Tuesday, August 17, 2010

An ode to pig...

Nowadays, it seems more and more fashionable to vociferously boast of the merits of preparing and consuming pork. I think about the "Obsessed" episode of No Reservations, where Anthony Bourdain spends his time in-between segments butchering, waxing poetic about and massaging a full-sized pig (and its various body parts). I consider the celebration of pork that is the Whole Pig Feast presented by Chef Ben Ford at his Ford's Filling Station in Culver City. I reminisce about the whole pigs hanging from hooks at the front windows of so many Chinese restaurants, drawing crowds in with the promise of their soy sauce brown and crunchy skin. And I recall a quick glance that I stole of a recent seasonal menu at Animal on Fairfax, yielding such porcine finds as pig tails, barbeque pork belly sandwiches, pig ear, balsamic pork ribs, and bacon chocolate crunch bar.

Everywhere, the pig is getting its long overdue, but just due props.

And I myself have to admit that I also am guilty as charged...
I am a lover of pig.

In fact, my absolute favorite dish in all of Thai cuisine (and I have many favorites) is khawkhaamuu--rice with choice bits of lean and fatty pig leg, Chinese broccoli and preserved egg, all doused with a healthy dose of pork broth, in which all of the aforementioned had been slowly cooked. And my absolute favorite place to eat this heavenly creation is on Soi Laylaysaap ("the street where money disappears") in the Silom district of Bangkok. Oh, the memories of stopping by my favorite street vendor stand for lunch and buying a box lunch for 30 baht (a fraction of a dollar)!

Nonetheless, time has passed and, since returning to the states, my consumption of pork has plummeted... almost to the point that pork no longer holds that transfixing, transfiguring spell on me anymore. Yes, the pork of America is beef.

However, this new, misguided mindset has changed for me this past weekend, when my friend Edwin took a group of us to Don Dae Gam Pork BBQ. Ed explained that because beef is so expensive in Korea, pork is the standard and, as in the case of so many other formerly humble foods, the preparation of pork dishes has now been elevated to almost an art form--my own flowery hyperbole added for affect.

I can't even fathom or entirely describe in words the way that I loved the experience or the way that each individual dish rekindled my love for pork...

It has to do with the careful balance of flavors, of a splash of soy sauce with chopped peppers or a fine coat of ground salt and pepper, of the way the umami of the sauce melds with the natural sweetness of the meat and the sour spiciness of the pepper-dressed lettuce, of any level of adornment or unadornment you choose to form the perfect bite.

It has to do with the different textures, the way that grilled meat (yes, the meat pictured above is beef) becomes transformed from raw to cooked to charred, the way the fat gains so much when it starts to solidify and then crust, all wrapped in the crunch of preserved daikon or the supple softness of the rice cake (duk) wrapper.

It has to do with all the right components mixing together: the char of the perfectly wood-grilled fat; the tender, sweet and succulent meat; the fiery slow-burn of the Korean peppers; the just-right pinch of large salt crystals; the subtle richness of the sesame oil; and the well-doused, but still resilient, leafy greens.

And at Don Dae Gam, it even had something to do with the amazing accompaniments: the seafood pancake...

the spicy octopus with rice cake...

and the kimchi fried (brown) rice.

But above all else, it was the pork... the meat was of amazing quality, sliced and marinaded with great care and respect. The neck and the belly were featured in all their glory. It was like a homecoming for me, a reminder of a long lost love returned.

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