For many Koreans, from common laborers to the upper-class, the perfect evening out with friends involves sizzling grilled pork belly in a bustling restaurant over good conversation and many shots of Korean alcohol called soju. In Korea, pork is the primary meat and the most
popular cut is the belly called samgyeopsal.
Samgyeopsal means 3 layers of fat and meat. The thick cuts of pork belly are not salt cured nor seasoned. They are simply grilled over a grill. In order to make the meat crispy and the fat poppy, it is usually cooked on a cast iron hot plate or even a stone grill.
While many countries associate pork belly with bacon, hence deem it unhealthy, many Koreans think that occasionally eating samgyeopsal is actually healthy. During the yellow dust season which fills Korea’s air with unhealthy fine sand and silt that drifts over from Korea, Koreans believe the fat in the pork belly is good for cleansing the lungs.
So did such a health-conscious country as Korea, always hold Samgyeopsal in high regard? Actually, no. In the past, the fat was considered by many as being unhealthy and too pungent to eat. The industrious people of the Kaesong area of North Korea worked hard to
change all this. They developed a secret method of feeding and breeding new breeds of pigs. The result was pork with improved meat quality. Instead of just having flesh with big chunks of fat they developed pork that was well-marbled with delicate layers of fat ad meat. This
pork belly swayed nay-sayers into becoming fans of this dish and others around the country copied what the Kaesong people had done.
The high-quality Kaesong pork helped change the image of pork belly, but it wasn’t the only factor in popularizing the dish. Some say it was the drop in the price of Korean soju: a clear vodka-like alcohol that many say cleanses the palate after eating pork belly. Pork belly
for the most of the 1900’s was the cheapest cut of meat one could get.
Others say that Korea’s industrialization period helped popularize the dish. During the 1960’s Korea was developing and new buildings were being erected every day. Construction workers worked very hard and yet were paid little. In order to eat, they would buy pork belly and cook them on heated slate- a construction material that was used. This method of cooking the dish became so popular restaurants started to mimic this and soon there were samgyeopsal restaurants all around.
These days young restaurant entrepreneurs have tried to come with new and exciting variations of pork belly barbecue restaurants. During the 1990’s it was popular to cook the pork belly on a metal cauldron like the antique rice cookers in Korean traditional houses. Others started slicing it razor thin and marinated it in sauces. To make healthy versions people would marinate it in green tea or roasted soy bean powders. To make it high-end, it would be marinated in wine. Aged kimchi grilled with pork belly is a popular pairing so there are kimchi pork belly restaurants as well. There are regional specialties as well. The island of Jeju is famous for their black pork whose clean and well-marbled fat is one of the reasons for traveling to the tourist island. It is sometimes referred to as dong-tweggi or Ummm. Feces pork because in the past they would feed the pigs human wastes- something no longer practiced.
To make your own pork belly meal you have to prepare more than just a grill and meat. A typical pork belly feast will have kimchi and a few other side dishes like turnip pickles. There are usually slivered garlic and chopped chilies. You should have fresh leaves- especially some sesame leaf for making pork belly wraps. The most important things to prepare are the sauces. You should have ssamjang which is a bean paste and chili dip and sesame oil with salt.
To make a pork belly wrap, you should first cook the pork till it is crispy. Take a fresh leaf and add a dab of ssamjang bean paste. Add a sliver of raw garlic and a slice of chili. Then add your pork belly, wrap, eat, toast your friend, and chase with a shot of Soju.
I also like to simply dip the pork belly in the sesame oil and salt dip and eat. Oh, also try cooking the kimchi for a little time on the grill (until the kimchi wilts a little). Wrap the pork belly with the grilled kimchi and eat. Oh, and follow it up with a shot of Korean alcohol, Soju. Enjoy it with friends.
This was originally produced through KBS Radio and published with permission. You can listen to me on Wednesdays at 10am at Daniel Gray’s Korean Food Story. Sources of this material came from interviews with Dr. Jia Choi with additional research done by Eom Inhwan. Additional Information was found at Hansik.org