Long ago, before nutritionists walked the earth...Before cholesterol, there was galbi. Back in the 1980s, galbi, marinated short ribs barbecued on a charcoal grill, was something of a gold standard in dining for a middle-class family, not unlike a turkey dinner in the West. A good Korean father would work hard all week, then take his family out for a nice galbi dinner on Sunday evening.
I grew up in those times, when a gift set of beef short ribs was the best way to flatter your boss on holidays. Certainly the ’80s were a high point for carnivores. There were reports that eating charred meat led to stomach cancer. But nobody seemed to care much ― not even the doctors, apparently, since there were galbi restaurants near hospitals as well. They were everywhere, packed with people voraciously gnawing meat off ribs.
One of my family’s weekly rituals back then was dining out at a hotel buffet in Namsan that included a table, manned by three chefs, offering fresh-grilled galbi on the spot. Buffet was another big thing then that seems to be out of fashion now, stigmatized as an unhealthy dining choice. I called my mother “the food police” when we went to that buffet, because she would always complain that my brother and I were choosing the wrong food. She wanted us to eat galbi, not some cheap japchae or gimbap that would fill our stomachs quickly. My parents used to swear that they would never take us to a hotel buffet again. “It’s expensive, and you guys are not taking advantage of it,” they’d say. They probably said that more than 100 times, but we always went back.
On the way back home, the car would be filled with the sweet scent of marinated meat and charcoal, soaked into our coats. After the meal, we would hit the hotel coffee shop and binge on a jumbo ice cream. That tradition, sadly, stopped when my mother was diagnosed with diabetes.
I guess times have changed. You would have to put yourself through personal trauma to insist on a galbi dinner nowadays. If you are a boss in Korea, part of your status now is based on where you take your staff for a company meal. If you insist on galbi and soju, you had better be prepared for the consequences.
Many educated Koreans simply don’t eat as much barbecued meat as they used to. They’ve turned to seafood and away from marinades, embracing the art of simple cooking and books by Helen Nearing. These have replaced galbi as status symbols for middle-class Koreans.
Of course, there are medical facts about grilled meat that can’t be ignored. Yet there is definite nostalgia in the smell of barbecued meat. Whenever I pass by a galbi place, I get tempted for a moment. It usually doesn’t last long, but I miss them. And I miss the days before cholesterol.
Ingredients: 4 lbs. beef short ribs, 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/2 cup water, four teaspoons of crushed pears, 2 teaspoons of sugar, 2 teaspoons of rice wine (Cheongju), 1/4 cup beef broth, 3 garlic cloves, 4 teaspoons of crushed onion, 4 teaspoons of sesame oil, black pepper, sesame seeds.
1. Soak the ribs in cold water for about an hour to get rid of the blood.
2. Cut the fat off the ribs. With the meaty side down, gently cut the meat crosswise, into a thin spread.
3. Mix the ingredients and marinate ribs overnight.
4. Grill on a pan or a grill, cut into bite-size pieces and serve. Good served with gochujang (red pepper paste) and wrapped in lettuce leaves.
by Park Soo-mee