Galbi 갈비 literally means “ribs.” When it’s described in books, it’s “short ribs,” which gives someone an inaccurate impression. Yes, technically, it’s true. They’re short ribs. But they’re not done like Johnny’s Rib Shack. They’re long strips of meat attached to a small bone at the end, marinated in a sweet thin sauce.
Injoo is obsessed with finding the cheapest galbi and samgyeopsal deals. “Oh man, there’s this new 3,000 won samgyeopsal restaurant. We gotta do that.”
It’s a bit of a Friday tradition to go out for galbi after work. After the Halloween carnival we had on a Friday night, we were all very tired and felt like we deserved a good galbi dinner. Injoo suggested a new 5,000 won galbi place. I was skeptical, saying that it was Friday night. “I would take good galbi over cheap galbi.”
Surprise, surprise! This was also a good galbi place. It started off the same way most galbi places do. There’s a guy I call the “fire chief.” It’s his job to maintain a BBQ pit full of glowing charcoals. These charcoals are manufactured to be large single cylinders with holes patterned in a circle through the top and bottom of the cylinders. These holes help air heat the charcoals. The fire chief also uses these holes to pick up the charcoals with a long iron rod.
This is the most dangerous part of the meal. The fire chief retrieves a large charcoal cylinder and runs through the restaurant. Reaching over the shoulders of the diners, he puts the cylinder in a hole in the table and covers it with a grill. He then turns on this sci-fi aluminum vacuum hose to suck up the smoke.
The waitress arrives with a plate full of marinated meat and puts it on the grill. The charcoal is so hot that the meat almost instantly sizzles. The meat we always get is pork because it’s cheaper, and I feel that pork absorbs a better BBQ taste than beef. I’m expecting a lot of hate mail from BBQers west of the Mississippi for that one.
After they cook for a while, the waitress returns and cuts the meat into bite size pieces with kitchen shears. Then they’re ready to eat.
With galbi, as with most Korean food, we get lots of condiments. The challenge is to find room on the table for everything. What side dishes we get is different all the time, but we can always count on a plate of different kinds of lettuce and other leaves (sesame leaves are my favorite), whole korean peppers, sliced raw garlic, and gochujang (red pepper paste).
I read in one food blog that an uppity waitress at a Korean restaurant in New York sneered at patrons who didn’t follow simple rules about eating galbi. Don’t eat the garlic raw. Don’t use more than one leaf of lettuce at a time.
That’s pure bull.
I have observed Koreans and have asked Koreans questions about galbi etiquette. Anything goes. You can wrap them in leaves, eat them straight off the grill. You can cook the garlic and peppers or eat them raw after dipping them in gochujang. You can put anything you want in your lettuce wraps, as long as they fit.
The only rule I have heard is that if everyone is eating from a communal bowl of soup, it is rude to fill your spoon with rice and dip it in the soup.
That Friday night, we also ordered a bowl of kimchi jjigae, which they placed on the grill to keep it hot and boiling. It was very good, though not as good as my homemade jjigae :-P.
As an aside, there are two main kinds of galbi, regular galbi and LA galbi. The LA version comes from some city in California which I can’t remember the name. The difference is that the meat is cut at a different angle, which affects the taste and the price. I have had it once, and it’s pretty good. Yet it’s not good enough to justify the price hike.