Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) or barbecued pork is one of Korea’s best-known dishes and exports. I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with this staple dish but it’s certainly popular. The Korean Tourism Organization ranks samgyeopsal as #6 on its list of Top 10 Korean Dishes and a survey from the Agricultural Cooperatives in Korea (농업협동조합) found that 85% of Korean adults list samgyeopsal as their favourite pork dish with 70% eating it at least once a week! That’s a lot of pork! We’ve got a lot to learn, so let’s dig in and discover samgyeopsal!
Samgyeopsal is a kind of Korean barbecue dish known as gogigui (고기구이). Gogigui comes from the words gogi (고기) meaning ‘meat’ and gui (구이) meaning ‘roast’ or ‘grilled’. Korean barbecue is distinct for the fact that it is commonly cooked at the table with diners using gas or charcoal grills to do the cooking. Many restaurants have tables with built-in grills but some use portable stoves, which are also popular for cooking at home or outdoors at epic picnics nationwide. Gogigui is served with lots of side dishes known as banchan (반찬) but more on that later. It’s time to stop chewing the fat (so to speak) and talk pork.
Samgyeopsal comes from thickly sliced cuts of fatty pork belly meat or dwaeji gogi (돼지고기). Samgyeopsal or samgyeopsal gui gets its name from the three distinctive alternating layers of flesh and fat that can be seen in each cut: sam (삼) means ‘three’, gyeop (겹) is ‘layer’, and sal (살) means ‘flesh’ so the name is essentially ‘three layer meat’. The meat is very similar to sliced uncured bacon and choosing the thickness of the slice is an exacting science. Ideally the meat should be 4-5 cm wide and 6 mm thick, but it could be thicker or thinner depending on which surface you use to cook it! Unlike Korea’s other famous export bulgogi, samgyeopsal is not seasoned or marinated and is often stored frozen. If you want to try the unfrozen stuff, ask for saeng samgyeopsal (생삼겹살). Saeng means ‘raw’ or fresh’ and this cut will set you back a little bit extra, but the taste is well worth it. You can also indulge in ogyeopsal (오겹살), which has five layers, including the skin. In Korean, o (오) means ‘five’.
Samgyeopsal is usually eaten as an evening meal and lends itself well to large dinner parties since the meat and side dishes are shared and diners can serve themselves. The fact that samgyeopsal is best washed down with a whole lot of beer and soju may also account for its popularity! The alcohol compliments the fattiness of the pork and serves as a refreshing palate cleanser (and social lubricant!). This classic combo of BBQ and booze definitely adds to the dish’s allure and certainly explains why it’s one of the preferred meals for hwoesik (회식) or office dinner parties!
After heating up the grill, strips of pork belly are dropped on and left to sizzle. You can also toss some mushrooms (beoseot, 버섯) and garlic (maneul, 마늘) on the grill, or even some kimchi if you wanna go pro! Ideally the meat is turned just once so that it doesn’t dry out and it is moved frequently to keep from burning. Although many westerners like a little taste of charred meat, Koreans do not as many firmly believe that the charred parts can cause cancer! Whether you believe that or not, burning the meat at the dinner table is a big social no-no.
While the meat is simmering, you can enjoy some of the delicious side dishes that I mentioned earlier. Spicy green onion salad or pajeori (파절이), doenjang jjigae (된장찌개, spicy soy bean paste soup) or gyeranjjim (계란찜, salty whipped egg pudding) are common side dishes.
Once the meat has cooked, those large strips are cut into bite-sized pieces using the ever-handy scissors or gawi (가위) and then it’s time to dig in! There are tons of serving options. I like dipping the pork into gireumjang (기름장), a tasty mix of sesame oil (chamgireum, 참기름), salt (sogeum, 소금), and a little black pepper (huchu garu, 후추가루).
You can also make a little pork parcel of sorts. To do this, wrap a piece of samgyeopsal in lettuce (sangchu, 상추) or sesame leaves (kkaennip, 깻잎), and toss in any sides you like, such as sliced chili pepper, onions, pajeori, kimchi, bean sprouts (kong namul, 콩나물), and raw or cooked garlic. You may also want to add in a bit of rice, red pepper paste (gochujang, 고추장) or ssamjang (쌈장), a sauce made from gochujang, soybean paste (doenjang, 된장), and oil. The end result is a little bundle called sangchu-ssam (상추쌈) or ssam (쌈), literally meaning ‘lettuce wrapped’ or ‘wrapped’. There is a fine art to preparing sangchu-ssam and you’ll want to master it quickly since you’re expected to stuff that whole bundle into your mouth in one go! Impress your Korean colleagues by hand-feeding one to a friend or co-worker! I promise it’ll dazzle them.
So while you’re chewing away, here’s some food for thought. Samgyeopsal is rich in B1 vitamins, protein, potassium, and iron all of which are good for your skin (which is good, because I think soju is not!). While doing my research for this blog, I came across some slightly more dubious claims about the toted benefits of samgyeopsal. Amongst other things, the unsaturated fatty acids in pork apparently detoxify the lungs and absorb pollutants from the body while the amino-acid methionine is said to protect the liver and relieve fatigue, counteracting soju’s nastier effects. In addition, the high-iron content guards against anemia and purportedly aids children’s growth, but I’m not sure what effects soju has on the kiddos (just joking! Jeez, calm down!). Now before you rush off to the barbecue to stuff yourself silly in a misguided effort to cure to all your ailments, heed this: samgyeopsal is high in calories, with upwards of 300 calories per 100-gram serving! Everything in moderation, friends.
If samgyeopsal sounds appealing to you, why not give it a try? I was prompted to write this ode to barbecued pork because I wanted to share a funny factoid. Somewhere in Korea some clever soul thought that March 3rd, better known by the numerals 3/3 or Sam-Sam (삼삼) should become an unofficial holiday to celebrate SAMgyeopsal – get it? While adherence to this gimmick day is spotty at best, why not use it as an excuse to celebrate good food and friends? Now excuse me while I wolf down this sangchu-ssam. Pass the soju, please!
Loved this article and hungry for more? Check out my article on dwaeji gukbap, Busan’s signature pork and rice soup!
Written by Jessica Steele for The Korea Blog. Content may not be reproduced without permission.