Having immigrated to Australia at the tender age of 4 and spending most of my life here, my memories of life in Korea are, unfortunately, few and far between. I feel more comfortable with sitting in a beer garden with glass of wine or gin & tonic rather than doing shots of soju.
With all credit to my mother, despite my growing up in Australia, she has used food and cooking to instill love and understanding of Korean culture and cuisine in me. Having me by her side from the moment I could walk, she taught me how to wash rice grains to make it fluffier once cooked, how to select the best lettuce for making kimchi, and best of all how to cook with intuition and taste rather than following a recipe word for word.
While salads or raw vegetables don’t feature heavily in traditional Korean fare, there is one particular style of eating that goes to the very heart of our culture, and that is the ‘ssam‘, or lettuce wrap. Those of you more familiar with Chinese cuisine may know of their ‘san choi bao’, where ground meat is cooked with vegetables, seasoned with spices and herbs and then spooned into lettuce leaves and eaten as little wrapped parcels.
In Korean cuisine, almost any pork or beef can be eaten as ssam, but one of the more popular ways of eating it is with “dwaeji bulgogi” (a direct translation of this is “pork fire meat”). This is thinly sliced pork belly which is marinated with gochujjang (Korean chilli paste) and preferably cooked on a Korean bbq. If you want to get even more traditional, whole garlic cloves are usually also placed alongside the pork on the bbq till cooked through and softened, then included in the wrap.
In this particular combination, the lettuce allows you to bundle the spicy pork with a small mouthful of rice into a lettuce leaf so that each bite is a combination of textures and where the cool crunchy lettuce provides a foil to the spiciness of the pork.
While my mother has nothing against this particular dish and loves it very much, it has to be said that slicing pork belly into pieces 3mm thick is a pain in the arse and particularly time-consuming. So, she thought of a way that would make it easy to have this as a dinner option within a few minutes, rather than having to spend a few hours freezing a slab of pork belly then donning gloves so you can handle it enough to slice off piece after piece.
The main components of enjoying this dish can be summed up as so – spicy pork belly pieces with the sweetness and muted pungency of caramelized garlic cloves, so the idea was to combine these two elements and bring them together in a much quicker way.
How she came up with the idea to cook it all together as a quick braise, I have no idea, but thanks to her ingenuity (I tried calling it ‘laziness’ and copped a slap across the back of the head!), I now have a very quick and easy way of making a much beloved dish in less than an hour for my family to enjoy.
So if you’re after a nice and easy dinnertime treat for the family (or even just for yourself) consider giving this a try. You can thank me later
Chilli & Garlic Braised Pork Belly
800g pork belly, sliced into pieces about 1.5 cm long and 1.5cm thick (try and pick pork belly which has minimal fat)
2/3 cup garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup gochujjang (Korean chilli paste)
1 tsp olive oil
1/4 cup water
1. Heat up the olive oil in a pot over a medium flame till it starts to smoke, then add the garlic cloves and briskly saute till they start to brown (but not burn)
3. Add the 1/4 cup of water and stir through, then put the lid on, lower the heat and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes. Make sure to stir occasionally to ensure everything is cooking evenly, and once the liquid has almost completely evaporated and the mixture is nice and thick, remove from the heat and allow to cool before storing in an airtight non-reactive container.
This can be stored in the refrigerator and served as ‘banchan’ (side dish alongside rice) for up to one week. Whenever you wish to serve it, reheat it briefly in a pot or microwave till warmed through, then serve with rice and large leaf lettuce (such as iceberg, butter or mignonette) so each diner can make their own little bite-sized wraps.
Whether you decide to serve this pork as the main feature in a ‘ssam’ meal, or as a side dish featuring only as one of many ‘banchan’, with the strong flavours present you can be sure that this will be one of the highlights of the meal.
As a final note, I’ll be putting up a few other giveaways this week so if you’re a reader who resides in Australia, make sure to stay tuned for them