Samgyeopsal, a Korean classic, updated and innovated
Samgyeopsal sliced pork belly has been popular for decades and is considered a quintessential Korean food.
In Korea, it has been eaten since around 1960s and 70s, but rose to wider popularity in the 80s when Korea faced a beef shortage and the government implemented policies to increase consumption of pork and chicken, according the book "Start of Samgyeopsal," written by meat marketer Kim Tae-kyeong.
In the early 2000s, samgyeopsal's popularity extended beyond Korea's shores along with cultural exports, such as K-pop and films.
In a 2019 survey conducted by the Korean Food Promotion Institute, samgyeopsal was chosen as the favorite Korean dish by non-Koreans.
As the samgyeopsal craze continues, some restaurants in Seoul strive to keep the dish's fans on their toes by creating alternative ways to enjoy the well-known cuisine and offering an elevated samgyeopsal experience.
Until recently, nearly all samgyeopsal eateries sold the frozen meat, mainly because it was easier to preserve for a longer period of time.
Only costing a few thousand won per serving (about 200 grams), thinly sliced frozen samgyeopsal — otherwise known as naengdong samgyeopsal, naengsam for short — was food that almost everyone, regardless of age or wealth, enjoyed.
It was later eclipsed by the fresh, unfrozen samgyeopsal, but made a comeback around three years ago in the nationwide retro boom.
Judging from the exterior, the furniture, the plates and the menu of Haengjin in Mapo District, western Seoul, the naengsam restaurant is designed to recreate the 90s.
Except for the prices, which are very much up to date.
Newer naengsam venues tend to have samgyeopsal that costs as much as fresh samgyeopsal because they blast freeze meats produced domestically.
Blast-frozen meats refer to raw meat that have been rapidly frozen between temperatures minus 30 degrees Celsius and minus 40 degrees Celsius.
This method preserves the quality and flavor so that it closely resembles those of freshly cut meat.
Haengjin, which blast freezes its domestically produced pork, sells one serving of frozen samgyeopsal or 170 grams for 14,000 won ($11).
"We select our products carefully from the local butcher then blast freeze the meat and cut it ourselves at the restaurant," said a worker at Haengjin who wished to remain anonymous.
Naengsam eateries serve a wide assortment of side dishes and dips that go beyond a usual kimchi, assortment of fresh vegetables and ssamjang (spicy soybean paste) found at typical samgyeopsal restaurant's.
Haengjin serves side dishes like gyeranmari (rolled omelet), pickled clams, soup, pachae (seasoned green onions) and macaroni salad, and dipping sauces such as mayonnaise, salted sesame oil and in-house ssamjang, all in addition to the regular side dishes.
Naengsam's popularity is evident in the 150 naengsam restaurants that are open in Seoul, according to Naver Maps as of Wednesday.
At Haengjin, nearly all tables were occupied around noon on a Tuesday.
"It's the perfect mix of good food and vibe," said Kim Kyoung-sin, 56, a Haengjin regular. "Yes, the price is high, but the meat and the side dishes are high-quality, and I enjoy this comfortable atmosphere that is reminiscent of the past."
2. Sujeong Okdol Fresh Salt-grilled Pork
Part of going to a samgyeopsal restaurant includes not only eating the food but also cooking it. As the meat sizzles on the grill in front of you, one must practice the art of patience.
But to spice up this experience, Sujeong Okdol Fresh Salt-grilled Pork uses plates of smoldering okdol, or pebbles that include components of jade, instead of plain flat grills.
The use of pebbles in a grill is a steady trend. Over the years, it has also been adopted by chicken and clam restaurants.
Sujeong Okdol Fresh Salt-grilled Pork has been open in Hongdae, a youth hotspot in western Seoul, for over 40 years. Because of its extensive history and location, the venue is representative of its kind in the city.
According to the restaurant, the pebbles emit far-infrared radiation when they become heated, which penetrates into the meat and flushes out any built-up toxins. This process reduces any gamey flavor .
This process seems to similarly apply to humans in jjimjilbang Korean sauna, which also utilizes far-infrared radiation from okdol. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the radiation penetrates the human skin and revs up metabolism and discharge toxins from the body through sweat.
The okdol grill also enhances samgyeopsal's texture.
Before slapping thick pieces of pork belly onto the pebbles, the restaurant staff pours water between the pebbles, which are being heated by hot charcoal underneath. The water sizzles and immediately turns to hot steam. This creates a crisp encasing on the meat and traps the juices inside.
Because the meat is so thick here and the restaurant doesn't use a normal grill, it serves samgyeopsal that has been cooked once in low heat so that its customers don't have to wait too long for the meat to cook all the way.
The side dishes, compared to the uniqueness of the meat, weren't too memorable.
Each 200 grams costs 13,000 won.
3. Jamdubong The Nine
From fried chicken to noodles, practically any food imaginable can be eaten outside by Han River. And samgyeopsal just off the grill is no exception.
Jamdubong The Nine, a cruise ship-turned samgyeopsal-restaurant, has not left the Jamdubong Dock at Mapo District, western Seoul, for two years.
The 400-ton cruise ship has three floors — the cashier and the terrace on the first floor, indoor seats on the second and the upper deck on the third.
All are lined with rows of tables with small samgyeopsal grills protected by foldable aluminum shields.
The indoor space in the middle of the ship's first floor is stocked with typical samgyeopsal side dishes and sauces such as kimchi, sasmjang, ramyeon and instant rice. Customers can help themselves.
The boat used to be a cruise ship for E-Land Cruise, according to Yoo Ho-sang, CEO of Jamdubong The Nine. The ship became a samgyeopsal restaurant two years ago when Yoo purchased it.
All the seats in the venue offer a panoramic view of the Yanghwa Bridge over the Han River and the tall buildings of Yeouido, western Seoul, across the water.
The thick strip of pork belly takes a while to cook, but it gives the customers time to enjoy and take pictures of the view.
Once the meat is finally cooked through, you realize — everything does taste better by Han River.
As it is outlined at the restaurant's menu, Jamdubong The Nine uses meat that is produced domestically.
The venue is especially popular during the sunset hours.
One serving of samgyeopsal is 150 grams and costs 16,000 won.
BY LEE JIAN [firstname.lastname@example.org]