Korean food basics: Jokbal
Jokbal (족발) is one of those divisive Korean foods that people tend to either love or hate. Even if you haven’t eaten it, you’ve probably seen it in the market; those huge piles of whole pig’s trotter are kinda hard to miss. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to eat it, and I regret that, because jokbal isn’t anything like as disgusting as it might look to the intrepid foreign visitor to Korea. Seasoned Seoul hands probably won’t find anything in this blog post they don’t already know, but if you’re new to the country, or want to branch out a bit from Vatos and Linus BBQ, read on.
What is jokbal? Simply put, it’s pig’s foot (or leg) seasoned, boiled and deboned. It’s beyond the scope of this post to explain how it’s cooked, since I am now 40 and my bucket list emphatically does not include standing in my kitchen boiling raw pig’s trotters in my spare time, but suffice to say that the feet are boiled up for a few hours (recipes vary) with a mixture of scallion or leek, garlic, soy sauce (간장), rice wine (청주), sugar and whatnot until they are as bronzed as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sliced and served up on a large plate with the usual accompaniments of lettuce leaves and shrimp seasoning (새우젓), it almost looks respectable. The meat is quite greasy and somewhat gamey, but if you enjoy pork then it shouldn’t really be very challenging. Dip in the shrimp for some seasoning, add some ssamjang and garlic, wrap it up in a leaf and go for it. The meat from the front leg has more flavour, but can be unpleasantly chewy for the first-timer; the meat from the back leg is said to be meatier and more tender. Your call.
In fact, jokbal’s one of the most distinctive dishes you can get here, and it’s worth trying at least once. I now find myself caught right in the middle, on the fine line between love and hate. I didn’t care for it at first, but when you go to a good, down-to-earth jokbal restaurant and have the real thing, it grows on you.
Many jokbal places give you bits and pieces of pork goodness as free accompaniments. At Mapo King Jokbal (마포왕족발) in Gongdeok Market, near to Sinchon, they bring a bubbling bowl of sundaeguk (순대국), which is a soup made with Korean blood sausage, and a plate of sundae with some other odd pieces of pig. If this is all a bit too adventurous for you (I am not a fan of sundae, I must confess), then just wait for the main event.
Needless to say, this being Korea, jokbal is held to have health-giving properties; good for the skin, due to the collagen in the trotters, it’ll have your wrinkles gone in no time, or so they say. It’s also said to be good for hangovers, which seems counter-intuitive given that everyone in the joint is usually pounding back soju like it’s going out of fashion – but hey, when in Rome. I’m not quite Korean enough to eat jokbal for breakfast to find out, so I’ll take their word for it. After all, it’s not like Korea ever makes bullshit health claims for its delicacies, right? What? Oh.
Where should you go for jokbal? I’m firmly of the view that this is a food for eating in a grimy back-alley eaterie that’s been churning out the same dish for half a century. The two best places in Seoul to get it are at the afore-mentioned Gongdeok Market (공덕시장), which is at exit 5 of Gongdeok station on line 6, halfway between Itaewon and Sinchon – take the first left out of the exit and wander the stalls of jokbal, fried snacks and binddaedeok (mung bean pancakes, which are also much nicer than they sound) – or at Jangchung’s “Jokbal alley” (장충 족발 골목), where some of the places have been in business since before the Korean War, such as 뚱뚱이할머니집 (which I think translates as “Fat Grandma’s House”) and which supposedly started life in Pyongyang before moving down south in the 50’s. Go to Dogguk University subway (동대입구역) and head out of exit 3, following the road round to the right for a couple of minutes until you hit the good stuff.
Of course you can get jokbal everywhere – in Busan they serve it up as naengchae jokbal (냉채족발), below, with mustard sauce and cold jellyfish salad – yes, you’re reading that right. I could probably live out the rest of my years without eating that again.
I must admit that, even without sliced-up jellyfish on the plate with it, I will never love jokbal the way that I love bossam, samgyeopsal or Kim Tae-Hee. But good jokbal is something worth seeking out, even if only for the Facebook pictures that your friends back home will goggle at, and who knows – you may end up loving it.