Korean cuisine is complex, challenging, resourceful, but most of all…intelligent.
If you wish to dive deeper into the history of Korea and their necessity of fermented products like Kimchi, Gochujang, Doenjang, etc, just Google it. Long winters and low yields turned into delicious creativity.
Home-cooked Korean food, while time-intensive, reflects that spirit of survival. It relies on a few pantry staples, but most items in this dish can be found at any grocery store.
The recipe that follows is one of the most challenging ones I’ve put together, as it draws on heroes like David Chang and Deuki Hong, but also is a reflection of my own exploration of delicious food and international culture.
I’ve tried to coalesce the elements of this dish to minimize prep time. This will be an intimidating recipe, but it’s not actually a recipe, it’s more of a philosophy. Enjoy.
- Bulgogi (marinated beef)
- Ssamjang (a sort of savory + spicy Korean BBQ sauce)
- Ginger Scallion sauce
- Butter lettuce (to make the wrap)
(note that anything below without a specific quantity means that it will last in your fridge or pantry for a while)
- Specialty ingredients
- Doenjang (Korean soybean paste…this comes in the brown container and can be stored in your fridge for months. Useful for other marinades too)
- Gochujang (Korean red chile paste…red container, also long lasting and versatile)
- Kimchi (if you’re ambitious you can make your own, but if you buy from the store, open the container slightly and let ferment further in a cool dry place for an extra couple days to add complexity)
- Sesame Oil + Soy Sauce (these are easy to find but if you have an Asian market near you, look for some of the OG stuff where you can’t even read the label)
- Mirin (a Japanese cooking wine that adds a little sweetness)
- Normal ingredients
- Rice (Any rice will do, but I prefer either Mexican medium-grained or Thai Jasmine rice)
- Sherry Vinegar
- Grapeseed or Canola Oil
- Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Salt, Pepper
- 1 lb skirt steak
- 1 head butter lettuce
- 2 bunches of scallions
- 1 three-inch knob of ginger
- Add 3 TBSP Doenjang, 1 TBSP Sesame oil, 1 TBSP Mirin, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1 tsp black pepper, and 1 TBSP salt to a bowl and mix thoroughly…looking for a relatively thick paste
- Thoroughly rub the paste over both surfaces of the skirt steak and place on a plate or small baking sheet.
- Refrigerate overnight, uncovered to let the marinade to set in
- Remove from fridge 3 hours before cooking
- Once your rice (see step 5) is on it’s way, it’s time to heat up a pan and sear the skirt steak for about 6 minutes total, flipping every minute. Cast iron with grapeseed oil is the best, but any nonstick pan will also work.
- Rest the meat until the rice is finished (maybe another 10 minutes), then slice thinly for bit-sized chunks of delicious beef.
- Combine 5 TBSP Doenjang and 4 TBSP Gochujang to a small bowl
- Add 2 tsp garlic powder and 2 tsp onion powder
- Add 1 TBSP Sesame Oil and 2 TBSP of hot water
- Mix with a spoon to form a sauce. If it’s looking thicc, add a little more water. You’re looking for a BBQ sauce sort of consistency.
- Taste for flavor…if it’s too salty, add a little sugar and some mirin, if it’s not spicy enough, add more Gochujang or even some chile powder or chile flakes. This is your sauce, make it however you want.
- Homemade Kimchi is actually pretty easy and I might post about it in the future, but store-bought Kimchi is also delicious if you let it age for a few more days, slightly covered in a cabinet. Try it out…your cabinet may smell a little weird but after those 2 days the end product will be worth it.
- Kimchi is an accent for a good ssam wrap…it shouldn’t overpower the meat or the other condiments, it should just provide that little hint of funk and acidity.
- Ginger Scallion Sauce
- Peel and finely dice a 3″ knob of ginger. My preferred method is to cut away the edges so it becomes a rectangular block, then slice thinly, julienne, then dice.
- Slice as many scallions as you want and add to a bowl with the ginger. Some people like more scallions, some like fewer, so adjust to your taste. I would typically use 1 bunch that you get at a grocery store.
- Add 1 TBSP soy sauce, 1 TBSP sesame oil, 1 TBSP grapeseed or canola oil, 1 tsp Sherry Vinegar, and a pinch of salt
- Let sit for 10 minutes and taste…adjust based on your preferences for taste and texture. This condiment is epic and will be great for other uses too.
- Okay, here we go. The previous 4 steps have already been somewhat done. The sauces and kimchi and marinade can easily be done the day before and just ready to roll. Now it’s game time.
- The specific type of rice you use doesn’t really matter, but a medium grain to long grain variety is the best.
- Place 2 cups of rice in a bowl and rinse under cold water, pouring out the water when it gets cloudy for 3-5 cycles.
- Drain rice then transfer to a dutch oven or other thick-bottomed pot and add 3 cups of water. The 3-to-2 ratio is my rule of thumb for cooking rice, but it varies based on type of rice and type of vessel you’re cooking it in. You’ll be okay.
- Let the rice and water sit for 30 minutes, then add to stove and bring to a boil.
- Once at a boil, set heat to low, cover, set a timer for 10 minutes (and now we’re back at step 1….cooking the beef)
- After 10 minutes, take a peak and see how much water has been absorbed…you might want another couple minutes. If it’s looking damp but not soupy you are Gucci. Remove from heat, cover, and let rest for 10 minutes while you focus on your steak.
- Now that it’s been resting and your steak is also resting, you can take a rest, have a sip of wine, open the rice pot and gently stir everything up. The rice needs to breath, as do you.
- Butter Lettuce or any of the small leafy lettuces are an essential to a good ssam…the idea is you place rice and meat in a single leaf then add condiments and eat just like you would a delicious taco. So Iceberg lettuce won’t work. Romaine probably won’t work. You need a leaf that is sturdy and resembles the shape of a tortilla.
- When you find butter lettuce, the prep is easy…just gently separate the leaves and wash of any excess dirt, then pat dry with a paper towel and place in a bowl.
And there we go, time to eat.
When everything is prepped and the meat is sliced, people create their own ssams as they please, and that’s part of the beauty of this dish.
Chopping some roasted peanuts or fresh herbs is always a good idea, as is experimenting with the different flavors from the Ssamjang, Kimchi, and Ginger Scallion sauce on their own or together.
A bit of thought and work? Yes. Worth it? Fuck yes.