large flat dish. Mix together all the marinade ingredients, pour over and massage into the meat with your hands. Leave for about an hour.
Prepare a charcoal fire, heat up a grill or ribbed castiron skillet to very hot. Drain the meat, reserving the marinade, pat dry, and cook briefly, only about two or three minutes a side. The meat should be charred on the outside but still virtually blue inside. Remove to a wooden board and leave to rest for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the marinade in a small saucepan, and bring to the boil for a few minutes. wash and dry the salad leaves and herbs, if necessary. Dress lightly with the vinaigrette and pile onto a large platter. Slice the beef on the diagonal and arrange the slices over the dressed salad leaves and herbs. Pile on top of the meat the shredded spring onions, sliced radishes and coarsely chopped coriander. Squeeze over the juice of a couple of limes, garnish with the toasted sesame seeds, then strain the cooking marinade and drizzle over everything.
Wine: The deeply flavoured, almost pungent Korean marinade combined with the peppery, hot wild leaves demands an equally assertive wine, perhaps something rather wild and untamed, such as Aglianico del Vulture, from Italy's deep south, or a rustic Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Or, since this is undoubtedly a fusion meal, how about going back to my childhood roots and serving with a good Californian Sangiovese.

Copyright © Marc Millon 2001

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Copyright © Marc and Kim Millon 2001