The Origins of Bulgogi & Korean BBQ
Korean Barbeque, called gogi-gui (고기구이) locally, is the Korean dining tradition of grilling varied cuts of meat over a charcoal or gas grill, usually built right into a dining table. Here at Burnin92, we use charcoal grills exclusively because we believe charcoal provides superior taste and cooking compared with gas grills. A proper Korean BBQ experience includes not just grilled meats, but a spread of tasty and varied banchan (side dishes), and often soups and rice as well. Check out our blog post on these core components of Korean BBQ, here.
Though Korean BBQ has only caught on in Western popularity in recent years, KBBQ has origins dating back about 2000 years, to the Goguryeo era of 37 B.C.E. to 668 C.E.! The very first Korean barbecue is a dish called maekjeok – a marinated skewered meat, originally from the nomadic Maek tribe. Over many years and eras of Korean history, maekjeok eventually evolved into bulgogi: an uber popular Korean dish and staple of KBBQ today, made of thinly sliced, savory-sweet marinated meat.
But soon after maekjeok initially grew in popularity in the land, Buddhism’s influence also began sweeping the Korean peninsula. Buddhism became the state religion from 57 B.C.E. to 668 C.E., and the consumption of meat was banned in the Korean peninsula for six centuries. Only small pockets of tribes ate meat during this time, and banchan, or vegetable side dishes, quickly became an integral part of Korean cuisine.
The practice of eating meat returned with the Mongol invasion of Korea, around 1230 - 1271 C.E. Maekjeok made a return during this time, but after six centuries of developing countless varieties of vegetable dishes, banchan was firmly ingrained in Korean cuisine, and still is to this day. Maekjeok gradually changed into a dish called seolhamyeok, a brothy dish of marinated beef roasted and soaked in cold water.
But though the consumption of meat was no longer banned, Korea was predominantly an agricultural state, and meat was not widely available or economically viable for many. Seolhamyeok eventually evolved into a luxurious dish called neobiani: thinly sliced, marinated beef cooked over a charcoal fire. Neobiani was favored by Korean royalty during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). As meat demands gradually rose, production of beef increased, and neobiani led to bulgogi, which was a more accessible dish to non-royalty Koreans.
During the Japanese rule in Korea from 1910-1945, food shortages drastically increased the price of beef, resulting in the decreased popularity of bulgogi. For a long time, bulgogi was a special occasion dish and a luxury food item. But with the introduction of new meat-slicing technologies during the Korean War, preparing thinly sliced meat became much quicker, easier and cheaper – which contributed to the resurgence of bulgogi. By the 1990s, bulgogi had become one of the most popular foods in Korea.
Other advancements in food preparation, tools, technologies, and trade all contributed to the rise of different types and cuts of grilled meat. Pairing alcoholic beverages with grilled dishes was common since before the Joseon era, though Korean drinking culture and etiquette were developed and spread chiefly during the Joseon era. Korean soups and stews, along with rice, have long been the backbone of the Korean diet and are served with most meals. Eating grilled meats along with alcohol and the ever-present banchans, soups and rice became the standard way to enjoy gogi gui – Korean barbeque.
Korean immigration to the U.S. boomed after the Immigration Act of 1965, and Koreans brought with them their best loved foods and dining traditions, including, of course, Korean barbeque. After several generations of Hallyu (Korean Wave – global waves of popularity and interest in Korean media, culture, food and language), Korean BBQ restaurants are found nearly everywhere in the U.S. today!
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