With a centerpiece of slow-cooked, super-tender, shiny-glazed pork, our roasted bo ssam is an exceptional celebration of sharing. Load a lettuce leaf with a bit of rice and kimchi, add a dab of chili sauce, some ginger and scallion relish, and crown it all with pulled pieces of pork. Delicious and fun.
When I was trying to sum up this extraordinary party-time spread, I found something that turned out to be a perfect definition from the person who first put it all together. “It’s American food, man. That’s all there is to explain.”
The pithy description is David Chang’s, a Korean American chef, and it appeared in a November 2007 profile of him by Alan Richman for GQ Magazine. Chang was specifically referring to the increasingly hyper-praised food at his first two Momofuku restaurants (Noodle Bar and Ssam Bar) in Manhattan.
His food was later loosely labeled as ‘contemporary Asian-American’. But, right from the start, Chang was dead set against any ideas of his cooking being classed as authentically Korean or Japanese or anything else. As he bluntly told Richman, “If you want authentic food, go to the authentic country.”
Our Roasted Bo Ssam
So, in the spirit of being (respectfully) anti-authentic, our recipe isn’t a replica of the Momofuku dish that kept Chang’s struggling young business afloat and helped launch him into the culinary stratosphere.
But, in terms of how the pork is cooked, we’re definitely sticking to Chang’s glorious, roasted riff on a traditional recipe for Korean bo ssam (or bossam.) That dish revolves around broth-boiled and sliced pork, rather than a roasted and pulled Boston butt (sometimes called pork neck.)
And, just like they first did at Momofuku Ssam Bar, we’re following in the footsteps of the Korean ‘original,’ where the meat and its accompaniments are eaten in a style known as ssam, a Korean term that essentially translates as ‘wrapped.’
What it also means is that you’ll be enjoying exotic little bundles of pork, kimchi, rice, scallion-ginger relish, and chili sauce in a crisp, lettuce-leaf wrap.
The pork centerpiece
This is the main attraction – hands down, no question.
The supporting cast is wonderful, and it’s just grand to eat those party-time delights ssam-style But, seriously, folks – it’s all about that outstanding roasted and glazed pork.
Its glory is rooted in two different sets of tastes and textures. On the outside, there’s a varnishing layer of salt and sugar that caramelizes into an umami-packed crust. It’s shockingly savory, with a touch of balancing, underlying sweetness.
The enveloping crust isn’t as crisp and crunchy as crackling pork rind. It’s dense and moreishly chewy, and it pulls away from the far paler meat beneath it in eighth-inch thick pieces the color of maroon-tinged gold.
Then there are the other tastes and textures from the meat within that glossy, lacquered casing. Pull it apart with a pair of forks and you’ll get ribbons of glistening, succulently tender pork infused with the intense, lingering richness of the meat’s inherent fattiness. In terms of these specific tastes and textures, you’ll be enjoying all the reasons why Boston butt has become so favored for BBQ pulled pork.
The three steps that lead to your pork masterpiece
Almost incredibly, there’s nothing complicated at all in these three steps.
The first step involves lots of salt, sugar, and refrigerator time. You just rub the pork with what may seem to be ludicrous amounts of salt and sugar and then leave it to chill overnight, covered in plastic wrap.
Step two: roast the pork, uncovered, in a 300F / 150C oven for 4 ½ hours in a snug-fitting dish, and baste it a few times with its juices. (That timing is for our five-pound hunk of pork.)
For the third step, cover the juicily basted pork with yet more sugar and salt, and sear it for 10 minutes or so with your oven running at 500F / 260C.
How simple is that? Well, when you consider the galactically good results those three steps produce, I reckon it’s off-the-scale simple.
The pork’s supporting cast
The scallion and ginger relish is pretty much pure Momofuku, and it’s great. I’d give it the Oscar for best supporting actor in our bo ssam.
It’s quick and easy to make and so versatile that I’ll definitely be making it again to go alongside a whole host of different things like scrambled eggs, toasted sandwiches, and grilled or fried fish and meat. Yep, this straightforward, stir-together of sliced scallions, grated ginger, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and light soy sauce is really that good.
As for the rest of the cast, I followed a principle that David Chang promotes in his 2021 book, Cooking at Home. Basically, it’s a no-recipe cookbook in which he advocates a ‘make-it-how-you-like-it’ approach but backs that up with some essential pointers on how you can do just that.
So, with that free-styling, keep-it-simple ethos in mind, the cabbage-based kimchi I used came from a jar. It may have been store-bought, but in terms of adding a nicely tart and mildly spicy, pickled addition to the filled lettuce-leaf wraps, it worked perfectly well. Your preferred kimchi brand will also work perfectly well. (And if, like me, you’d appreciate some guidance on which brands to look for, there are some handy reviews here.)
As to the chili sauce, an appropriate choice for our bo ssam would be Korean gochujang. You can also use your favorite hot sauce or create your own fiery concoction. For my meal, I finely chopped a dozen fresh, red Thai bird’s-eye peppers and mixed them with the zest, flesh, and juice of four fresh limes, some apple cider vinegar, paprika, and a little salt. It was a taste, stir, add, taste and repeat concoction that quickly reached the point where I’m happily thinking, ‘not bad, not bad at all’. Maybe some sugar? Oh, okay.
For the rice, I opted for the jasmine variety because, when I follow the pack’s instructions, I like the way it always cooks to a nice sticky consistency, which suits me to a tee and is spot-on for going into a leafy wrapper.
And the wraps? Fresh, firm iceberg lettuce did the job. The larger leaves had enough backbone to act as palm-sized wraps, and the smaller, crisper inner ones were grand as little edible scoops for capturing petite bits of the pork and lesser amounts of kimchi, rice, scallion-ginger relish, and hot sauce.
With oysters alongside? Hmm. Ssam Bar presents these on the half-shell for adding to your ssam. Now, that might be just dandy, but for me, the exquisite oceanic rush that comes from eating an oyster with a squeeze of lemon and a drop of Tabasco Original Red is the way I intend to continue adoring them.
Roasted Bo Ssam
For the pork and its dry cure
- 5 pound boned Boston butt
- 6 tablespoons granulated white sugar
- 4 tablespoons ground sea salt
For the pork’s glazed crust
- 5 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon ground sea salt
For the scallion and ginger relish
- 6 scallions or spring onions, sliced into 1/8-inch disks. Use all the white parts and all the crisp green leaves.
- 5 tablespoons ginger root grated skin and all
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
For the rice
- 2 cups Jasmine rice
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
For the lettuce wraps
- 1 iceberg lettuce peel off the leaves so they stay as whole as possible
Store-bought sides for serving
- 12 ounces Kimchi store-bought works well
- Hot chili sauce Gochujang is a fine choice, either you own creation or store-bought. Your favorite hot sauce works well, too.
For the pork
- Use a baking dish that will hold the pork snugly. I used a 12-inch cast-iron oval dish that’s about 2 inches deep.
- Pat the pork dry with a kitchen towel and set it in your dish. Mix the salt and sugar together and use your fingers to rub it all over the pork and into its nooks and crannies.
- Cover the pork with plastic wrap and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. (Now, ‘overnight’, isn’t very time-specific, but I left mine in its salty, sugary rub for 16 hours.) You’ll find that the rub pulls a lot of juice from the pork as it sits in the refrigerator. That’s ok, you’ll just drain it off before you start roasting the pork.
- To begin that roasting, start by turning your oven to 300F / 150C. While it’s heating, remove the pork from its dish, drain off the liquid and give the dish a quick clean. Return the pork to the cleaned dish. The pork will be pretty wet all over, and that’s fine. One thing not to do is to rinse the pork, just leave it as it is.
- Set the pork on a middle shelf and let it roast, slow-and-low, at 300F / 150C for 4 ½ hours. Then remove the park from the oven and let it sit in its dish for 15 minutes to cool.
- Turn the oven to 500F / 260C. While it’s heating, you’ll have time to glaze the pork, so it’s ready for a fast searing in that hot oven.
- So, lift the coolish pork from its dish and set it aside on plate. There’ll be a fair amount of clear, fatty liquid in the dish, together with a dark, golden-brown, thickish sort of syrup. If you tilt the dish, these two will separate and you can spoon almost all the syrup into a small bowl. Good.
- Now drain the clear, fatty liquid from the dish and discard it. You don’t need to be too fussy about this, and it’s grand to leave a little of the fat and syrup in the dish. Return the pork to the dish and spoon the reserved syrup over its top and sides.
- Mix the salt and light brown sugar together, then spoon this over the top of the pork. Use your fingers to spread and pat the mix as evenly as you can over the pork’s top and sides – but not underneath.
- Your pork’s now ready to go into that hot oven to caramelize the glaze. About 10 minutes or so will be enough to turn the glaze a maroon-golden color as it sets into a firm crust over the pork. Once that happens, your roasted bo ssam pork is done, and it’s ready to go onto a centerpiece platter or carving board.
For the scallion and ginger relish
- Add all the ingredients to a serving bowl and give everything a good stir. Done, and ready to serve.
Serving your roasted bo ssam pork
- I’d keep this really relaxed and entertaining by setting the pork center-table and arranging the side dishes all around it. That’s the rice, scallion and ginger relish, the store-bought kimchi, and the hot chili sauce (gochujang chili paste, your favorite hot sauce, or your own concoction.) Folks can then slice and pull some pork, load it on their plates with a helping of the sides, and set about creating a succession of ssam-style wraps.
A truly amazing dish! Love the tender, juicy pork with the sweet crust accented by the hotish ginger scallion relish and hot sauce.