The South Korean spice palette is largely based on the four stalwarts of soy sauce (tamari), sesame, garlic, and chilli, culminating in a salty, pungent, nutty and slightly sweet profile. The pungency of chillies, garlic, and often ginger is balanced by the rich, toasty flavours of sesame, or mellowed through fermentation in dishes such as kimchi.
Besides kimchi, another popular Korean dish is called bulgogi, literally translated as fire meat. This dish of barbecued protein is on the menu of almost every Korean restaurant. But unlike kimchi which is straight up pungent, the seasoning for bulgogi mellows heat with sweet. It is a soy sauce based marinade with a deep flavuor base of onion and sesame with hints of garlic and ginger, alongside a bit of spicy kick and acid from Korean chilli gochugaru and a sweet touch of malty brown (coconut) sugar. are based on one of the 4 ingredients: soy sauce, doenjang (soybean paste), gochujang, and gochugaru. Often it is a mixture of one or more of these but usually one ingredient takes center stage.
As the traditional use of bulgogi marinade is to tenderise meat, it often contains a fruit juice or grated fruit – Asian pear, apple, or even pineapple or kiwi – that acts as a tenderiser and also adds sweetness.
In my version of Bulgogi marinade, I decided to make an apple juice and onion reduction, because I don’t like strips of onion floating around in my marinade. Once the reduction is prepared, the other ingredients (tamari, coconut sugar, garlic, ginger, sesame oil) are whisked in to create a vinaigrette.
You can use the Bulgogi marinade directly to season your protein of choice (e.g. tempeh, tofu) or mushrooms, or for a more substantial marinade with more body, stir in some tahini and sesame seeds for texture. When grilled or roasted, the sugars caramelise, which results in the unique smoky unforgettable flavour that is Bulgogi.
Below are the recipes for the Bulgogi marinade, and Bulgogi tempeh using the marinade thickened with tahini and sesame seeds.
Bulgogi Tempeh (Vegan, Gluten Free)
Korean bulgogi marinade - a soy sauce based marinade that mellows spice, savoury, sweet, and toasty. Use it to season protein of choice such as tempeh, tofu, or mushrooms.
- 160 g (2/3 cup) Asian pear or apple juice, freshly squeezed
- 40 g (1/4 medium) yellow onion, sliced
- 32 g (1/6 cup) tamari
- 12 g (1 1/2 tbsp) coconut sugar
- 8 g (1/2 tbsp) ginger juice
- 6 g (2 cloves) garlic, grated
- 5 g (1/2 tbsp) toasted sesame oil
- 2 g (1 tsp) gochugaru (more if you like it spicy)
- Pinch black pepper, freshly ground
- 100 g (1/2 pack) soybean tempeh (can substitute with tempeh of choice, tofu, or mushrooms)
- 60 g (1/4 cup) Bulgogi Marinade
- 32 g (2 tbsp) tahini (optional, to thicken)
- 9 g (1 tbsp) sesame seeds (black and/or white) (optional)
In a small saucepan, combine the pear or apple juice and sliced onions. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, and simmer until reduced by half. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the spent onions. Return the strained liquid to the saucepan.
Add the remaining ingredients to the apple-onion infusion. Heat on low until the coconut sugar dissolves. Remove the saucepan from heat immediately.
Let the mixture cool to room temperature, then transfer to an airtight glass jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Use the Bulgogi marinade to season tempeh, tofu, mushrooms, etc with a Korean flavour.
Slice the tempeh to 6 mm (1/4 inch) thickness. Boil or steam for 5 minutes to wash off any bitter bean flavour and expand the beans so they will better absorb the marinade.
Place the tempeh slices on a wire rack and air-dry for 15 minutes.
Add the Bulgogi marinade, and if using, the tahini and sesame seeds, into a bowl and stir well. Using a spoon, pastry brush, or clean hands, toss the tempeh slices in the marinade. Set aside for 45 minutes or up to overnight in the refrigerator to allow the flavours to penetrate into the tempeh.
Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°C). Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Arrange the tempeh slices in a single layer on the parchment paper. Bake the tempeh for 20 minutes, flipping every 5-8 minutes until slightly crispy.
Bulgogi Tempeh is a great addition to a Korean themed salad bowl or "Seoul Bowl", or as a stuffing in kimbap, Any leftover Bulgogi Tempeh can be stored in the refrigerator but it will lose its crispness.