Why It Works
- Washing, blanching, and then cooking the pork with flavorings helps wash away any funky aromas or flavors.
- Brining the cabbage leaves seasons them and makes them limp enough to use as a wrapper.
The recipe and introductory material are by Korean chef Seoyoung Jung, as told to her collaborator, writer Sonja Swanson.
Bossam—thin slices of velvety boiled pork belly wrapped in cabbage with fresh, crunchy kimchi and seasonings—can be eaten any time you're craving a flavorful, meaty feast. But in Korea, there’s one time of year when we always, always eat bossam: at the beginning of winter, right after finishing our annual kimchi-making process. We call this tradition gimjang, and it’s a long, labor-intensive process.
Bossam and the Kimchi-Making Process
Just to give you an idea of how much work it entails, my mother-in-law used to do gimjang with anywhere from 200 to 300 heads of cabbage. One head of cabbage easily weighs anywhere from three to four kilograms (six and a half to nine pounds). Imagine cutting, brining, and rinsing hundreds of them. And that’s just day one. On day two, you have to shred dozens of mu radishes (Korean radishes that are, again, easily three kilos each) and mix gallons of chile powder, fish sauce, garlic, and more before slathering this "stuffing," called sok, onto every single leaf.
That's why gimjang is typically a community event. You have to help each other—there’s simply no way one person could do all that work alone. During gimjang, on the day after all the cabbages were brined, my aunties and grandmother would gather at our house. We’d sit together, mixing and spreading the sok onto the cabbage leaves. (Though technically I didn’t do very much work; I’d mainly run around to different aunties, getting bites of fresh kimchi from each of them.)
Meanwhile, my grandfather would be busy at the firepit in our courtyard. There, he'd light a fire under a large cauldron and begin preparing bossam for everyone. Once the last of the kimchi was packed away in clay pots buried in the yard, it was time to eat. Back when meat was more precious, sharing such a feast was a way to celebrate gimjang and show gratitude to all the people who'd come to help out.
How to Prepare Bossam
As you prepare your bossam, keep in mind that in Korea, not all meaty flavors are considered good. Most traditional recipes attempt to remove certain funky flavors and aromas from the meat during the cooking process. To do so in my recipe, I first rinse the raw pork belly and then briefly blanch it in boiling water. You can blanch it in plain water, or you can use the starchy water collected from rinsing rice, which is prized in Korea for the subtle starchy flavor it adds to foods.
Next, I simmer the pork in a poaching liquid that I've already infused with bay leaf, cinnamon, ginger, doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste), and alliums like scallion, garlic, and onion. Some people even add instant coffee to the water to further cover up and strip away any strong porky notes. (Many, if not all, of these poaching ingredients are ones that you’ll already have on-hand if you’re doing gimjang; since you’re already doing a ton of work for the kimchi, you might as well keep your bossam easy.)
Color is also pretty important to us: If you want your meat to look a little darker, you can add more doenjang to the pot, and leave your onion skins on. That instant coffee I mentioned before also helps add color to the pork.
Once the meat is fork-tender, I take it out and shock it quickly under cold running water. You don’t want it to get cold, but the idea here is to tighten up the surface of the meat just enough that it'll hold together when you slice it thinly.
On your bossam platter, you’ll want to have either the sok from your gimjang, if it’s that time of year, or mu malaengi muchim (seasoned, rehydrated radish) for a spicy, crunchy kick. There's no need to make your own mu malaengi muchim—you can find it at any Korean grocery store—but sok is the kind of thing you'll need to prepare at home.
How to Eat Bossam
Well-prepared bossam features pork that's tender but still holds together, and it’s best when layered with a variety of seasonings in a vegetable wrap. Bossam platters can get really fancy (some even include raw oysters or fermented skate), but my perfect bite of bossam is a bit simpler.
I start by tearing off one leaf of Napa cabbage that's been brined in salted water long enough to season it nicely and give it a tender texture. Then I take a piece of pork and lightly dunk it into a dip made from equal parts saewoo jeot (salted shrimp) and soju, plus a few extra seasonings. I place the pork on the cabbage leaf, followed by one sliver of raw garlic and a touch of ssamjang (a savory dipping sauce made with fermented chile and soy). After that, I pile on three pieces of mu malaengi muchim (rehydrated dried radish strips seasoned with chile, garlic, and something sweet); alternatively, you can use fresh sok if you've just done gimjang. If you’re a huge fan of heat, you can add one slice of a spicy green chile into your ssam, or wrap, as well. Finally, I wrap the cabbage leaf around it all and eat it in one big, delicious bite. (For a visual step-by-step guide to assembling a bite, see the recipe directions below.)
In the rare event that you actually have any bossam left over, you can vacuum seal it or wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge for about three days. For longer storage, you can also freeze the meat, microwaving or steaming it to reheat (the latter will help it retain moisture).
For the Cabbage:
Kosher or sea salt
1/2 head Napa cabbage (from about one 2-pound; 900g head), core and tough exterior leaves removed (tender yellow inner leaves only)
For the Pork:
1 1/2 pound slab pork belly (680g), preferably skin-on
Rice-rinsing water (optional; see note)
3 tablespoons (45ml) doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste)
1 whole medium yellow onion, skin on
10 scallions or 3 daepah (Korean giant scallions)
1/2 medium apple
1 thumb-size knob fresh ginger, peeled
1 (1-inch; 2cm) piece cinnamon stick
10 whole medium garlic cloves
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns (about 15)
1 small bay leaf
1/4 cup (60ml) soju or vodka
For the Saewoo Jeot Seasoning:
1/2 tablespoon (8ml) saewoo jeot (Korean salted shrimp)
1/2 tablespoon (8ml) soju or vodka
Pinch gochugaru (Korean chile flakes), optional
Pinch crushed toasted sesame seeds (optional)
Pinch minced Korean green chile pepper (optional)
For the Ssamjang:
1 tablespoon (15ml) doenjang (Korean fermented soy paste)
1 tablespoon (15ml) gochujang (Korean chile paste)
1/2 teaspoon crushed roasted sesame seeds
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon (0.5ml) toasted sesame oil
One small container mu malaengi muchim (무 말랭이 무침, chili-sauce seasoned rehydrated radish)
Thinly sliced garlic
Thinly sliced fresh Korean green chile (optional)
For the Cabbage: Fill a large bowl with a 3% cold-water brine (to make a 3% brine, dissolve 3g salt per 100g water, which is about 3 tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt per quart of water). Add cabbage leaves to brine and set a plate on top to keep them submerged. Let soak until cabbage leaves have softened, at least 3 and up to 8 hours. Drain and set aside.
For the Pork: Wash pork belly well under cold running water. Fill a pot large enough to hold the slab of pork belly with enough rice-rinsing water or plain water to fully submerge it and bring to a rolling boil. Add pork belly, return to a boil, and cook for 5 minutes. Drain.
Rinse out pot, then add a similar amount of fresh water. Add doenjang (it helps to thin it first with some water so that it dissolves well), onion, scallions, apple, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, peppercorns, and bay leaf. Bring to a boil over high heat.
Add pork, cover pot, and boil for 20 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, uncover pot, and add soju. Continue to cook until pork is easily pierced with a fork, about 40 minutes longer.
Fill a large bowl with ice water. Carefully remove pork from cooking liquid and run under cold running water, then transfer to ice water just long enough to chill exterior of the pork (this helps firm it up and will make slicing easier). Let rest 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the Saewoo Jeot Seasoning: In a very small bowl, mix together saewoo jeot with soju. If desired, add a pinch each of gochugaru, crushed roasted sesame seeds, and/or minced green chile.
For the Ssamjang: In a small bowl, mix together doenjang, gochujang, crushed roasted sesame seeds, minced garlic, and sesame oil.
To Serve: Thinly slice the pork. Set out a platter with the slice pork, drained cabbage leaves, and mu malaengi muchim. Set out dishes of the ssamjang and saewoo jeot, as well as the sliced garlic and green chiles.
To eat, each person should dip a piece of pork in the saewoo jeot, then set it on a cabbage leaf. Add a sliver of garlic, a dab of ssamjang, and a few pieces of the mu malaengi; if you like, add a slice of green chile too. Wrap the cabbage around it all and eat it in one big delicious bite.
Ssal-ddeumul (쌀뜨물, or rice-rinsing water) is a useful ingredient in Korean cooking, both for its nutrients and the mild, starchy flavors it adds to food. Use the cloudy water that runs off from the second or third time you wash your uncooked rice (not the first, which might have dust and other impurities). Rice-rinsing water is optional for this recipe, but I find it helps get rid of the pork's funky, meaty smell, which is not typically considered desirable in Korean cuisine.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The cabbage leaves can be brined, drained, and then wrapped in plastic and refrigerated up to one day in advance.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 25g||32%|
|Saturated Fat 9g||45%|
|Total Carbohydrate 16g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||6%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 11mg||53%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|