ONE OF THE most memorable meals I had during my last trip to Seoul took place in the neighborhood Yeon-nam Dong, where I visited my grandparents nearly every summer as a child. The area had drastically transformed in the 14 years since my last visit: The streets lined with hip restaurants and filled with stylish young people were a far cry from the sleepy spot I knew as a child, where the coolest local options were a stationery shop and a video store. Still, I managed to reorient myself and also reconnect with relatives I hadn’t seen in a decade-plus over a spread of samgyupsal-gui (grilled pork belly).
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Traditionally, samgyupsal-gui is ordered in quantities generous enough for a proper feast, with lettuce leaves or steamed cabbage provided for wrapping up the meat and conveying it to the mouth. The word for those vegetables and that way of eating, ssam, translates as wrap, and any number of other greens can be used for that purpose, too, from perilla leaves to soy sauce-pickled garlic leaves.
Back home in Brooklyn, I chased after this happy, hands-on eating experience, scaling it down to serve two, and for that a pork chop works perfectly. In my tiny kitchen I opt for stovetop searing in a cast-iron skillet to get the beautiful brown crust imparted by the stone grill some Korean restaurants use.
This dish calls for more assembling than actual cooking, so you can really focus on getting the pork chop just right via flipping and basting with the fat rendered out of the meat itself. Much of the seasoning comes at the end. The condiment ssamjang, a combination of doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and gochujang (fermented chile paste), brings savory flavor and a hint of heat. Ssamjang sometimes gets its balancing sweetness from sugar, but here, instead, I use a little honey and rice vinegar, staples in my pantry that make the sauce more complex as well as sweet. Slices of raw jalapeño and garlic bring oomph to each bite, and individual diners can decide for themselves just how much.
Assembled at the table, this dish is inherently social. The recipe below retains the interactivity and intimacy of that reunion meal with my family in Seoul. But it brings it home, reflecting how my husband and I live here, now, with ingredients I always have on hand.
- 1 (1 pound, 1¼-inch thick) bone-in pork chop
- 5 scallions, thinly sliced on bias
- 2 teaspoons grapeseed oil or other neutral oil
- Salt and white pepper
- 3½ tablespoons sesame oil
- ½ teaspoons gochugaru or other red chile flakes
- 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
- Flaky salt
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 2 teaspoons rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons doenjang
- 2 tablespoons gochujang
- ½ teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
- 1 medium head lettuce, such as red leaf lettuce, leaves separated
- 1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 jalapeño, thinly sliced, for serving
- Sliced radishes, for serving
- ½ cup kimchi, for serving
- Cooked rice, for serving
- Let pork chop sit at room temperature at least 20 minutes. Fill a small bowl with ice water. Add scallions and soak until they begin to curl, at least 20 minutes.
- Set a large cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil. Season pork chop with salt and white pepper. Once oil is hot and shimmering, lay pork chop into skillet and cook until browned on bottom, about 4 minutes. Use tongs to hold pork chop on end and sear fat cap to render fat, about 1 minute. Flip pork chop and sear reverse side until deeply browned, about 4 minutes. Use tongs to hold pork chop on end and sear fat cap 1 minute more. Lay pork chop down, tilt skillet slightly and use a large spoon to baste pork chop with fat. Continue basting until internal temperature reads 140 degrees on a meat thermometer, about 3 minutes. (Pork chop will continue to cook as it rests.) Transfer pork chop to a cutting board and let rest at least 10 minutes.
- Drain scallions and pat dry. In a small bowl, toss scallions with a pinch of salt, 1½ tablespoons sesame oil and gochugaru. Top with sesame seeds.
- Divide remaining sesame oil into two small bowls. Sprinkle a pinch of flaky salt into each. Make the ssamjang: In a small bowl, whisk together honey, vinegar, doenjang, gochujang, fish sauce and lime juice.
- Slice pork off the bone, against the grain. Serve with kimchi and rice. Place a lettuce leaf on a plate or your hand. Add a slice of cooked pork, a dab of ssamjang, seasoned scallions, a garlic slice, a jalapeño slice and a radish slice. Fold leaf, dip in seasoned sesame oil and eat.
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