Among the sauces and condiments I've written about in this column, the Korean soy paste ssämjang would probably be considered a rising star rather than a faithful standby— unless, of course, you've ever lived in a Korean household.
Just as many of us can't face a sandwich without mayo, or can't imagine tacos without salsa, so too is ssämjang essential to the Korean equivalent, ssäm, a vegetable leaf wrapped around rice, vegetables, and protein. "Ssäm" means "wrapped," and ssämjang means "wrap paste" —that should give you an idea of just how essential it is!
I'm not the first person to compare ssäm to tacos. Ssäm is currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight, thanks in part to David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which opened in 2006 and, despite tweaking its menu over the years, still serves a large-format pork butt and oyster ssäm for groups or otherwise very hungry people. Other operations have picked up the trend, like Chantecler in Toronto, Oxalis in New Orleans, and Jubo in London, and the "Korean taco" continues to build its reputation.
Ssämjang provides salt, sweetness, and even a touch of spice to ssäm, but the dominant note is the funky umami flavor of fermented soy beans. This comes from the main ingredient, doenjang, a thick paste similar to Japanese miso, though it's usually much chunkier. Doenjang is made by boiling soy beans, grinding them in a stone mill, compacting the resulting paste into blocks, and leaving them to ferment into sun. The resulting liquid is skimmed off to make the Korean equivalent of soy sauce, leaving only thick miso paste behind.
Doenjang is a useful condiment in it of itself. It's used as a flavor enhancer in soups and stews, most notably for the celebrated Korean dish doenjang jjigae, which is made with bean paste, tofu and vegetables.
Doenjang becomes ssämjang with the addition of a few extra ingredients, such as garlic, green onions, and sesame oil, plus a bit of red chili powder paste called gochujang, which is made with chili and glutinous rice. The chili provides a little heat, and the rice provides some sweetness. Gochujang wouldn't have existed in Korean cuisine before chili arrived in Asia from Europe during the 16th century, yet it's fairly ubiquitous in ssämjang now. (People with gluten intolerance should note that the product often contains wheat flour.)
Many households make their own ssämjang, but if you're dabbling in the world of Korean wraps for the first time, you may want to buy ssämjang off the shelf. You may need to find an Asian market or a mail order provider. Most ssämjang comes in a green plastic tub, or sometimes a jar with a green label. Ssämjang isn't green—it's a dark brownish-red—but green appears to be its recognized packaging color, just as pre-made doenjang usually comes in a brown container and pre-made gochujang usually comes in a red container.
That green tub of ssämjang may say "ssämjang" on the label, but most of the text will probably be in Korean. The translation to look for in the English-language label is "seasoned fermented soy bean paste." If it doesn't say "seasoned," it's probably doenjang. The other thing to look for is a recognizable expiration date, so you know just how long your ssämjang will keep for—it should keep for a year from the date of production.
Once you have your ssämjang, you'll want to make your ssäm. Place a lettuce leaf or other large edible leaf in your hand; add a little rice; then your protein—anything from tofu to seafood works, but slow-cooked pork is a popular option; and finally add ssamjang, and maybe a little kimchi. The wrap should be small enough to pop in your mouth in a single bite.
Of course, ssäm aren't the only thing you can make with ssämjang. As with the soybean paste that it's made from, it's perfect for soups and stews, and a great condiment to many Korean meals. Spread ssämjang on meat or fish before putting it under the grill, or add it to stir fry for extra depth of flavor. You can even dip dumplings into it.
If you're feeling truly adventurous, try ssämjang in your burger or sandwich in place of ketchup, or mix it up with some mayonnaise. You never know—if you discover it's a flavor you love, it may become the next essential condiment in your home!