We’ve got your cheap eats right here.
Eight years ago, I answered an ad hidden on the back page of our neighborhood bulletin: “Host Families for Korean Students Needed.” It sounded like a fun adventure, welcoming foreign students into our home for a school year.
We had an extra guest bedroom. We had an extra-large table. We lived just down the street from the local high school. Everything was perfect.
Three weeks later, a knock at the door. A 14-year-old boy, being dropped off by nervous parents. They’d toted gifts all the way from their home city, handing them to us with smiles and nods, explaining that they hoped we’d care for their son because of their generosity.
We promised we’d have cared for him anyway. Hugged them. Watched his mama cry as she drove away, leaving her boy in this unfamiliar new place.
Turns out, she didn’t have anything to worry about. When two Korean women in our neighborhood heard there was an exchange student in the cul-de-sac, they took it upon themselves to shower him with all the comforts of home. Weekly, they toted over fresh-made bowls of kimchi: “Good for the gut,” they said. Every other day or so, a batch of sticky rice for him to take to school: “Americans don’t understand, we Koreans need our rice. It gives us our rice power,” they explained.
When he got sick, they’d bring a special soup: “The kind mothers make for their boys on birthdays.” And once a month, they made sure to invite him out for a special night at a favorite Korean restaurant: “The bulgogi here tastes just like home.” He agreed. The bulgogi was good; we had to try it.
And so, one Sunday, he insisted on treating the entire family to bulgogi. He was certain it would become a favorite. He was right.
Bulgogi is the finest of comfort foods. Bite-sized bits of steak, flavored with aromatics, cooked ‘til tender, served over sticky rice, forked into mouth with chopsticks until your belly bulges and demands you stop. It’s so good. So good that once monthly wasn’t enough.
And so, we conjured our own budget-friendly riff on the stuff. Ground beef, instead of steak. The same authentic spices to create a bowl of delicious bulgogi for just a few bucks per serving.
The ingredient line-up consists of a few easy-to-find, affordable veggies, plus ground beef and rice.
Though you’ll be able to find online recipes that shortcut the sauce-making, avoid the temptation. Preparing a sauce of Asian pear, onion, garlic, fresh ginger, may take a few minutes longer than the oft-used soy-sauce and brown-sugar blend many quickified recipes use. But it’s so worth it.
For about $3, you can grab everything you need for the sauce. Blend the ingredients for two minutes or so, then cook the meat in the mixture.
Doing so imbues this intense flavor to the meat, making it tender and savory. You won’t believe you’ve just whipped up a skillet of ground beef—because no ground beef you’ve ever made has been this awesome.
Spoon it all on top of sticky rice.
Top with sesame seeds and more green onions than you’ve ever seen. You will not be sad.
Serve with chopsticks. And enjoy. Or, as the ladies in our neighborhood would tell our student, “Mashittge deuseyo!”
Brooke blogs at Cheeky Kitchen, where she shares crazy simple, healthy family recipes. She joined Tablespoon to share some of her best, so keep an eye on Brooke's profile to see what she cooks up next!