Walk into any Korean barbecue restaurant and among the slew of banchan, you’ll notice a dark red, slightly chunky, pastelike sauce offered on the side. Though the main attraction at these meals is usually the meat, the experience wouldn’t be the same without the unassuming yet uber-flavorful seasoned soybean paste called ssamjang.
So what is ssamjang?
More of a dipping sauce than an “incorporate-into-cooking” sauce, ssamjang in its most basic form is a mix of doenjang (Korean fermented soybean paste), gochujang (Korean red chile paste), sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic, and sweetener (honey, sugar, and cooking syrup called yoridang are a few options). Spicy, intensely savory, slightly sweet, and wholly umami, the paste cuts through the richness of food much like kimchi provides welcome acidity to everything from stews to mac and cheese. Ssamjang’s potency means a little goes a long way.
Ssamjang literally translates to “paste for wraps,” alluding to its traditional use as a condiment to add to ssam when wrapping protein and rice in leafy vegetables (or sometimes seaweed/kelp). But its applications are wide-ranging: It can easily be mixed into bibimbap or gyeran bap for a hit of savory flavor, thinned with mirin for a punchy dip for a whole lineup of vegetables (carrot sticks, bell peppers, crunchy romaine leaves, and raw or blanched broccoli, to name a few), or even dabbed on foods like frittatas or dumplings to perk things up. A few months back, I wrapped rice in steamed cabbage with a spoonful of ssamjang—the sticky rice and natural sweetness of the cabbage contrasted perfectly with the salty, assertive ssamjang. *Drool emoji*
Where to buy ssamjang:
You can find ssamjang by the (green) tub in Korean grocery stores, usually next to other pastes like gochujang and doenjang, and online. If you don’t love spice, opt for a ssamjang labeled “mild”; otherwise, pick a brand that catches your eye and go for it—on the whole, store-bought options are fairly similar across the board.
Regardless of the one you choose, you can adjust it to your taste: Add sesame oil and honey to temper the saltiness, minced garlic or chopped green onions for freshness, or even canned sardines for a pleasant brininess.
And how to make it yourself:
Or, if you have the ingredients on hand, make ssamjang at home. Adapted from this recipe, my barebones version uses just five ingredients: 2 Tbsp. doenjang (I’ve found that white miso also works well), 1 Tbsp. gochujang, 2 ½ tsp. toasted sesame oil, 2 ½ tsp. honey, and 1 clove garlic, minced. Simply mix the ingredients in a bowl, adjust to taste, add any mix-ins (toasted sesame seeds, diced onions or chile peppers, and even diced nuts are all fair game), and transfer to an airtight container. Depending on your choice of mix-ins, your homemade ssamjang will keep in the fridge for several days and up to two-ish weeks.
Ssamjang’s savory, bold, complex flavor profile makes it an excellent addition to your fridge’s condiment collection, not just an occasional dip to enjoy at Korean barbeque restaurants. Whether you smear it on meat, use it as a dip for your favorite veggies, or wrap it up with rice in steamed cabbage leaves (no, I won’t stop talking about this), you’ll discover that ssamjang is so versatile it just might become your new favorite condiment. (I won’t tell the others.)
Get a tub!
Joy Cho is a freelance pastry chef and writer based in Brooklyn.
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