There used to be a time when I could gather five of my favorite people and make them sit around a communal grill in Koreatown, all of us picking at little grilled cuts of meat and vegetables, pouring drinks and eating slowly.
Nowadays, the COVID rates in California have put quite the damper on any and all aspirations of group dining out in a restaurant, even if some Korean barbecue restaurants are reopening. It’s been a quiet tragedy to lose the act of eating communally in public, but the safest table still feels like the one at home, even if you’re taking the risk of inviting another household inside to hang out. I’m still daydreaming of the day that I’ll feel comfortable calling up a couple friends on a whim to eat. That day isn’t here yet, but maybe recreating the Korean barbecue experience at home will ease the nerves.
For me, staying sane while sheltering in place has meant keeping my brain and palate entertained with a mix of at-home cooking and takeout foods. A lot of the fun so far has come via warm afternoons and a Weber kettle grill in my backyard, but there’s still a special excitement I feel when I think about the ritual of pulling up chairs around a communal indoor grill.
The end goal isn’t to replicate the act of searing a fat steak over coals or smoking a rack of ribs. This is an East Asian take on barbecue, which means thin cuts of meat and fast-cooking accoutrements, eaten hot off the grates after a few minutes of grilling.
You’ll probably need some new equipment, but the investment isn’t all that steep. My pick is the combination of a butane gas burner with a thick metal grill pan that has a drain for grease. This is an incredibly reliable setup that pumps out a lot of heat for not much money, and can be taken on camping trips or anywhere that electricity isn’t available. While prices vary wildly, you can buy a grill pan for around $30 and a burner for $20 or so.
The alternative is an electric grill setup, which saves you the hassle of having to buy butane refills or change a canister mid-meal. These tend to run more expensive, although you can find a well-rated grill for around $80 online. I would avoid the more upscale, expensive “smokeless” indoor grills, unless you want to drop several hundred bucks on a bad imitation of an outdoor gas grill. The cheaper equipment did just fine for all of my celebratory Korean barbecue meals when I was a kid, and to be frank, I prefer the butane burner rig because it feels less fussy to clean and can easily transform for other uses (you can buy a shallow pan for Chinese hot-pot, a cast-iron skillet for camping breakfasts, etc.).
No matter what you pick, the key is to focus on cooking smaller, thinner ingredients; think fondue night, not Fourth of July cookout. I have access to Asian supermarkets, which means that thinly cut brisket, short rib and pork belly are pretty easy to find. If you don’t have access to such a place, ask your market’s butcher if they can custom-slice some steak cuts to a 1/4-inch or less; worst-case scenario, you can just do it yourself at home, with a sharp knife (freeze the meat beforehand, just until the outside is firm, to achieve thinner slices).
Not into beef and pork? Shrimp, scallops and squid are perfect for an indoor grill, as are thin cuts of marinated chicken.
Whatever main ingredient you cook, the Korean style dictates serving the grilled items with a bundle of lettuces (for wraps) and condiments, plus pickled side dishes, soup and rice to round out the meal. This is one of the world’s great feasts, and something everyone should experience for themselves, but it’s only the tip of the communal indoor-grilling experience. You could shift regions and just as easily do cheesesteak sliders, shawarma-spiced chicken with warm pita or little Filipino meat skewers dipped in chile-spiced vinegar. I’m tempted to do a Mexican street-taco setup, sizzling chopped carne asada and thin slices of short rib in the fat of seared chorizo sausages. It’s just as good with a vegan ingredient list: You can create all kinds of marinades and sauces to meld with grilled vegetables, seitan and tofu.
The point is to make it fun for everyone to place their own ingredients on the grill and pick them off when it looks done to them. It’s a ton of fun for a family with young kids, but also a great way for two people to make dinner a leisure activity instead of another day’s chore.
(Here’s a hack I learned from my mom: She always would carefully lay out a layer of newspaper on the tile floor around the dining table when we did indoor BBQ, because hot oil tends to splatter a surprising distance. I think this is still a sound tip, especially if you’re cooking an especially fatty cut of meat like pork belly. It’s easier to gather up and toss a layer of paper than it is to mop the floor.)
Those who have a backyard or access to a communal grill might find the thought of indoor grilling to be redundant, and if your aim is to make steaks and burgers and beer-can chicken, maybe it is. But gathering around a tabletop grill is its own experience, and one that can help break the doldrums of eating at home. The summer is beautiful and all, but sometimes you just want to stay inside and not get ravaged by seasonal mosquitos. So you might as well avoid ’em while making the cooking just as fun.