LIFE

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS Crazy for Samgyeopsal:
Koreans’ Love for Three-layered Pork

Mention pork for dinner and many Koreans immediately assume they’re being served samgyeopsal, grilled pork belly strips descriptively called “three-layer meat” in the vernacular. Samgyeopsal, cooked on a hot gridiron or on a special pan over a tabletop stove and eaten directly from the grill, is widely beloved for its savory taste.

Pre-cut samgyeopsal is being grilled on a hot gridiron. Charcoal-grilled, the pork belly delicacy is more flavorful and less fatty than pan-fried samgyeopsal.

In 1992, the Korean government strictly banned cooking and camping outside of designated places in public parks through an amendment to Article 27 of the Natural Parks Act. In effect, this law prohibits cooking samgyeopsal on a portable gas burner and drinking soju outdoors in natural settings. The law was tightened because of concern that unrestricted human activities in the nation’s natural parks would pollute nature and increase the danger of forest fires. Before the law took effect, many people had enjoyed grilling samgyeopsal outdoors in nature without any restrictions at all.

Hometown of Samgyeopsal
Without counting the head, pork meat is roughly divided into seven essential cuts for culinary use: shoulder, ribs, picnic, belly, loin, tenderloin, and ham. Samgyeopsal is the high-fat part of the belly with layers of fat and lean meat.
Although the source is not clear, samgyeopsal is said to have originated in Kaesong in the early 20th century. The people of Kaesong, noted for their business skills, must have innovated their feeding methods and alternately fed their pigs different kinds of feed so that layers of fat and lean flesh alternated in the belly.
The founder and owner of the Korean restaurant Yongsusan, Choe Sang-ok (born 1928) recalled the samgyeopsal of her hometown Kaesong, the royal capital of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), which is now part of North Korea: “The butcher shops in Kaesong sold boiled samgyeopsal. The meat was clean and tasty. We could get the water boiled with samgyeopsal from the butcher to cook kimchi stew, which was a delicacy.”
The first record on samgyeopsal is to be found in the “Various Joseon Cuisine” (Joseon yori jebeop), published in 1931 by Bang Sin-yeong, a professor of home economics at Ewha Womans University. Folksy Korean names for pork belly meat from the book, such as “three-layer flesh,” “flesh in the belly,” and “three-story pig meat,” sound amusing as well as descriptive.

Pork Cutlets and Pork Rice Soup
Although the samgyeopsal of Kaesong was tasty, Koreans have traditionally preferred beef to pork. Boar taint, the offensive odor or taste that can mar the meat of a male pig and Korean traditional medicine that often prohibits pork consumption were reasons for the preference. However, beef has always been much more expensive than pork, so pork has been the meat for the masses.
Amid the post-World War II economic boom, Japan started to import pork from Korea in 1973 to cope with its increasing meat consumption. They wanted mostly lean meat. There was thus a change in the Korean pork market; working-class people were able to buy and eat pork much more cheaply.
Hwang Gyo-ik, a food critic, explains that the Japanese imported loin and tenderloin cuts because pork cutlets were all the rage around the time. The unexpected remainder of the country’s growing meat production was sold cheaply in the domestic market, and the masses came to eat pork rice soup more often. Hwang infers that the rise of pork rice soup restaurants cooking with pork bones, intestines, and meat throughout the country was the result of such circumstances. The pork industry flourished, leading to the development of the processed meat industry producing hams, sausages, and bacon.

Korea’s livestock and meat processing industries suggest the samgyeopsal craze began in the 1980s. The cheap but tasty cuts of pork became popular as inexpensive portable gas burners became available.

The Evolution of Samgyeopsal
It is not known how samgyeopsal became so popular as a grilled dish. One theory is that two restaurants, Ddalnejip (“Daughter’s Diner”) and Mansujip (“Mansu’s Diner”) in Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, started grilling samgyeopsal, first over briquettes. This new dish quickly became a dinner favorite because of its great flavor.

Suyuk, tender pork boiled with various aromatic herbs and spices, then sliced thin and served on a plate with various fresh and prepared vegetables and condiments, is a traditional Korean dish that is in the spotlight anew these days as a health food. On the platter with suyuk are radish salad, green onion kimchi, skate in vinegar dressing, and julienned cucumber and pear; served alongside are small bowls of fermented shrimp, ssamjang dipping sauce (soybean paste seasoned with hot pepper paste and other ingredients), and thin-sliced garlic bites.

At any rate, Korea’s livestock and meat processing industries suggest the samgyeopsal craze began in the 1980s. The cheap but tasty cuts of pork became popular as inexpensive portable gas burners became available. For company-sponsored employee outings and get-togethers, samgyeopsal became the indispensable centerpiece of the menu.
Over time, variations on samgyeopsal also evolved: sottukkeong samgyeopsal, grilled on the lid of a caldron; wine samgyeopsal, grilled wine-marinated meat; and recently, daepae samgyeopsal, grilled thinly sliced frozen meat. Traditional Pork Dishes Connoisseurs of samgyeopsal consider the ogyeopsal (five-layered meat) of Jeju Island’s black pig as the best pork meat. Ogyeopsal, pork belly cuts with less fat but with the skin attached, has a chewy texture and is known as the tastiest and most expensive variety. People might think that this black pig is native to Jeju Island, but in truth they are eating pork of a different provenance.
The native small black pig with standing ears, a breed said to have been raised since the Three Kingdoms period, was designated Natural Monument No. 550 in 2015 after a strict evaluation. This means that the black pig is in danger of extinction. Currently, the Jeju Provincial Livestock Institute has custody of 216 of these historic pigs. Clearly, it would be a crime to eat them.
Other black pigs are available for consumption. These were developed from a domestic breeder pig crossbred with Landrace, Yorkshire, and Duroc by the Jeju Provincial Livestock Institute.

Its meat has a good taste; in fact, it became a bestselling pork through a successful marketing strategy depicting the crossbred pig as native to Jeju, aided by good storytelling.
Except for the introduction of grilling as an innovative way of cooking samgyeopsal, Korea’s traditional meat dishes continue to be cooked in the old ways passed down through the 19th century. These include suyuk, boiled and cut beef or pork on a bed of greens over broth; pyeonyuk, boiled brisket stone-pressed into a terrine, served sliced with a chewy texture; pork stir-fried with various ingredients; and rice soup, kimchi stew, and red chili paste stew made with pork.
The pork dishes of Jeju are part of a distinctive island cuisine, cooked with ingredients from the sea. After giving birth, Jeju mothers are served a special seaweed soup cooked with pig’s feet. Momguk, a hearty soup made with gulfweed, plentiful in the sea, and boiled with pork, is a dish not to be found on the mainland.

Dongporou, Jamón, and Rahute
China is probably the nation that loves pork more than any other in the world. In 2015, the Chinese ate 52 percent of the world’s pork. The Chinese call pork just “meat,” while referring to beef as “beef meat.” Chinese pork dishes number more than 1,500. The most famous is dongporou, ascribed to and named after Su Dongpo, the revered writer and poet of the 11th-century Song dynasty. The fatty pork cut similar to samgyeopsal is braised slowly in soy sauce and liquor. Because of the reddish color, it is also called hongshaorou (red-braised pork), hence it was a favorite dish of Mao Zedong.
Okinawa in Japan is a region so enamored of pork that locals say, “We eat every part of a pig except its squeal.” Chanpuru, a stir-fry dish made of pork and bitter balsam apple, and rahute, sweet pork belly long-boiled down with soy sauce and liquor like Chinese dongporou, are Okinawa’s two pork specialties.
The most expensive pork meat is probably the Cerdo Ibérico de Bellota of Spain. Iberico, a free-range pig that thrives on mushrooms and acorns in the natural oak forests of mountainous western Spain and Portugal, has an excellent flavor. Jamón ibérico is Spain’s finest ham made of ibérico pig’s leg preserved in salt and air dried for three years. It is so special and precious that it can be used for a dowry.

Samgyeopsal Economics
The surge of samgyeopsal consumption in Korea has led to higher prices; it is now three times more expensive than other pork cuts. As domestic supply is also unstable, pork belly meat is imported from Chile, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain every year. As people have become more health conscious, the consumption of leaner cuts like picnic, ham, and tenderloin has recently increased. But Koreans’ love of samgyeopsal won’t cool so easily.

Soul Ho-joung Food Ingredients Columnist
Shim Byung-woo Photographer

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