Meat Mats

Friend’s Tofu House

Feast. Gam-ja-tang.


If we rewind time back to my early days in high school, you would quickly find out that my FIQ (Food IQ) was fairly low. Given that piece of vital information, one could reasonably extrapolate that I also had no idea what Korean food entailed. Not surprising. My knowledge of it either didn’t exist, or I thought it was something about tofu soup (I’m not even sure it was that much).

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Banchan!

I was probably fortunate that I ended up going to school at UCLA; albeit it wasn’t for any sort of food-related decisions. At the time, I was more interested in getting as far away from home as possible and picking a place that had a relatively strong science program. Heading off to one of the most culinarily (not a word) diverse cities on the west coast, I’m glad I stuck around. I’ve done my best to learn some of the food culture behind the large diversity of Korean foods I typically love to eat; the bibimbaps, gam-ja-tang, galbi-tang, banchan, yu-chae namul, kimchee…I gotta say, it’s moved up in the hierarchy of Asian foods that just keep coming back in different shapes and forms, all the while remaining tasty as hell.

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Shapes and forms. More ways to eat broccoli.

Kam-ja-tang is a beautiful dish. Sophisticated pork vertebrae bones stacked on top of a crimson chile broth, fresh green onion, perilla, and yellow potato simmering in the extra soup below. On a cold rainy day, this is the ultimate sick food. Meaty from the pork, hot, spicy, and warm from the soup, and comforting from the potato. Add the vegetables in there, and the entire mess is just a recipe for a flu-busting meal. The most difficult part of kam-ja-tang, is working around the vertebrae bones to extract the maximum amount of meat. ARRR…it’s angering, I tell ya. You’re poking and prodding with your chopsticks and breaking the bones on the back of your molars, and yet that itty-bitty piece of meat remains stuck in the cranny. It is frustrating indeed; “WHY?!” I scream, “WHY couldn’t they have just given me a boneless pork chop in there?!”

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Gorgeous.

Anyway, something I’ve always wondered about restaurant stews is if they steep the “eating” meat for long periods of time within the stock/soup base of the meal, as I feel this would actually detract from the flavor of the meat, unless steeped in a very concentrated broth. I say “eating” meat because when making a soup base, one is also able to utilize not only bone but meat; this meat is usually extracted of all of its goodies, so it’s most likely discarded. Any true kitchen aficionado doesn’t believe in waste, so what could we do with this dry stringy protein that might be delicious, and perhaps even pretty?

Before we continue, there’s a difference between broth and stock. Stock is liquid from bones, meat, and/or vegetables. Broth is liquid from meat, and/or vegetables. Basically, stock is usually heartier than broth. Okay, end technicality.

When we sacrifice a piece of beautiful meat to the molecular happenings of extraction, the water-soluble dialysates of muscle (ammonia, acetaldehyde, acetone, diacetyl, aromatic fatty acids, dimethylsuphide…etc etc) end up binding to the solvent (water molecules). If they bind, they gradually migrate out of muscle, as the water content outside is much greater. If you increase the kinetic energy of a body of water, the solubility of these compounds theoretically increases as well, as heating allows increased rates of water bond breakage and reformation with other flavor compounds. Furthermore, the probability that a water molecule will run into a flavor compound is greater, as higher levels of kinetic energy confer more molecular vibration, not to mention that simmering is also a physical means of water disturbance. Given enough time, water-soluble compounds/flavors are extracted out, leaving behind stringy, near-tasteless strands of amino acids. This is why, like before, I believe that unless “eating” meat is steeped in concentrated stock, there will be some degree of flavor extraction. A nice thing to keep in mind when you eat things in broth.

Extracted meat isn’t garbage though, it just needs some help.

What you’ll need.

Extracted meat.
Some seasoning.
Some oil.
Saucepan.
Frying pan.
Super concentrated stock with lots of gelatin.

  1. Pick apart the strands of meat and lie them side by side, length-wise, so they’re kind of bunched together like a japanese bamboo mat. “Meat mats,” I like to call them. Make sure they’re flat, and that they form a coherent mat by crosslinking. At this point you can season them how you like. Salt, pepper, whatever else fancies your palate.

  2. In a saucepan, heat up a shallow pot of low-smoke point oil to about 400 Fahrenheit. In a frying pan, heat up some beef tallow or olive oil or fat of choice. When hot, carefully place your “string mats of meat” and begin to brown. Carefully flip them. When they have a nice brown on both sides and have begun to fuse together, put in a bit of stock and let it reduce slowly, making sure to shake the pan so the mats don’t stick to the pan. Reduce the stock down until it’s fairly sticky, and make sure the sticky stock gets on the meat mats, both sides.

Because the meat is so disintegrated, what we’re doing is adding flavor a la the binding, where the protein just provides the final structure.

  1. When you can pick up the mats without them breaking (usually after several small reductions of stock), throw them into the pot of oil for about 30-45 seconds, and then let them air out.

Now you have a crispy meat mat garnish that can be stuck in a mound of mashed potatoes. Or the new protein potato chip?