June 25, 2024

Sunday was Fathers’ Day, and there is nothing Dads love more than grilling out. The documentary Korean Pork Belly Rhapsody  on Netflix takes this passion to a new level. The most important thing to know is that when it comes to pork, Koreans are absolutely not playing around. The first part of the two-part documentary opens with cooking a two whole pigs in a pit that is filled with hot rocks and charcoal, covered with earth.  The pigs themselves are filled with potatoes, and seasoned with pine branches and mugwort. The cooks make a small hole, and then pour in water, which results in a geyser. As they describe it, it is a pressure cooker made out of dirt. According to the cooks, approximately 10 tons of firewood and 10 tons of rocks are involved.   


If this show had a thesis statement, it would 100% be “Koreans really like pork.” It is hosted by Korean food personality Baek Jong-won, and produced by KBS1, more or less the Korean PBS. The narration and dialogue is in Korean, with subtitles. Reading is a small price to pay for the way this documentary shifts a lot of the conventions that are embedded in most food documentaries in recent TV history. Many food related documentaries, inspired by Anthony Bourdain (RIP), begin with a trip to the airport, and a US personality reporting on the food they find in Cambodia, Australia, or Houston. Samin Nosrat’s Netflix show works like this, as does much of the TV David Chang has done. John T. Edge does similar in a Southeastern footprint. Regardless of how many air miles are involved, all of these documentaries are about celebrating what they cook in a place. What makes KPBR different is that it is someone telling us what we cook. It is a subtle difference, but it really animates the documentary. 

Most of all, Jong-won’s narrative is animated by a clear awareness that access to animal protein is not something Koreans take for granted. The pig, we learn, is a relatively recent addition to the diets of many Koreans, for some of whom beef represented an unattainable luxury. This regard for the pig manifests in the ways that we see people taking cooking pigs very seriously. If you are lucky, you have been to the kind of Korean restaurant that has a grill in the middle, where you can cook the cuts of raw meat the waiter brings you. KPBR visits one of the artisans who has devoted the last forty years of his life to designing and building the grills that go on top of that fire. As he explains this, the shape of the grill and even the type of iron used can have a big impact on the finished product. 

The delight of this documentary comes in the way it moves from subtle to completely off the chain. One moment, we are privy to an intense conversation concerning four-millimeter vs five-millimeter thickness for grilling pork belly, and the next moments we are grilling entire pork bellies on rocks that have been heated to 1,100 Fahrenheit with charcoal. The throughline is respect and regard for the pig. 

The documentary is in two parts of approximately forty-five minutes each, and the second part moves from a focus specifically on the belly to the other parts of the pig. We visit a restaurant that specializes in preparing cuts from the pig’s head in as many ways as possible. We learn a little bit about Sundae, which in this context is a blood sausage, not an ice cream treat. We visit another restaurant that has been serving and replenishing the same pigs’ feet broth for sixty years. Koreans take pigs seriously, and that means being serious about using the whole animal. Curiously for a US audience, the biggest challenge for Korean meat marketers is finding uses for the relatively lean hams and shoulders that are considered the choicest parts for Western consumers. 

The other major departure KPBR performs is that it honors tradition, even as it embraces innovation. Toward the close of the second episode, there is an intense focus on the ways that various cooks are working to butcher the pig in new ways. We meet pig farmers experimenting with feeding pigs quinoa, and the man whose life’s work was breeding a Berkshire cross adapted for Korean tastes.  

It would be malpractice not to mention the theme song, by Korean punk legends Crying Nut. It sounds like The Dropkick Murphys hit the Duolingo real hard. It does not appear to be on the band’s Spotify page, so you will have to watch the documentary if you want to hear the song. 

Jonathan Beecher Field was born in New England, educated in the Midwest, and teaches in the South. He Tweets professionally as @ThatJBF, and unprofessionally as @TheGurglingCod. He also sometimes writes for Avidly and Common-Place.


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