Clearing Some Bossam Myths


Real Korean Bossam | Credit: Pixelgrapher from Flickr (cc)

The New York Times has a scrumptious piece showcasing David Chang’s recipe for bo ssam (“The Bo Ssam Miracle”). It’s gorgeous. I’ve heard it tastes great. And I would love to try it myself.

I also see why some of my friends hate David Chang. I thought it was that they were just being stubborn Korean food purists, if there is such a thing. The fear, though, is that people will start thinking that David Chang’s interpretations of Korean food are traditional Korean food. It brings to mind when New Yorkers come to Korea and expect Korean fried chicken to be like Kyochon and not like Two-Two and BBQ when Kyochon is really the only major chain to make chicken that way. Or when Koreans think that real Italian pizza comes with canned corn, sweet potato mousse, and sweet pickles on the side.

In essence, David Chang’s bo ssam is to Korean food as the California roll is to Japanese. It’s inspired by Korean cuisine and could later be considered part of the edges of Korean cuisine, but it’s not Bossam 보쌈 that you’d find in Korea.

Let’s get through the similarities. David Chang’s bo ssam is a pork shoulder. Korean Bossam comes from moksal 목살, which is from the back of the neck. So they’re close together in porcine geography. Both are highly flavored and served with kimchi and condiments to be wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Then they diverge. David Chang’s bo ssam is roasted, which actually sounds good. Korean Bossam is boiled. Ovens are about as common in Korean households as rice cookers are in American. Roasting and baking are not common Korean cooking methods. The mention of boiled pork may turn a lot of people off, but Korean Bossam is highly flavored and delicious. Chang’s bo ssam comes with raw oysters (YUM!). Korean Bossam may come with marinated oysters or with oysters in the kimchi, but usually not. It has ssamjang and tiny pickled shrimpies. Kimchi for Bossam is markedly fresher and fruitier than most kimchi.

To clarify, I tend to defend David Chang amongst Korean food purists. I’ve eaten at one of his restaurants, and I loved the food, and I love what he’s doing. I consider a lot of his dishes to be Korean food–or rather–Korean-American food. The NYT article, though, opened by implying that traditional Korean Bossam is roasted pork shoulder.

Another misnomer I’m hearing bandied about is the use of ssam as a dish, as in, “Let’s go out for some ssam!”

Ssam 쌈 is from the verb ssada 싸다, which means “to wrap” in this sense. When you wrap your morsels in leaves, that bundle is ssam. But you don’t hear people talking about eating ssam like it’s a food category. You eat Bossam or SsamBap. You don’t eat ssam. Like you go out for pizza, not “slices.” It’s prissy semantics, but it sounds as awkward to me as “french fried potatoes,” and “hamburger sandwich” and, in Korea, the tendency to call sandwiches “sand.”

So to clear up, in the Korean cuisine you’ll find in Korea, Bossam is boiled pork, not roasted (and it’s sometimes other things like smoked duck). And ssam are the little wrapped bundles, but not a food you go out to eat.


Author: ZenKimchi

Joe McPherson founded ZenKimchi in 2004. He has been featured and sourced in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CNN, KBS, MBC, SBS, Le Figaro, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Harper’s Bazaar Korea, The Chosun Weekly, and other Korean and international media. He has consulted for "Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain," The Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveler, the PBS documentary series “Kimchi Chronicles,” and other projects in the UK, Canadan, and Australia featuring celebrity chefs such as Gizzi Erskine and Gary Mehigan. Mr. McPherson has written for multiple Korean and international publications, including SEOUL Magazine, JoongAng Daily, The Korea Herald, Newsweek Korea and wrote the feature article for U.S. National publication Plate magazine’s all-Korean food issue. He has acted as dining editor for 10 Magazine and was on the judging panel for Korea for the Miele Guide. He spoke at TEDx Seoul on Korean food globalization, at TED Worldwide Talent Search on the rise of Korean cuisine, and in New York City on Korean Buddhist temple cuisine. The company ZenKimchi International organizes food tours for tourists and corporations and acts as a media liaison for foreign and Korean media and local restaurants and producers.

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