A Taste of Korea: Ssambap 쌈밥, Rice Wrap


Words by Stephen Revere

As with any non-Korean living here, I’m often asked what my favorite Korean food is. My general answer is ssambap (meaning literally “wrapped rice”). This is not to say that ssambap is the most delicious food in Korea (for that one I may have to go with January’s pork-loaded kimchi jjim) but ssambap has everything. It’s absolutely delicious, it’s healthy, it’s interactive and you get to be creative.

Taking family and friends out for ssambap is such an enjoyable experience because you get to pick and choose the fresh green wrap, the meat, vegetables, and sauces you’ll use in each individually wrapped bite. Each bite is a different taste and the terrific Korean custom of wrapping up a mouthful for your friend, family member, or significant other is also a great way of sharing and showing your affection.

There’s one main rule when eating ssambap: each preparation must be consumed in one bite. These aren’t spring rolls. They’re a little rice wrapped in lettuce with some sauces, veggies, and perhaps meat. Yes, this will lead to occasional over-stuffing of the mouth and massive chipmunk cheeks but that’s just the way it’s done so don’t be too self-conscious about it. Everyone is doing it so it’s all good.

Free refills are provided for the lettuce at most restaurants, so if you’re a fan of fresh greens you can always wrap with two different kinds of lettuce rather than one. Good ssambap establishments will serve eight to ten different greens and the very best places will serve a dozen or more, leading to a situation where mixing and matching every green will leave you full before you can even try all the possible combinations.

A personal favorite is a mustard leaf or mustard greens (겨자잎, gyeojaip), which you can recognize from its distinctly curly edges. This leaf has a little kick to it, adding a freshness and spice that some can’t handle but many just love. The key to this dish, however, is actually the ssamjang (쌈장). This is the sauce that you will be putting on directly after the rice. It is made from either fermented bean paste (된장, doenjang) or red pepper paste (고추장, gochujang) or most commonly some combination of the two.

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Other common ingredients include soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and frequently meat of some sort, the most common being pork or a delicious little snail (우렁, ureong). It may sound scary, but it’s actually delicious and even healthy. Never let fear of the unique prevent you from at least trying something, or you will miss out on so many delicious
experiences. Don’t let ssambap be one that you miss.——-

Netizen’s Picks

Baek Jong-won’s Original Ssambap House  백종원 원조 쌈밥집If your ssambap experience is limited to lettuce and perilla leaves, you need to head to this restaurant for a little education. Order the Ssambap Set (W9,000) and get 30 kinds of wrappable greens as well as samgyeopsal, doenjang jjigae, mackerel, and other side dishes. Perhaps you, like one blogger we read, will admit that your visit revealed the true depth of your ignorance (and appetite). Branches throughout Korea.
Original location: 165-15 Nonhyeon 1-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul.

Jeju Mackerel Ssambap 제주 고등어 쌈밥Hike along the Aewol Coastal Course in north Jeju, and you’re likely to run across this restaurant overlooking the ocean. Stop in – that’s what the locals do! – and chow down on the mackerel jorim made with three-year kimchi. Most orders will cost W28,000 for two, but if you’re lucky enough to be the first customers to show up each morning, you’ll get two orders of mackerel ssambap for free.266-1 Hagwi 1-ri, Aewol-eup, Jeju. 064-799-9914

 —Lee Gyeong-jin’s Ureong Ssambap  이경진 우렁 쌈밥In a country chockablock with health tonics and stamina boosters, the humble snail ureong would like your attention. Said to have 10 times the calcium, iron, and vitamins of the eel, another famous tonic food, ureong is a high-protein, low-fat option. Ssambap combos featuring this unlikely health-food hero start at W9,000.
Numerous branches in Seoul. Recommended: 89-4 Ogeum-dong, Songpa-gu, Seoul. 02-402-8838Edited by Yang Joo-yeong and David Carruth=============

More “A Taste of Korea”

And here’s a video by 10 Magazine’s Managing Editor, Stephen Revere, and his mother-in-law, Bae, Geum-ok, showing how you can make ssam bap at home:

If you enjoyed this article make sure the check out A Taste of Korea: A Tail of Two Cultures, 꼬리곰탕 Oxtail Soup