“Pork and doenjang are best friends. They have an inseparable relationship.”
One of my guests said this a few Sundays ago, and I remember laughing because it was so true. Pork and doenjang, or fermented bean paste, really do go well together. But as I prepped dinner this past Sunday, I realized pork has a lot of best friends. Pork really gets around.
I was making 보쌈, bossam, a dish that normally gets translated as poached or boiled pork belly, but that’s really an incomplete translation. “Bossam” literally means package, and when bossam is served, you must have the whole package. There’s the pork belly, of course, rich and glistening in its own fat, but it must be served with an array of vegetables, kimchi, sauces, and dips.
The pork itself is almost modestly plain–you have to do almost nothing to get it ready to eat. The pork isn’t salted, and although it’s simmered in a pot with a mess of vegetables and a spoonful of doenjang, these vegetables don’t add a lot of noticeable flavor. These ingredients are actually meant to absorb the porky smell of pork, to the extent that some modern Koreans will throw in a couple of spoonfuls of ground coffee as well. When I removed the pork belly, sliced it up and tasted it, the flavor was exactly as I’d hoped it would be, rustic, smooth and fatty.
You can take a piece of this pork, dip it into a dish of salted, fermented shrimp sauce, put it straight in your mouth and it will be delicious. But the party really gets started when pork belly gets wrapped up with its best friends.
There are normally a variety of lettuces and cabbage available for wrapping around the pork. I salted some Napa cabbage until it wilted and put out fresh red leaf lettuce and perilla leaves.
There’s always something sharp and spicy, like bossam kimchi, which is a pain in the ass to make and a privilege to eat, because little treasures like raw chestnuts, dates, and jujubes need to be inserted between the leaves in a whole head of Napa cabbage, which then gets wrapped into a lovely little “bossam.” I took the easy route and made some lightly pickled spicy radish strips or muh-chae instead.
I made sure there was more doenjang on the table, in the form of ssamjang made out of doenjang, gochujang or red pepper paste, garlic, sesame oil, and ground anchovies, all sautéed together, though I think pork belly is also good with a more straightforward doenjang-garlic paste.
(You can see the kind of spread a restaurant would serve as bossam here.)
To round out the meal, I made a barley-white rice mix served with lots of sauteed vegetables and wild greens for a simple bibimbap, chewy rice cakes made with bulgogi meat and peppers, fiery-red kimchi-jjigae, and perilla leaves stuffed with ground beef and then battered in egg and fried. Those were a big hit, the juicy meat inside the fragrant kkaenip.
Ultimately, it’s all about bringing contrasting yet complementary flavors together. It’s about the easy richness of pork belly being paired with something tangy, sharp, and bright, or in the case of doenjang, something salty, dark and earthy. That’s the way good friendships and relationships work, too, right?
I’m not providing a recipe for the salted cabbage, muh-chae and other accompaniments because I’m still working on the proportions. I’m not done fiddling with the pork belly recipe either, but this turned out so well and it’s so ridiculously easy, I can’t really justify holding it back. And despite my whole song and dance about the “whole package,” it’s worth making the pork belly even if you don’t have time to make all the accompaniments. Just buy some kimchi, ssamjang, and lettuce, and you will have a very happy feast.
Poached pork belly
2 lbs. pork belly
1 white onion
1 giant green onion (or 3 regular green onions/scallions)
1 Korean hot green pepper or serrano pepper
1 3-inch piece of fresh ginger
10 cloves of garlic
1 T. whole peppercorns
2 T. of doenjang or soybean paste
- Put the pork belly, onion, giant green onion, peppercorns, garlic, daenjang, hot pepper and ginger in a large pot. Add water to cover.
- Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 1 hour. (I think 30 minutes might do the trick, too.)
- Remove the pork. Slice the belly lengthwise into long strips two to three inches wide. Cut each strip into pieces about ½-inch thick. Each piece will be a square that reveals the different layers of skin, fat, and meat.
- Serve warm.