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The Essential Ingredients for Korean BBQ, According to Six Seasoned Chefs

Ahead of a massive block party dedicated to the cuisine on August 11, Korean chefs share their favorite ingredients for grilling.

Bill Kim’s slow-grilled Ko-Rican-style baby back ribs   Photo: Johnny Autry

It’s an undeniably exciting time for Chicagoans who love Korean cuisine. In recent months alone, the city has welcomed newcomers from H Mart to Passerotto to Omakase Yume, which serves up sushi with Korean influences. Mott St. has expanded with Mini Mott in Logan Square, and fried chicken purveyor Bonchon will soon open a second location in Wicker Park.

What’s thriving, in particular, is the local Korean BBQ scene. SoJu BBQ and San Soo Korean Barbecue (an offshoot of San Soo Gab San) opened within a week of each other this month to compete with celebrated spots like Daebak and Gogi.

This surging number didn’t escape Chef Bill Kim (Urbanbelly, BellyQ), who saw an opportunity to spotlight the unique talents of Korean chefs around town. On Saturday, August 11, as part of the Chicago Food Bowl, he will host a massive street fest dedicated to Korean BBQ, where visitors can experience the regional grilling six different ways. Kim has invited four other local chefs to join him—Jennifer Kim of Passerotto, Beverly Kim of Parachute, Won Kim of Kimski, and Edward Kim of Mott Street—plus chef Edward Lee, who will fly in from Washington, D.C. 

“It’s a way for us to gather these talented chefs to share the spotlight and let them do their thing,” Kim says. “Also, to have the general public expand their horizons about what Korean BBQ is—it’s not just one way. Everybody’s going to bring their own interpretation.”

Ahead of the party, christened ”Kims & a Lee,” I asked the six chefs to share the key ingredients to have around a hot, smoky grill.

Bill Kim Photo: Connor rudny

Sesame oil

Bill Kim

BellyQ (1400 W. Randolph St., West Town) and Urbanbelly (multiple locations)
“In Korean BBQ, it’s all about the marinade, and sesame oil is one of the key ingredients. Blend it, let it sit, then pour it on a thinly sliced piece of meat. When you pop it on the grill, all the flavoring is already permeated inside so you have something very flavorful in minutes. We do a marinade with kiwi, garlic, Asian pear, ginger, brown sugar, and tons of sesame oil.”

Edward Kim Photo: Galdones photography

Ssamjang

Edward Kim

Mott St. (1401 N. Ashland Ave., Wicker Park) and Mini Mott (3057 W. Logan Blvd., Logan Square)
“Korean red miso adds a wonderful umami funkiness to a dish. I like to doctor it up with some chopped chiles and green onion to add a little heat and vegetal flair to the ssamjang, which can then be used as either a marinade or dipping sauce.”

Jennifer Kim Photo: mistey nguyen

Doenjang (fermented soybean paste)

Jennifer Kim

Passerotto (5420 N. Clark St., Andersonville)
“Not only is fermented soybean paste the foundation of ssamjang—my personal favorite component of a Korean BBQ table—but it also lends well to marinades and sauces, especially for the grill. I also like to use it as a substitute for meat-based components, such as fish sauce or anchovies, to accommodate vegetarians and vegans. At Passerotto, we make our ssamjang by combining 120 grams of doenjang with 36 grams of gochujang, one clove of microplaned garlic, 12 grams of sugar, 8 grams of sesame oil, and 10 grams of of diced scallions.”

Beverly Kim Photo: galdones photography

Asian pear

Beverly Kim

Parachute (3500 N. Elston Ave., Avondale)
“When I was growing up, Asian pear purée seemed like it was the secret to getting that sweetness in a marinade without being overpowering. It also lends itself as a natural tenderizer, which is great for kalbi. A little garlic, ginger, onion, Asian pear purée, soy sauce, scallion, sesame oil and sesame seeds, brown sugar, and black pepper is my go-to quick marinade for kalbi.”

Won Kim Photo: Michael gebert

Sesame leaf

Won Kim

Kimski (954-960 W. 31st St., Bridgeport)
“It’s the bed that the ingredients play on and is responsible for the balance of all the salty, fatty, savory goodness. It’s the perfect vehicle for any protein and condiment, making for a perfect Korean flavor bomb. I usually like to take thick-cut, uncured pork belly right off the grill and dunk it in some sesame seed oil, then place it on the leaf with scallions, a shmear of fermented soybean and anything pickled, all wrapped up!"​​

Edward Lee Photo: jennifer hitchcock

Gochujang

Edward Lee

Succotash in Washington, D.C., and 610 Magnolia, Milkwood, and Whiskey Dry in Louisville
“Red chile paste is my essential ingredient in Korean BBQ. It adds spice and umami to any dish. I use it in my marinade for BBQ pork.”

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