Juicy slices of pork wrapped up in leaves with an array of beguiling condiments both salty and spicy make up a Korean classic that's one of the great party dishes, writes Tony Tan.
Koreans get misty-eyed whenever bo ssäm is mentioned and I can understand why. One of the least demanding Korean specialties to make, bo ssäm is a wonderful composite dish that first made a big impact in the Western world when David Chang offered it at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you have bo ssäm in a Korean restaurant, however, the original version is far from that presented by chef Chang. In these restaurants, the pork is almost always simmered, whereas Chang roasts the pork.
So what is bo ssäm? According to walking encyclopedia and importer of Korean food Paul Lee of Melbourne-based Table 181, bo is an abbreviation of bojagi, the traditional gift-wrapping cloth and ssäm means "to wrap". Bo ssäm uses leaves - of butter lettuce, say, or cabbage - to wrap slices of meat with a selection of dipping sauces and side dishes such as kimchi. It can also include raw garlic and fresh chilli; more often than not, oysters are served, too, and this is sometimes called gul bo ssäm. In Korea, it's served during the all-important autumn kimchi-making season called kimjang when wombok, or Chinese cabbage, is plentiful.
To make traditional bo ssäm, you need some planning and a soupçon of patience. For optimum dining pleasure, there are six elements: brining the cabbage for wrapping; making the two side dishes, bo ssäm kimchi and an instant Chinese cabbage kimchi called gut juri; cooking the pork and making the two dipping sauces, one with ssämjang, a mixture of doenjang (Korean soy bean paste) and gochujang (Korean chilli paste), and the other with saeujeot, fermented shrimp.
If you are time-poor, you can serve one side dish and drop the salted shrimp sauce. At a pinch, you could buy ssämjang and kimchi, though it's not quite the same.
Soaking the pork belly removes the blood and porky scent. It's then simmered with flavouring ingredients such as onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and doenjang (a form of Korean miso), though some cooks may add ginseng, jujubes (Korean dates), nashi and soju. While it's bubbling away, you make the instant kimchi and dipping sauces. Once the pork is done, slice it into bite-sized pieces and serve it with your choice of condiments.
The classic way to eat bo ssäm is to place a leaf of shiso (aka perilla) over a brined cabbage or lettuce leaf and top with a slice of pork. Dab the pork with ssämjang or saeujeot and top it with kimchi, an oyster and wrap the whole thing up into a parcel, then eat it with your fingers. It's deliciously messy fun.
For the roasted version, rub the pork with a quarter of a cup each of salt and sugar, then refrigerate it overnight. Drain off the juices and bake the pork in a 140C oven, basting regularly, for four hours until it is fork tender, then remove it, sprinkle it with brown sugar and salt and roast it at 220C for another 10-15 minutes until the sugar is caramelised. Rest it for at least 10 minutes before slicing it and serving with side dishes and wine or beer.
- 1 small Chinese cabbage, about 1kg, outer leaves removed, quartered
- 200 gm coarse sea salt
- 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (optional)
- 2-3 long green chillies, seeds discarded (optional), thinly sliced
- To serve: shucked oysters
Chinese cabbage kimchi (gut juri)
- 70 gm (¼ cup) coarse sea salt
- 1 kg Chinese cabbage (about 1 large), cut into bite-sized pieces
- 10 gm glutinous rice flour
- 15 gm ginger, finely chopped
- 3 tbsp Korean chilli powder
- 2 tbsp anchovy extract or fish sauce
- 2 tbsp fermented prawns, finely chopped (see note)
- 2 tbsp maesil (Korean green plum extract; see note)
- 2 tbsp konbu water or water
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tsp roasted sesame seeds, to serve
- 1 nashi, coarsely grated
- 5 spring onions, thinly sliced
- 2 kg piece belly pork or shoulder, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, drained
- 30 gm ginger, thinly sliced
- 7-10 garlic cloves
- 1 onion, halved
- 1 long green chilli, halved lengthways
- 2 tbsp doenjang or soy sauce (see note)
- 1 tsp white peppercorns
Ssämjang dipping sauce
- 2 tbsp doenjang (Korean soy bean paste)
- 2 tbsp gochujang (Korean chilli paste)
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp honey
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- 1 spring onion, thinly sliced
Saeujeot dipping sauce
- 70 gm preserved shrimp, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp Korean chilli powder
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 1 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tbsp caster sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1Place cabbage leaves in a bowl. Stir sea salt into 2 litres warm water until dissolved. Pour over cabbage and set aside until leaves are limp but still have some crunch (at least 4 hours).
- 2Rinse cabbage under cold running water (discard brine), squeeze out excess moisture and set aside.
- 3For Chinese cabbage kimchi, stir salt and 1 litre warm water until salt dissolves.
- 4Pour brine over cabbage in a non-reactive container and set aside for 30 minutes to brine.
- 5Meanwhile, place rice flour in a bowl and mix in 125ml cold water until smooth, then transfer to a small saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove from heat and cool completely.
- 6Combine 2 tbsp rice flour mixture in a large bowl with ginger, chilli powder, anchovy extract, fermented prawns, maesil, kombu water or water, garlic and sesame seeds.
- 7Drain cabbage in colander, rinse under cold running water, drain again and add to bowl along with nashi and spring onion. Mix well to combine and refrigerate until required.
- 8For pork belly, combine pork, remaining ingredients and enough cold water to cover in a saucepan, bring to the boil over medium-high heat, skim surface, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until very tender (1½-2 hours).
- 9For ssämjang dipping sauce, stir ingredients and 2 tbsp water in a bowl to combine well. For sauejeot dipping sauce, mix ingredients and 1 tbsp water in a separate bowl to combine well. Drain pork, then slice into 2cm-thick pieces. Arrange on a serving plate with, cabbage and lettuce for wrapping, oysters, garlic, chillies, kimchi and dipping sauces.
Note The Chinese cabbage kimchi recipe comes courtesy of Paul Lee of importer Table 181. All the Korean ingredients can be sourced from Korean grocers and online from Melbourne-based Korean food specialist Table 181.