Are you in love with Bacon? Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is bacon meat with the Korean twist!
The popularity of bacon is not new, it being a known breakfast favorite, but in Korea, rather than cured pork belly (the meat used for bacon), Samgyeopsal is much more popular. Unlike bacon, Samgyeopsal isn’t cured, but rather grilled with only basic seasonings (it may also be marinated but would be given a different name), yet it is loved by many Koreans nevertheless.
The name Samgyeopsal, is literally translated as “three-layer meat”, which describes the layers of meat and fat in the pork belly cut. Technically, the layers would consist of fat-meat-fat-meat, so it seems to be appropriate for it to be termed as a “four-layer meat”, but there is a rumour explaining this, stating that because Koreans do not like the number four (because it is a homophone of the Chinese word death), it was settled to be called the “three-layer meat”. The pork skin is not part of the described layers, so if the pork skin is attached in the meat, it is called as Ohgyeopsal (“five-layer meat”), but there is a conspiracy that there is actually no difference between Samgyeopsal, Ohgyeopsal, and other names of the pork belly meat and the divisions were made by businesses to optimize sales.
The act of grilling pork in Korea was present from the Goguryeo dynasty (37BC-668AD), but it was mostly in the form of seasoned meat. Up to the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) meat was usually boiled in soups, or as a sub-ingredient for other food dishes. Also, grilling unseasoned meat was viewed to be done by a person who couldn’t afford the expensive seasonings at the time. The spread of grilling unseasoned meat started to become common around the 1970-1980s and has received steady love up to now. Samgyeopsal became popular because pork was relatively cheaper than other meats, and it was a good source of protein. But due to its increase in popularity these days, the price of Samgyeopsal as well as pork meat in general has increased to become similar to that of other high quality meats.
As mentioned above, Samgyeopsal is pork belly grilled with minimal seasoning (at times with no seasoning), and may seem bland, but there are sauces which are linked with Samgyeopsal. These sauces include the simple salt and pepper mix, ssamjang (soybean mixed paste), gochujang (chili paste), and alike. Aside from the sauces, it is a known Korean fact that Samgyeopsal goes well with Kimchi (Korean style fermented vegetables) and soju (Korean alcohol). Samgyeopsal is also indirectly seasoned by eating it in a style of a ssam (lettuce wrap), filled with garlic, chili, seasoned scallions, etc. Rice along with a Jjigae (Korean style stew) made with soybeans (Doenjang) is also commonly present when eating Samgyeopsal.
When talking about pork belly, bacon may come into mind first, but uncured, thickly sliced Samgyeopsal is the Korean way to enjoy such pork belly. A wrap of Samgyeopsal with ssamjang, garlic, a shot of soju, and a spoonful of rice and Jjigae is enough to open your eyes to the endless probabilities of pork belly, to Samgyeopsal!