Seoul’s Jangchung-dong’s Jokbal Alley has been the original location for the country’s best jokbal since the end of the Korean war. (Photo courtesy of rjkoehler.tumblr.com).
One must not be shy when entering into Korean cuisine–or alleyways for that matter. A walk down a neon-lit street or back-alley full of steam will most likely show tanks with unknown seafood piled upon each other, a full pig’s head, and a wooden block of steamed intestine and blood sausage. But one of the best ways to participate in Korea’s trio of social, culinary, and heavy drinking life is by inviting pig’s feet into the night.
Jokbal (족발), or pig’s trotters or braised pork foot or Korean pork shank, is a steamed/boiled and simmered pork that is one of Korea’s finest dinner and home delivery meals–on that pairs nicely with soju and socializing. Like any Korean food, there is a, perhaps easily assumed, medicinal purpose: wrinkle-free skin (due to the gelatin) and hangover prevention, due to the, well, pork. The culinary tradition and medicinal value dates as far back as the early days of the Joseon dynasty in the 16th century.
From Seoul to Busan, jokbal had made its name as one the quintessential meals in South Korea. And the heart of this scene is in Seoul’s Jangchung-dong’s (장충동) Jokbal Alley. By Korean standards, it can be above average–a small serving for two at roughly 20,000 won (원), a small group at 25,000 won, and a big table at 30,000 won–but the cost relative to the quality and culinary expertise is money well spent. The popularity has spread to Seattle and Los Angeles , as has the steamed version, bossam (보쌈), which is wrapped in cabbage or mint leaves with garlic and soybean paste. (Even Korean players in Major League Baseball feel homesick for it.) Korean pop singer JungGiGo comes from a family with a successful jokbal restaurant.
Jokbal is seasoned, simmered, and boiled for up to three hours in a large pot. The broth consists of leeks, garlic, ginger, sugar, Korean soy sauce (간정), and rice wine (청주). One cooked through, the shank is deboned and cut into slices. Typically, it is served with a salty and fermented shrimp (새우젓) along with garlic cloves and soybean past, along with other vegetables that add a non-greasy alternative. It’s greasiness compliments the strong taste of soju, working well as one of Korea’s finest anju (안주), or drinking food, dishes.
Perhaps the myth is true. Pig’s feet has taken on popularity as a natural remedy for wrinkles. (In Korea, even the temporary wrinkles caused by an extended eye brow raise can lead to comments about looking old.) But it is jokbal‘s melt-in-your-mouth feel that brings people back. Elsewhere, pig’s feet may be hard to win over for a night out or a dinner in. But it has a shot as a culinary trend once in the way that bone marrow was both a unthinkable delicacy and a dog’s dish. Is it a trend that could reach the West?
That answer can be found only by a stroll down a Seoul or Busan alley–or on a street in L.A. or a suburb in Seattle.