Edward Kim has fond memories of the Korean chile sauce ssamjang (see the recipe).
"I've been eating ssamjang my whole life," the chef at Chicago's Mott St. and Ruxbin says. "Growing up, holidays and celebrations were centered around grilling meats and Korean barbecue, whether it was the Fourth of July or Christmas, and ssamjang was always an accompaniment."
Traditionally, ssamjang is drizzled on short ribs or thinly sliced brisket cooked on a flat top or grill, or used as a dipping sauce for meat that has been folded with rice into a lettuce cup. The ingredients are dead simple: red miso, chile paste, green onions, garlic, sugar and sesame oil.
The first time Kim tried to make it alongside his sister, he was five years old and "totally messed it up." He continues, "There were a lot of similar Korean sauces, and we'd see people substituting for ingredients they couldn't find in America, like adding 7Up to replace the sweetness and effervescence they would have gotten from something else back home. It was immigrants making do with what they had. Seeing that as a child, you get adventurous."
As a grown-up, Kim doesn't stray much from the classic recipe, even for his professional kitchens. He sticks to traditional red miso, because of the depth it has from longer fermentation. Plain white sugar achieves the sweetness he wants without adding other flavor notes. Green onions are standard, but the addition of chopped shallots makes his a little more vegetal.
"This adds so much umami to a dish," he says. "It has a funk similar to blue cheese, without the heaviness of the dairy. I love how it has those qualities."
Here's how to put ssamjang to work in your own kitchen.
① Dipping sauce: For a straight, raw application, thin the ssamjang with water until it is not quite a paste, but meat will dredge easily through it. For some texture and extra nuttiness, sprinkle a good portion of white sesame seeds up top. Warning: Only add the seeds if you plan on using the sauce raw, otherwise some serious smoking and burning will throw everything else off.
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② Glaze: Add enough water to the ssamjang so that it coats the back of a spoon. Roast a pork chop or chicken until it's almost done, then pull it out of the oven, pour the glaze on top and continually baste it while it continues to cook, until the coating is caramelized and crunchy.
③ Pasta sauce: "Usually ssamjang gives you a really strong, powerful flavor," Kim says. "If you mellow it out, it's still not subtle, but it's a versatile vehicle for building sauces." For an easy pasta dish, cook your pasta and reserve some of the cooking water. Whisk a tablespoon or more of the ssamjang into the water, adding some olive oil or butter to mellow it out. "It gives a spicy, funky note that's not traditional, so it's a fun application."
④ Bagna cauda: Kim makes a bright, spicy version of the warm olive oil-and-anchovy-based dip by using ssamjang as a vinaigrette. Add some water to the ssamjang, then stir in some olive oil, lemon juice and chopped white anchovies if you've got them on hand. Shake into a very loose or broken vinaigrette, and then spin in a blender and serve with roasted vegetables.
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