A short history of Bo Ssam; possibly the world’s greatest sharing dish for groups
There’s a famous story in Korea. It’s part myth and part fact, and like many good things it revolves around the fermented Korean staple – kimchi. The story goes that one year, around the late 19th century, an oddly compassionate non-kimchi-making aristocrat became concerned that his servants were becoming beleaguered by the labour of preparing the winter stock of kimchi. For morale, or potentially to just keep them energised enough to work, the anonymous noble caught a pig and hosted a great neighbourhood feast. The boar, being wild, was boiled to keep the gamey stench down and served with kimchi. As the ferment was only young, the kimchi was crisp and fresh, a good complement to the fatty meat. It was a delicious meal and a tradition was born.
That dish is what we now call Bo Ssam, though it’s changed a lot since Joseon-era Korea. It’s still boiled, often with ginger and onions, but now it’s made almost exclusively with pork shoulder and served with raw garlic cloves, raw green chilies, pickled fermented shrimp (like a shrimp brine), kimchi, ssamjang (a thick, complex fermented chili and soybean sauce), lettuce and raw oysters.
Of course, that’s all just the traditional Korean way. Some modern Bo Ssam restaurants will use other meats and sauces, David Chang insists on roasting the pork shoulder at New York’s Momofuku Ssam Bar and at Sake Neil Perry serves a slightly Japanese version. “We take short rib, 36-month Cape Grim, marinate it in soy, mirin, sake and garlic, and slow-cook it. Out of the slow cooking we add miso paste and roast it until it’s really glazed,” he says. With that you get Perry’s own red miso, mirin and sake-tweaked ssamjang; his fresh kimchi; spinach with a sesame and chilli dressing and garlic boiled in dashi, rather than served raw. “The raw garlic is heavy duty, it’s intense,” he says. “We simmer the garlic until it’s like a French roast. It’s part of mellowing the whole dish out.”
The idea, both with the old-school edition and Perry’s innovation on it, is to combine all the elements in one mouthful. “You get a cup of lettuce, top it with meat, the garlic, the kimchi and a nice dollop of sauce and eat it with your hands,” says Perry.
Together it’s quite an intense experience – fatty, sour, crunchy, pillowy, umami-rich, salty, fresh and slightly bitter all at once. With all the elements in the middle of the table, it’s the perfect dish for a group to dig in to, don’t fret too much about how to pile it all up – it’s best to improvise and call your own shots.