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Recipe: Samgyeopsal Ssam (Pork Belly Lettuce Wrap)

by Simon on February 22, 2011

It’s an evening on a weeknight. You’re tired, hungry and perhaps still a little stressed from the day’s events. There aren’t any leftovers to speak of to reheat so you’re stuck with preparing something from scratch.

Regardless of your background and nationality, there are certain meals that we tend to fall back on during these times. Perhaps it’s some pesto tossed through spaghetti. Perhaps it’s a quick stir fry. Maybe it’s even a steak & salad. Whatever the meal, it’s usually something simple, something that is quick to prepare, and is (ideally) nutritious and tasty.

Samgyeopsal ssam, fried pork belly & rice with a special chili sauce wrapped in a lettuce leaf, is one of my go-to no-fuss weeknight dinners. 


Samgyeopsal ssam (pronounced similar to sum-giyop-sarl ssum, with a sharp emphasis on the double-S) is the amalgam of two distinct Korean dishes in their own right – samgyeopsal & ssam.

Samgyeopsal is nothing more than uncured pork belly, sliced thin like bacon but with the rind removed. The name, which translates to “three layered meat”, is a description of the strata of meat and fat that invariably makes up this cut. Typically, it prepared in the Korean BBQ style i.e. cooked and eaten at the table one piece at a time. Traditionally, the cooked meat is dipped into a salt & pepper dipping sauce prior to consumption.

Ssam on the other hand is a collective term for any dish that involves wrapping some flat food item around other food items (ssam is the Korean word for wrap). The wrap device often is some form of lettuce leaf, though it can also be blanched cabbage, perilla (shiso) leaves, various leaf-based kimchi, dried laver/seaweed, and can, apparently, even be meat.

Almost no ssam is considered complete without ssamjang (jang is pronounced so that it rhymes with rung). Whilst the translation is simply “wrap paste”, it refers to a specific thick condiment paste that can range from mild to spicy depending on the original heat and the amount used of one of the core components of the sauce, the Korean fermented chili paste gochujang.

At its most elemental, samgyeopsal saam incorporates the three elements of fried pork belly, lettuce wrap and sauce. However, quite often it’s dressed up further with additional fillings. These can include, but are not exclusive to, slices of raw garlic, slices of green chili, various forms of kimchi & various types of banchan; those little side dishes typically served with Korean food.

The recipe below incorporates the elements mentioned above, as well as the salt & pepper dipping sauce for samgyeopsal. Use the dipping sauce as an additional layer of flavour to the ssam, or just as a dipping sauce with samgyeopsal on its own, as it’s originally intended.

I hope you enjoy this simple, quick & tasty no-fuss recipe. I trust that you’ll find, like I do, that with the combination of these simple elements, the whole is indeed greater than the ssam of its parts.

Samgyeopsal Saam

Ssamjang (makes approx. 1/2 cup)
Ingredients

3 Tbsp doenjang (Korean miso paste)
2 Tbsp gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste)
1/2 tsp dark sesame oil
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp soy sauce (optional)
2 tsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)
1 tsp garlic, minced (optional)
1 tsp spring onions (optional)

Method

  1. Combine the doenjang, gochujang and sugar and stir vigorously with a spoon until sugar has dissolved
    • The graininess of the sugar crystals should no longer be perceivable.
  2. Add the sesame oil and stir to combine.
  3. Stir in optional ingredients as you see fit, or not at all if you want to keep it simple.
    • Soy sauce should only be added if the mixture can tolerate a little extra salt.

Salt & Pepper Dipping Sauce (1 serve)

Ingredients

1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp dark sesame oil

Method

  1. Add all the ingredients into a small sauce dish and stir until just combined.
    • The salt & pepper should not be dissolved into the sesame oil, assuming it even can.
    • Whilst regular salt can be used, a neutral crystallised finishing salt like sea salt flakes or Maldon can add a nice crunchy texture.

Samgyeopsal Saam (per person)

Ingredients

8-12 strips of samgyeopsal pork belly
8-12 lettuce leaves
a bowl of steamed rice
ssamjang
salt & pepper dipping sauce

Method

  1. Without seasoning the meat, fry the samgyeopsal in a frying pan with a little oil until browned.
  2. Wash and dry lettuce leaves.
    • Lettuce leaves should be at least palm sized and no larger than a cupped hand. Divide larger leaves into smaller pieces if necessary.

To prepare the ssam at the table:

  1. Place a lettuce leave in one hand.
  2. Add a small spoonful of rice.
  3. Dip the cooked samgyeopsal into the salt & pepper dipping sauce and place it on top of the rice.
  4. Add a small amount of ssamjang.
  5. Wrap into a parcel small enough to be consumed in a single bite.

Notes

  • Samgyeopsal in its raw form can be purchased over the counter at some Asian butcheries. Otherwise, it will need to be ordered in advance as it requires the pork belly to be frozen to make it easy for the butcher to slice it to the desired bacon-like thickness.
  • A convenient alternative is to seek out this cut of meat in the freezer section of most Asian groceries. I find that the meat can sometimes be sliced a little too thin, as its intended to be used in hotpots or shabu-shabu, and can end up being a little dry and easy to overcook. It may not be quite the same but it’s still pretty good none the less.
  • For the rest of the ingredients, they’re readily available at all Korean groceries. They can quite often be available at other Asian food stores too, especially the Chinese and Japanese ones.
  • Whilst it may seem not worth your while to purchase a host of Korean-specific condiments for just this recipe, if you factor in their relatively long shelf life, the fact that these ingredients are the cornerstone of any Korean kitchen & that there will be more Korean recipe posts to come in future, if you have an interest in cooking Korean food at home, I’m sure that these ingredients will be put to good use.
  • Ssamjang can also be used as a condiment to be paired with raw vegetables; typically cuts of cucumber, onion, garlic or green chilies.
  • Adjust the heat of the ssamjang by varying the ratio of gochujang & doenjang. The ssamjang in this recipe leans towards the milder side of the heat spectrum.
  • For those of you that are such a chili wimps that paprika makes you lunge for the nearest glass of water, or if you otherwise don’t care for chili, an acceptable alternative to ssamjang is to use doenjang (pronounced dwen-jang), the Korean fermented miso paste, on its own without anything else added. As with ssamjang, it likewise pairs well with the aforementioned vegetables.
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