Korean Food Story: Pork Belly

In Korea, be you young or old, rich or poor, or male or female; the universally adored food is pork belly BBQ with side dishes of kimchi, fresh leaves for wrapping, and a chilled shot of soju to wash it all down.
Many foreign visitors that I have met think that samgyeopsal is just bacon (or rashers in England) and they believe this meat to be very low grade. After all, statistics from the US Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) suggest that people in the lower-income bracket tend to suffer from obesity more often than the rich. I have even seen some foreign guests cut off the fat off pork belly and throw it away. In Korea, this is a definite “No-no.”

I usually explain to such guests that Korean pork is much different from pork in other countries. The taste, the marbling, the smell, and texture of the meat are all quite different. Plus, the thick cuts of pork belly are neither salt cured nor seasoned. In addition, the pork belly is usually cooked on a cast iron hot plate or a stone grill to make the meat tender and the fat savory and poppy. 

Furthermore, this pork belly is not served with a side of sunny side up eggs, toasts with butter and jelly, potatoes, and ketchup. It is served with a fermented bean paste, fresh veggies, and salad and fresh leaves for wrapping. Thus, the samgyeopsal dinner is vastly healthier. On top of that, the clean taste of Korean pork is much tastier than the gamey pork that I have tried in other countries.

I explain to my foreign friends that Koreans believe eating samgyeopsal occasionally is healthy. This is especially true when the pork belly is eaten with kimchi (the two are a perfect match). Koreans have a belief that the slippery and oily fat from the pork belly is good for removing dust from the lungs. Koreans also frequently eat the dish during the yellow dust season, which fills Korea’s air with the unhealthy fine sand and silt that drifts over from China. The cleansing quality is really more of a superstition though.

So did Koreans always enjoy samgyeopsal? 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 in the northern part of Korea worked hard to change all this. They developed a secret method of raising and feeding new breeds of pigs. The result was pork with improved meat quality. Instead of just having flesh with big chunks of fat, the farmers of Kaesong developed the pork that was well-marbled with delicate layers of fat and meat.  
These days, young restaurant entrepreneurs are trying to come with new and exciting variations of pork belly barbecue restaurants. During the 1990s it was popular to cook the pork belly on a metal cauldron like the antique rice cookers in Korean traditional houses. Others started slicing pork belly razor thin and marinated it in sauces. To make healthier versions of the dish, people marinated the pork in green tea or roasted soy bean powder. To make it high-end, it would be marinated in wine, pine needles, or ginseng such as at Palsaek Sam-gyeopsal Restaurant. Aged kimchi grilled with pork belly is a popular pairing so there are kimchi pork belly restaurants as well, such as Samkim. In addition, there are regional specialties. The island of Jeju, for example, is famous for the black pork whose clean and well-marbled fat is one of the reasons for traveling to the tourist island. A famous place to try Jeju black pork in Seoul is Jeju Harubang Dwetgogi in Myeongdong.

Many of my guests fall in love with samgyeopsal and say they plan on making their own pork belly meal when they get home. Foreigners often think of Korean food as just meat and barbecue but, in my opinion, the samgyeopsal barbecue dinner is an example of a balanced Korean meal. After all, you can’t live on just meat. Plus, the social way of eating makes Korean food fun, delicious, and unique.

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