I didn’t make kimchi on a whim; it was a key component for one of the featured dishes in Momofuku, and the namesake of the Momofuku Ssäm Bar. I knew that I’d never be able to book a seating at the restaurant, due in part to distance and in part to the impossibility of scoring an online reservation, so I’d have to make a bo ssåm myself. I had kimchi waiting in the fridge, and a pork shoulder in the Deep Storage Facility; the rest would be easy, but it would take some time.
The day before I planned on serving the dish, I prepared the pork shoulder by rubbing it in a mixture of equal parts of sugar and kosher salt, about half a cup of each. (I heartily recommend quarter-sheet pans as prep trays; they’re the perfect size for large cuts of meat.)
While the pork rested in the fridge for a day, I gathered the ingredients for the ssäm sauce: a tablespoon of ssämjang (fermented bean and chile paste), a half tablespoon of gochujang (chile paste), and a quarter cup each of canola oil and sherry vinegar.
I whisked everything together and let it sit in the fridge for a day.
The next day, seven hours before dinner would be served, I slow-roasted the pork shoulder at 300°F for six hours, basting every hour. When it was done I let it rest at room temperature for an hour.
While the pork rested I prepared the accompaniments: ginger scallion sauce; kimchi; kimchi puree (a cup of kimchi run through a blender); the washed leaves of two heads of Boston lettuce; and seven tablespoons of light brown sugar mixed with a tablespoon of kosher salt.
All that was left were the oysters, about which I had been stressing ever since I decided to make this recipe. Raw oysters are a newly acquired taste for me. I was happy to eat them fried in a po’ boy at the Acme in New Orleans, I happily ate them poached in the “Oysters and Pearls” at Per Se, and slurped down a few at Journeyman just a few weeks ago. I even served them as a gelée for She Who Must Be Obeyed’s most recent birthday dinner, but I had purchased them pre-shucked, because I had never shucked an oyster before.
It wasn’t about the taste, it was all about the fear of not being able to open an oyster, something that should be second nature to any New Englander. After all, I know how to cook and disassemble lobsters and crabs, I can fillet a cod, I can peel shrimp, but shucking oysters eluded me. My only attempt, years ago, resulted in shell shards everywhere and a bleeding thumb. Fortunately, the “Oysters” section in Momofuku provides an excellent description of the technique:
Think about it like popping the lock on a car with a coat hanger: you’re not roto-rooting the interior of the door, you just want to get it in and out and get the door open. … Use the tiniest bit of pressure to jimmy the knife in, and gently rock the knife back and forth until you feel the ligament pop and the oyster give up on staying closed.
I’l admit to no familiarity with boosting cars, but the description made a certain amount of sense. I decided to try opening one oyster an hour before serving time, just to see how difficult it would be and how long it would take. As added insurance, I bought an OXO oyster knife with a big, fat, grippy handle, and wore a kevlar glove with a rubberized palm.
I got the tip in, the shell popped open,
and I was able to scrape out an oyster and keep it whole in the shell.
To finish the pork, I rubbed it with the brown sugar and salt mixture and returned it to a 500°F oven for fifteen minutes until it developed a crispy crust. While the pork crisped, I shucked the rest of the oysters.
With everything ready, I set the table for family-style dining: whole pork shoulder (with tongs for grabbing chunks off the bone), lettuce, ginger scallion sauce, ssäm sauce, kimchi, kimchi purée, coarse salt, steamed short-grain rice, and oysters.
Everything was wrapped in the lettuce: rice, pork, oyster, sauce, kimchi, salt.
Under the pretense of demonstrating to my guests how a ssäm should be assembled, I pulled off the chunk of pork closest to the bone. It was moist, sweet, and fatty; combined with a briny oyster and spicy kimchi it made a perfect bite. I have rarely cooked something that delivered so much on flavor for so little actual effort in the kitchen.
I’ve cleared a big hurdle in my unofficial cook-through of Momofuku; I’m now about two-thirds through the book. The recipes get a bit more difficult as they become more refined, but the bo ssäm is now something I can “whip up” with short notice, as long as I can find some non-malodourous kimchi.