Samgyupsal (Korean Pork Belly)
There’s something undeniably indulgent about the rich, salty flavor and crispy texture of bacon. Perhaps it’s due to the higher salt factor per square inch than most foods you eat… or maybe it’s the “so wrong, it’s right” conundrum clogging your arteries.
Now imagine the same cut of pork belly, cut thick, sharing your taste buds with a bit of lightly floral Korean sticky rice, a vaguely minty bite of sesame leaf, silky bean paste and hot pepper sauce, sweetly tangy pickled radish and spicy kimchi, and perhaps a finishing drizzle of a sesame oil-based sauce. Indulgent, yes… but an instant heart attack? Probably not.
The beautiful thing about pork belly is that, in addition to its truly distinctive taste, it’s never in short supply (the day the equally indulgent foie gras can be produced as cheaply — and relatively humanely — as bacon, call me up!) and always relatively affordable. And assuming we weren’t relatively well-fed Americans who know our next meal is coming from a co-op, local restaurant, or — God forbid — White Castle, the high fat and protein content encapsulated in a good piece of pork belly packs a formidable energy-fueling punch.
It’s this accessibility — and practicality — that has made samgyupsal a hit among the Korean diasporic community and the country from which it originated. And the way it’s prepared — almost healthfully layered with vegetables and rice inside a lettuce leaf — allows for a wide range of variations.
Prepping / cooking the ingredients
For our rendition, we settled on enoki and king oyster mushrooms, raw garlic, kochujang (hot pepper paste, red container above right) and ssamjang (soybean paste, green container above right), pickled radish (above left), chive kimchi (above middle), and rice, all neatly wrapped with the samgyupsal inside a lettuce leaf. The pork itself, available like the other ingredients at Kim’s Oriental Market in St. Paul or Dong Yang at the north end of Minneapolis, comes frozen in packages of up to three pounds. Thaw it out and cut the long strips into fourths, creating relatively bite-sized pieces. Then fry it on a flat griddle (set the temperature to 400) as you would bacon — flipping once with chopsticks and removing it from the heat when the meat turns to a light golden brown. Wash and trim the enoki mushrooms, slice the oyster mushrooms into long, thin strips, and fry them in the grease from the pork belly.
As the meat and mushrooms cook, prepare your sauces. A couple of scoops of ssamjang with a scoop of kochujang create an umami-laden accompaniment that can be swirled together and applied to the lettuce wraps with chopsticks. Equally easy-to-make, gireumjang can be made with two parts salt and one part black pepper, combined with sesame oil until the mixture resembles very wet sand.
Wrapping it all together
Holding a lettuce leaf with the spine lying along the length of your hand, layer tiny portions of whichever ingredients you want onto the leaf. Rice, chive kimchi, pickled radish, and raw or fried garlic are all great options; if you can find them, sesame leaves (sometimes available at Korean grocery stores) add a pleasantly minty touch. Add the samgyupsal, mushrooms, and a dab of either or both sauces, and fold in the left and right sides of the leaf. Then fold both ends of the spine into the middle, creating a neatly wrapped package. I’ve been assured by my Korean friends that proper etiquette dictates that you put the whole thing in your mouth at once — no cheating! Wash the whole mouthful down with some soju (available at Korean-owned Marshall Liquors) and repeat.
I would posit that samgyupsal is best enjoyed with friends — the enjoyment of cooking your own meat and wrapping it in lettuce leaves, the hilarity that ensues when you inevitably fail at neatly depositing a too-large wrap in your mouth, and the excessive soju consumption that best accompanies samgyupsal all make it the ultimate party food. Call up some friends, pick up some pork belly, and indulge in a samgyupsal-and-soju-fueled free-for-all.
Kim’s Oriental Market
689 Snelling Ave N
St. Paul, MN 55104
Dong Yang Oriental Food
735 45th Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55421
2027 Marshall Ave
St. Paul, MN 55104