Ann Pittman Makes Barbecue Magic By Blending Her Korean and Southern Background
What happens when ribs and wings team up with soy sauce, chile paste, garlic, and ginger? Food so good that it makes a lasting impression.
Whenever my family gets together with my parents for Korean food, a favorite memory always emerges, as though awakened by the spicy, garlicky sting of the kimchi that's always on the table. I'm about 6 years old, in the back seat of our station wagon with my brother, as our mom—who somehow looks just the same today—helps our dad navigate the drive to a place on the outskirts of Memphis. They're taking us for a special dinner, and we bristle with excitement. I'm sure the trip from Grenada, Mississippi, took a while, and I know we were a little confused (at least I was) that the restaurant looked like a regular redbrick house. But what I really recall, what stands out most in my mind, is the savory smell of charred meat in the smoky air, the almost unbearable wait for our food to arrive as that aroma played on my imagination.
It was my first time eating Korean barbecue, raw meat delivered and cooked on a little grill right in the middle of the table. "Bulgogi is one of the most popular dishes in my home country," my mom explained. The thinly sliced rib eye was salty, sweet, garlicky, and wonderfully charred from the grill's searing heat. It's one of my earliest and most powerful food-and-family memories: my parents hauling us kiddos to a special experience that would stick with us for life.
Korean barbecue, whether enjoyed at a restaurant or at home, consists of meat and sometimes vegetables cooked quickly on a tabletop grill. Popular offerings include bulgogi, like what we had at that restaurant (thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, brown sugar, and garlic), galbi (flanken-cut beef short ribs in a similar marinade), and samgyeopsal (sliced pork belly)—all served with kimchi, rice, red leaf lettuce, sauces, and lots of little relishes and side dishes called banchan. It's such a wonderful meal to share with a group.
Just as my mother did when I was growing up—flavoring her omurice (fried rice rolled up inside an egg crepe) with Jimmy Dean sausage, for example—I have learned to blend Korean dishes or flavors with Southern ones. It comes naturally as a way for me to combine the food traditions I love most, reflecting both my mom's Korean influence and my dad's Mississippi roots. The recipes here do exactly that.
All of these main dishes are meant to go on an outdoor grill, as I would venture to guess that most Southern kitchens don't contain a tabletop grill. Instead of traditional bulgogi, I use that dish's flavors to give baby back ribs salty-sweet Korean swagger. Chargrilled chicken wings pick up lots of kick from gochujang, a spicy-sweet Korean fermented chile paste that has become increasingly available in grocery stores. Pork tenderloin-stuffed biscuits get a savory edge from a fish sauce glaze and gochujang mayo. Even my Korean take on coleslaw, which is made with napa cabbage and loaded with kimchi, has the familiar touch point of a lightly sweetened mayonnaise dressing.
These recipes add more fun to a family dinner or a game-day spread, as you can enjoy them as either main dishes or appetizers. While the meats might be the same (ribs, wings, pork tenderloin, chicken), the flavors are bolder, more surprising, absolutely delicious, and (who knows?) perhaps enough to create your own memories that will last a lifetime.
Spicy Grilled Chicken Wings
Sticky-Sweet Korean Barbecue Ribs
Honey-Butter Chicken Skewers
Pork Tenderloin in Biscuits with Gochujang Mayo
The Pantry Staples
This ubiquitous Korean "pickle" is made from fermented cabbage mixed with garlic, dried red chile pepper, and often fish sauce or dried shrimp (though you can find vegan versions). Think of it as a chunky, spicy distant relative of sauerkraut. Nasoya is an easy-to-find brand with legit flavor; it meets with my mom's approval.
You'll likely see it in the Asian-food section of any grocery. The thin liquid is made from fermented fish (usually anchovies) and adds lots of savory—not necessarily fishy—taste to food. Red Boat brand is my favorite.
Spicy and slightly sweet, this Korean red chile paste packs a punch. Traditionally, it's sold in Asian markets in tubs and has a texture similar to miso or almond butter. Many grocery stores sell gochujang sauce, which comes in bottles and has a consistency akin to barbecue sauce. Either type will work in these recipes.