Saturday, February 16, 2019

Majang Meat Market

Today, I had the chance to go on one of my more educational missions: a reconnoiter of the Majang Meat Market, where legend has it that you can find pretty much any cut of red meat you might want—at Korean prices, of course. (Beef in Korea is hellaciously expensive; pork much less so, but even pork isn't exactly cheap here.)

I was specifically on the lookout for brisket. The term brisket, in the American context, is actually rather vague. In theory, the brisket cut is simply a cut of beef from the cow's breast area. The cow is constantly working the muscles in that part of its body, so the brisket is a naturally tough cut of meat, unlike the tenderloin, which is a muscle group along the lower spine that the cow never uses. The problem arises, though, when you consider how big the cut of beef is. A brisket cut can be small—around two pounds (0.9 kg)—but it can also be huge—around 25 pounds (11.3 kg). Where on earth does such a cut begin and end on a cow?

If that's not confusing enough, when you expand the question internationally and interculturally to the Korean context, you discover that there are, apparently, several Korean terms that translate as "brisket" and refer to cuts that are, maybe, somewhere in the breast-ish region of the cow. We'll talk more about this in a bit.

The Majang Meat Market is about 800 meters south of Yongdu ("Dragon Head") Station. There are one or two other subway stations not far from that neighborhood, but that's the station from which I decided to walk. I started out rather late in the day, and based on several bad experiences in the Jongno/Euljiro region, I knew that, after 5 p.m., a lot of shops would already be closing, despite it being the weekend, when many people would be out shopping. Would this be the case for the meat market as well? I was about to find out.

As you get close to the meat market, signs appear that direct you to it:

Above, the Korean term "축산물" (chuksan-mul) means "livestock."

A closer shot of one of the signs:

Things weren't looking good when I entered the neighborhood. Many establishments were already closed and shuttered, and it wasn't even 6 p.m. yet. Korea is a place of cutthroat capitalism, but it's also prey to some very anti-capitalistic impulses. Why any shop would want to close early on the weekend was utterly beyond me. Was it because the shopkeepers wanted to have a life? Ha! This is Korea! No one seriously ponders the "I want to have a life!" question: people just work. Because that's their lot in life.

Anyway, I stubbornly kept walking forward until I saw signs of life. And sure enough, quite a few meat markets were still open and doing business. It began to feel like a meat-filled version of Gwangjang Market in the Jongno district. Looking left:

Looking right:

Click on the following image to see the text on the sign; this is Samsung Livestock:

And now, we zoom in on one Korean word that translates as "brisket"—chadol (as in chadolbagi/차돌박이, marbled meat or beef brisket):

You'll have noted, above, that what's being called "brisket" is super-marbled with fat, unlike the American version of brisket, which is generally a tough, solid chunk of meat that often has a mighty fat cap on top that is usually shaved off before the brisket goes into the smoker for a 14-hour smoke. US brisket, in cross-section, looks like a tough tenderloin.

Below is a random shot of some beautifully marbled meat:

The Samsung Livestock store didn't have anything approaching the brisket I was looking for, but the next store over, called Jeongseon Livestock Distribution, did. (I'm tempted to translate Jeongseon as "TruLine," but the Chinese characters doubtless mean something different.) This place was being managed by what appeared to be a husband-and-wife team. I got the feeling the two were married based on how they took turns talking, supplying me with complementary bits of information and finishing each other's sentences. We had to talk over what exactly I meant by "brisket" first—partly through the use of photos I called up on my cell phone—and we all came to the conclusion that we weren't talking about chadol, nor were we talking about another term translated as brisket: buchae. Instead, we were talking about yangji (양지) or yangjimeori (양지머리), which is the term that, it turns out, refers directly to what Americans recognize as brisket.

I was a bit disappointed, though, when I saw what the ajeossi brought out:

That's brisket, all right, but it's the puniest one I've ever seen. Despite the label saying the weight was over 6 kg (maybe that signifies the original weight of the slab from which this piece had been cut...?), the meat in that package weighed in at barely 1.25 kg. Still: I had found my brisket, so I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Cost for 1.25 kg: W60,000. Ouch. That's W4,800 per 100 g. If you do the conversion to dollars per pound, that's a whopping $19 per pound. Slap yo' mama. This 2014 article, titled "Brisket Ain't Cheap," complains that Texas brisket, at the time, was going for $2.79 to $3.05 per pound. The horror!

I decided, on impulse, to buy some brisket right then and there. Since I was also shopping for a coworker, I bought him a 1.25-kg slab along with my own slab, so I went back to my place with 2.5 kilos of brisket. Since I'm ultimately going to make brisket sandwiches along with Greek gyros next month, I don't actually need much more than what I bought. That said, since I plan to do some scientific experiments with the brisket I have (I'll talk about that in a sec), I might need to go back and buy more next month.

Here's a shot of Jeongseon Livestock Distribution:

Finally, here's a shot of a different shop's beef chart. Note that this one is showing buchae-sal as the word for "brisket":

You'd think there'd be more precision, in both Korea and the States, when it comes to referring to cuts of meat. Muscle groups are muscle groups, after all, and there's only a finite number of them. It doesn't help that Korean beef-cut charts can't get their story straight. From Korean Wikipedia, here's the supposed location of the yangji cut of beef:

Note the location is somewhat behind the cow's front leg. Now here's some other online source's notion (stolen from Wikipedia?) of where the cut of beef is:

See how this chart locates the yangji as level with the front leg?

Brisket really shouldn't be such a mystery. What I may do, in the near future, is visit some local US-style BBQ joints and simply ask them where they get their brisket from. Not that I have the facilities to cook a full-size brisket, but after having done this educational tour of the Majang Meat Market, I'm curious to know more. Questions lead to more questions.

Anyway, it was a productive Saturday, which is unusual, given what I slob I am on weekends.

One last note: US sources can't get their story straight, either.

US Wikipedia's image for brisket is the same as Korean Wikipedia's (probably because Korean Wikipedia ripped off the image from US Wikipedia):

Another section of Wikipedia offers this image—apparently the British way of looking at brisket:

Wikipedia notes that the word brisket varies internationally in its definition. No shit. And here in Korea, with several words all being translated as "brisket," it becomes very difficult to communicate to the butcher exactly what one wants. Thank goodness for cell-phone photos, right? Images will save us all in the end.

On a personal note, I found it surreal to be talking about cuts of meat in Korean. There was a moment, when I was talking with the Samsung Livestock people, where I actually had to correct the ajumma when she went off on a tangent and tried to equate what I wanted with beef tenderloin (anshim or anshim-sal in Korean). Despite being far more fluent in French, I'm not actually sure I have the necessary vocabulary to carry on such a discussion in French. I guess that's the difference between living only a few months in France versus nearly fourteen years in South Korea.

Oh, right—about the aforementioned scientific experiments: I have only 1.25 kg of meat to work with, so I'm going to experiment with two methods for prepping the brisket: low-and-slow in the oven, and low-and-steady in the crock pot. I'm going to brine the beef that's going into the oven, and I suspect that that's going to lead to a much better result. Bake times for brisket seem to be roughly one hour per pound of beef, but I'm going to go for somewhat longer than that. If I end up ruining both halves, I'll buy more and apply what I've learned from my experiments. I do have high hopes, though, for the brining.

Here, by the way, is a video of a 20-some-pound brisket being prepped in a way-too-small smoker. The guy's apparently a champion barbecuer, so I guess he knows what he's doing.

PS: I just discovered that, along with the terms chadol and yangji, the term chadol-yangji also exists, and given some of the pictures I've seen online, it may refer to the full-size brisket that I, as an American, immediately think of when you say "brisket." Chadol-yangji! And this is what makes language learning both fun and frustrating. I'm gonna go find a baseball bat and hit myself in the nuts for a couple hours.


Charles said...

I remember back when I used to do freelance technical translation, I had one project that required me to become very familiar with what the various cuts of meat are called in the US and Korea, and I discovered what you discovered--that it's often a crap shoot.

When we go for brisket, we pretty much always just get yangi. I refuse to recognize buchae as brisket. If you can slice it and toss it over a charcoal fire as is, it ain't brisket as far as I'm concerned.

Kevin Kim said...

That makes sense to me: buchae doesn't look anything like brisket in cross-section. No doubt it tastes great, what with all the marbling, but it's obviously not the same muscle group.