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Korean BBQ Was the One Dish That Made Me Feel American

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Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.

Photo by Danie Drankwalter

As the child of Korean immigrant parents in ’90s-era Los Angeles, I’d say that much of my life growing up felt like one big dichotomy. At home, I was 100% bona fide Korean. It was important to my parents that my little sister and I stay immersed in our culture, which meant we were only allowed to speak Korean at home, and we only ever had Korean food for dinner.

At school, however, I was American. While LA is now renowned for its Koreatown—home to the biggest population of Koreans outside of South Korea—my pocket of suburban Southern California in the late ’80s and early ’90s was oblivious to what or where Korea even was. My school was predominantly white, where I was one of maybe two Koreans among a handful of Asians. I was often asked if I was Chinese or Japanese, back when it was still commonly accepted to call East Asians “Oriental.”

I was always very aware that I was an outsider. My soccer abilities were questioned at recess due to the color of my skin and the size of my eyes. I’d be asked if I could see through my “squinty” eyes (which is ironic, considering my eyes are actually quite huge, if you were to look at them plainly!). I remember one time mispronouncing the name of those aluminum juice pouches I brought for lunch because I had unknowingly adopted my mom’s pronunciation of “Cah-puh-ree Sun,” and never hearing the end of it.

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I split my life between these two versions of myself—the one at home where I was asked to be Korean, and the one at school where I was made fun of for not being American enough. Every morning, I would walk to the bus stop and wave bye to my mom, who would stand in the threshold of the front door, waving back. The bus stop was three blocks away, and it was within these three blocks that I would have to transform into my “American” self. With my wholesome non-Korean lunch in tow, I’d convert the thoughts in my brain from Korean to English and assimilate into someone to whom my peers could relate.

Needless to say, meal times were especially fraught. No one needed to know about the kimchi jjigae I had for dinner the night before, including my friends who thought it smelled like socks. One time, in pre-school, the teacher wrote home that I never finished my snack-break fruit cup, which was a syrupy textural revulsion. Canned peaches were never something we’d eaten at home.

Another time, in seventh grade, I opened up a Tupperware of kimbap (Korean-style sushi rolls, essentially), much to my delight. But after a few bites, my friend peered over and disdainfully remarked, “What is that? What’s in there?” I hesitantly responded that the rolls had fish cakes in them, which of course elicited a very loud “EWWW.” I closed up my lunchbox half-uneaten, and finished the rest in the backseat of the car after my mom picked me up from school.

Having a Kid Made Me Appreciate the Food I Grew Up With
Having a Kid Made Me Appreciate the Food I Grew Up With

I was surprised, then, to read Hana Asbrink’s piece a few weeks ago about lunchbox anxiety; it seems she and I were ridiculed for the exact same eomuk, or odeng, fish cakes. There must've been something in the water back then. After traumatic experiences like that, I carried on those early years only speaking Korean and eating Korean food at home, and only speaking English and eating “American” food at school. I imagine this was what it was like for many others growing up Asian in America in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Saturdays were different. For three hours every Saturday morning, my two worlds would collide at Korean school.

The Korean School Association of America was founded in 1982, when immigration from Korea to America was spiking, and right around when my parents immigrated from Seoul. The KSAA hosted weekend Korean language classes at local Los Angeles public schools, where we would split up by grades, i.e. language comprehension levels, to learn Korean reading and writing, history, and culture. Saturday mornings were both a chore and a joy for me—annoying to have to go to school on a Saturday, but eventually a respite from having to pretend so much Monday through Friday. At Korean school I was surrounded by fellow Korean-American children, and we could easily code-switch from conversing in Korean for our teachers and parents to palling around in English, trilling out “Okay? Okay!” a dozen different ways like only Valley kids can.

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On special Saturdays, particularly holiday weekends, the school would cancel class and schedule an outdoor park day for the kids and their families. My mom would always bring her LA galbi—barbecued, cross-cut short ribs.

LA galbi, or kalbi (you’ll find both romanizations) is different than the short ribs you find in Korea, which is thickly cut along the bone and grilled like an unrolled blanket. LA galbi, on the other hand, is thinly cut across the bone, so each strip has three or four little oblong pieces of bone along the top. This type of cut was adopted by Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, since it was cheaper and more easily available at the local Mexican supermarkets (this was pre-H-Mart-era America, when my mother would drag my sister and me to three different grocery stores in one trip to load up on the best deals).

More than any other food, LA galbi is a Korean dish that is uniquely Korean-American. A lot of Korean meats were once unwanted off-cuts—pork belly, oxtails, brisket, and short ribs—and were popular amongst poorer Koreans as they recovered from the Korean War, and for immigrants in America as they worked to make ends meet. I love LA galbi because it could have only been developed by Korean immigrants making the best of foreign resources in a foreign country, and because it's a remnant of my parents' very particular experience.

Mom's LA Galbi
Mom's LA Galbi

The thin cut also helps the salty-sweet marinade soak in faster. My mom would marinate the cross-cut short ribs in advance; my dad would help her prepare the meat. My sister and I would be tasked with peeling all the garlic cloves as a break from our endless homework. We’d take as long as possible to avoid doing homework, catching each papery sleeve with our fingernails until our fingers would be sticky and useless, and my mom would throw up her hands and whisk the bowl away so she could finish the job herself more efficiently.

When we'd get to the park, all of us kids would run off to play while the adults set up the grill, usually one of those junky park grills where you first have to clean away the previous user's sticky ashes. Then they'd grill up hot dogs, hamburgers, and the LA galbi. My mom would cut the long strips into kid-sized bites, each with their own little bone “handle,” and chase me down from playing to shove one of the little sections into my mouth. It would burn my mouth, having come fresh off the grill, and I would furiously breathe in cooling bursts until I could stand it (thanks to my mom, now I have an asbestos mouth, which comes in handy when I have to taste my own cooking).

Now that I live on the East Coast, LA galbi is hard to find in the local Koreatown restaurants. Cross-cut ribs are often difficult to source and tend to be expensive when you can, because short ribs have become quite the premium as of late. But recently, I found a bunch on sale at the Western Beef by my office, a reliable source for ethnic-oriented ingredients, and called up my mom to refresh myself on her recipe.

“For 10 pounds, I use about half a cup of soy sauce,” she told me over the phone. “You really don’t need as much soy sauce as you’d think. And definitely cut it with some water. And add sugar to taste.” I smiled because she could only recall the recipe as she makes it, which is gigantic-Korean-mom scale, having made it in bulk more often than not. It’s the kind of dish you prep in advance and freeze, which means having galbi for weeknight dinners is actually not unmanageable. In practice, as I set to recreate my mother’s recipe, I found myself leaning a little heavier on the soy sauce—I wanted to punch up the flavor and assert more of its Korean taste.

But the recipe sticks closely to my mother’s, and takes me back to one of those rare moments where we got to really enjoy being American as a family, like everyone else: grilling outdoors, playing in the park with the other families, and eating LA galbi. Finally, here was a Korean food I absolutely adored that I could eat in public, and feel both sides of me—the inward Korean one and the outward American one—come together at peace.

Mom's LA Galbi

Mom's LA Galbi

Irene Yoo Irene Yoo
Serves 2 to 4
  • 2 pounds cross-cut, LA-style short ribs
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 small onion
  • 1/2 small Asian pear
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons rice wine, for tang (optional)
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