Last Sunday, I went on a Korean market tour with 3 gal pals – Hyunjoo Albrecht, Linda Lim, and Karen Shinto. You may know Karen, the food stylist who tried to stab me with chopsticks on my Asian Dumpling cookbook photo shoot. Hyunjoo is a Korean food expert and Linda is a lifestyle marketing expert and avid cook and eater.
Korean food is a mystery to me as I’m a little rusty with my Hangul (!!) and most Korean ingredients are labeled in their language full of neat circles and straight lines. There are only a handful of Korean ingredients involved in the cuisines of the Land of the Morning Calm. For example, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and chiles are the dominant seasonings. Gojuchang is a fermented chile paste that has an addictively smoky, earthy flavor that I’ve enjoyed on numerous occasions in bibimbap rice preparations. However, whenever I’ve gone to a Korean market and had to face with a wall of Korean chile paste tubs, I can’t figure out which to select and blindly choose the highest priced gojuchang. Don’t get me started on cryptic vegetable labeling such as “Korean radish” and “edible leaves.” I’m a mess in a Korean produce section and the banchan side dishes section of a Korean market.
Korean food is up and coming, per the Wall Street Journal and Gourmet in articles this month. For years I’ve been looking for someone to help me demystify the cuisine and recently met Hyunjoo, the person behind Cookingkorean.com. She would be my guide. Linda and Karen were game and the four of us met early Sunday morning in Sunnyvale at Hankook market (1092 E El Camino Real, cross streets are Wolfe and Lawrence Expressway, Sunnyvale, CA 94087).
If you’ve hung around enough Korean American communities, you’ll notice that there are a number of unusual Vietnamese-Korean culinary connections. It basically winds down to pho noodle soup. Koreans love the soup and I’ve enjoyed a decent bowl in Los Angeles Koreatown on Western Avenue. At a Korean-owned pho shop, you can get a side order of kimchi and the bowls are relatively big, reflecting the Korean penchant for large quantities of food. On the flip side, a small number of Vietnamese pho shops have taken to serving their noodle soup in fancy Korean metal bowls, which keep the soup tongue-scalding hot.
Koreans use fish sauce to make kimchi as the condiment lends a nice briny, savory undercurrent. Vietnamese people have made kimchi for decades. It’s not a big thing but my mother has a hand-written recipe dating back to the 1970s. Oh, and beef is well loved in both Korea and Vietnam. Beef is not a popular meat in other Asian cuisines. And since we were exchanging culinary expertise last Sunday, Hyunjoo asked me if I knew anything about rice paper as Koreans are using more of it these days to wrap food up in. Ahem… banh trang? Yes, I happen to be familiar with it. (That's Hyunjoo in the photo, talking about virgin vs. married man radish. It's all about the shape, my friends.)
But was there something more? I wondered and about 1 hour into the market tour and we’d made it out of the Korean banchan section of the market into produce, I had an inkling. There was all this lettuce and lots of large serrated beefsteak (sesame) leaves, a relative of Japanese shiso that looked a lot like Vietnamese tia to and kinh gioi. “Koreans love beefsteak leaves with grilled meat,” Hyunjoo said. “We like to wrap the meat and herbs up in lettuce with chile paste and raw garlic. Some people add thin slices of Korean radish too.”
Well, doesn’t that sound like how Vietnamese people many kinds of grilled and fried morsels? This particular Korean foodway was very similar to that of Vietnam, and it wasn’t a new and recent adaptation. Viets love to create bundles with lettuce. In fact, we like to create lettuce wrap bundles with many foods, not just grilled meats like the Koreans do.
Speaking of which, in the meat section there was tons of beautifully sliced beef and pork to be used in soup and for Korean barbecue. Hyunjoo zeroed in on a particular sale item – black pork belly on sale for $3.69 a pound, sliced 1/4 inch thick. Her eyes practically glazed over as she cooed, “Oh I love grilled pork belly.” The pork was well trimmed (not too much fat) and the skin had been removed. It was a beautiful site to behold.
The black pork belly from Hankook market. The large rectangular
cutting board came from the market too. A great deal for $13.99!
Black pork stands for meat from black Berkshire pigs. The flesh is extraordinarily flavorful and succulent. My mama didn’t raise no dummy so I picked up some.
Then I asked Hyunjoo about the gojuchang chile paste – my enduring problem. “Oh, get this one with the hexagon symbol. They’ve been around for 60 years and it’s good,” she said. “Don’t get the one with the funny looking kid.” Right. Turns out the 60-year-old one is made by Siempo, a well-trusted Korean manufacturer also know for good soy sauce. I brought home a ‘small’ tub that weighed 1 kilo. There are Costco-size tubs too.
You perhaps can see where I was going with the pork belly and chile paste. The winter-into-spring weather has turned practically balmy in Northern California and I was looking for an excuse to turn on the grill. Plus, our locally grown lettuce is amazing these days given the mild winter we’ve had.
In tribute to the Korean market foray, I marinated the pork belly in a garlicky Vietnamese-Korean combo of flavors, grilled the meat (it’s like thick fresh bacon), and set out a platter of lettuce, herbs, chile paste and nuoc cham dipping sauce. Rory and I made lettuce wraps and drank a hefty amount of chilled Korean soju (a little heavier than sake but nice and smooth). A divine cross-cultural meal to end the day of cross-cultural learning.
Grilled Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps
These kinds of lettuce wraps are called ssam in Korean, and if you’re in the New York area, you may be familiar with them, given all the hubbub surrounding David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam bar. Well, it’s a drinking kind of meal of well-seasoned grilled meat accompanied by raw garnishes including lettuce, thinly sliced garlic, gojuchang chile paste and perhaps some kimchi and thin slices of Korean radish. You could include cooked medium-grain rice too.
The Viet version would have a fish sauce based nuoc cham spiked by fresh chile and garlic, tons of fresh herbs, thinly sliced cucumber and some cooked rice noodles (bun). For this Vietnamese-Korean mash up, I marinated the pork with a typical Viet set of seasonings (shallot, sugar, fish sauce and black pepper) and then added a dose of Korean-ess in the form of extra garlic, sesame oil and finely chopped scallion; Korean cooks often use a fruit tenderizer such as grated Asian pear but the shallot takes care of that. Condiment wise, it was hard to choose and I went with both nuoc cham and gojuchang. No noodles, rice, nor rice paper to keep things low carb and less fuss. Really delicious. So get yourself to a Korean market for some sliced pork belly and get cooking.
Serves 4 as a light main course
1 shallot, chopped (1/4 cup)
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon finely chopped ginger
2 1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground preferred
4 teaspoons fish sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons dark (thick) soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 scallions (white and green parts) finely chopped
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds 1/4-inch-thick sliced pork belly
Leaves from 2 heads lettuce (red leaf, green leaf, or butterleaf)
Assorted fresh herbs, such as cilantro, mint, red perilla (tia to), and/or Vietnamese balm (kinh gioi) (details on Vietnamese herbs)
1/2 pound peeled Korean radish or cucumber, thinly sliced
20 beefsteak (sesame) leaves (optional)
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (optional)
1 cup kimchi (optional)
Condiments (choose one or both):
3/4 cup nuoc cham dipping sauce
1/4 cup Korean gojuchang red chile paste (see photo above of recommended brand)
1. Put the shallot, garlic, ginger, and sugar in a mortar and pestle and pound to a rough paste. Add the black pepper, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, and scallion. Taste and adjust the flavors to your liking. I like a garlicky savory over a sweet savory flavor. Add seasonings and get it to your liking before you add the pork.
2. Mix the pork with the marinade with your hands to ensure that every slice is well coated. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and as long as 2 days.
3. About 45 minutes before grilling, remove the pork from the refrigerator and set it out at room temperature to get rid of some of the chill. Put the lettuce, herbs, radish, sesame leaves, and garlic onto a platter and small side dishes and set at the table. Put the condiments at the table too.
4. Preheat the grill to hot and then grill the pork, about 6 minutes, turning as needed, until cooked and nicely charred. Bring to the table. Set out scissors for every to cut the meat (makes it easier to eat).
5. To eat, put a palm-sized piece of lettuce in your hand, add herbs and other fresh garnishes, a smear of chile paste (if using) and the meat. Bundle it up and eat. If eating with nuoc cham, bundle up the lettuce leaf wrap and dip in the sauce.