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Versatility is an important characteristic in an ingredient, and few are more versatile than pork belly. You ask folks about Korean cuisine, and the usual suspects come up – BBQ, bibimbap, kimchi. In the grilled meats realm, bulgogi and galbi were the top vote-getters maybe five, seven years ago. But arguably in recent years, charbroiled pork belly has risen in the ranks.

But pork belly over charcoal is just one way to transform the animal to edible form. A recent stroll through H-Mart was enough to remind me of some sublime recipes.

I give you “Pork Belly, Five Ways.”

Here is the standard cut. Around half an inch thick, balanced layers of fat and muscle. Perfect for grilling with course sea salt.

Here is a similar rendition – “tenderized.” We also call this “honeycomb” pork belly. The H-Mart offering looks like an angry butcher had himself a tricep session. The idea is for the pork to cook faster with increased internal heat exposure, with added tenderness.

Pork and kimchi (specifically, “old” kimchi that is further along in the fermentation process) goes well together like chicken and waffles. The cut below is in smaller chunks for stir-frying with spicy-sour-pungent kimchi. Add peppers, onions, gochoojang, garlic, and rice wine, and your pork horizon will expand beyond your imagination. (Not pictured here are cuts for inclusion in kimchi stew. Those cuts typically have more fat, which produces a rich, hearty broth.)

I have not yet tried pork belly in shabu shabu. I would imagine it would be best in Szechuan-style shabu shabu (hot chili oil), instead of the milder/clearer Korean or Japanese varieties. The final cut is for boiling. In most cases, these two-inch thick cuts of meat are boiled in a simmering pot with dwenjang (fermented soy bean paste), green onions, onions, garlic, and other spices, until tender. Slice into centimeter-thick slabs and consume with raw oysters, garlic, and dipping sauce that is a combination of dwenjang, gochoojang, and sesame seed oil (folks call it “ssamjang”).

pb4

Pork is good. In all forms. The more the merrier. Pork belly, pork shoulder, pork chops, pork loin, pork ribs, pulled pork. The smell of pork fat charring, burning above heated charcoal is what heaven would smell like.

For those who know, pig’s feet is a cut above. Chewy, gelatinous texture of the outer layer, followed by soft and aromatic meat. You taste the entire animal in a single bite. If you don’t like it, you haven’t tried it done right. If you haven’t tried it, get out there.

On a nonchalant afternoon, a friend and I ran into a Chinese version of this delicacy during a second lunch (the first course, banh mi, wasn’t quite filling). Totally out of the blue. My friend suggests we hit up a nice sit-down Chinese joint just across the street, and tells me of their pig’s feet. The dish wasn’t even on the menu, but my friend worked his magic with the waitress, and there it was, glistening, smothered in hot chili oil and spices, tossed with fresh green onions.

The generous slices of pig’s feet were served chilled. But not to worry, it’s actually better that way. Pig gelatin is on a plateau of its own, maintaining its distinct gummy texture and just slightly absorbing the heat of the chili oil and bite of the Chinese spices. A bowl of steaming white rice and hot and sour soup is all you need. Take a sip of the soup, grab pig’s feet, lay on top of steaming rice, and partake. Enough said.

Table to my right has a spread of vegetable fried rice and sweet and sour something. Table to my left has beef and broccoli and fried wontons. I love the feeling when heads turn to see what the server is bringing to your table. What the hell are they having, they will ask.  What, no sweet and sour something? No veggie fried rice? No, you say, this is the real deal, the local stuff, what the emperor would have killed to have.

I don’t even remember the name of this dish. Hell, it took two different waitresses to figure out what my friend was saying in his incoherent Mandarin. But whatever it is, it’s absolutely delicious, definitely worth multiple followup trips.

Pig’s feet at its finest.

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