Korean Lettuce Wraps (Ssambap)

Ssambap are Korean lettuce wraps made of boldly-flavored seasoned meat, rice, a zingy sauce called ssamjang, and crisp vegetables. Ssam means "wrap" in Korean, and bap means "rice." Besides the rice and the wrap (lettuce most of the time), many variations exist when it comes to the filling of this tasty pocket.

In Korean restaurants in the West, it's most popular to make ssambap with galbi (short ribs) or bulgogi (thinly sliced ribeye meat), but bo ssam (pork belly wrapped in cabbage leaves) and jok bal (pig's feet) are also traditional Korean ssam combinations.

How to Eat Ssambap

The best approach for building these wraps is to go easy on the fillings because you're either going to have to stuff a big bite in your mouth or spill its contents everywhere. Just take a little at a time, enjoy it, and go back for more. Different than what is considered a "wrap" in the West, these Korean morsels are actually bite-sized.

To successfully make your own ssam, think of it like filling a taco. Follow these steps: start with the vegetable leaf of choice, ripping it in half if it is too big. Place the leaf in your hand and add a small mound of rice, and stack meat (or seafood) on top. Finish with a dollop of ssamjang and other optional condiments, wrap the whole bite into a neat package (about the size of a golf ball) and eat it in one bite.

Here is a look into the most famous fillings, condiments, and wraps used to create these wonderful items:

  • 01 of 04

    The Leafy Wrap

    Close-Up Of Leaf Vegetables In Plate On Table
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    Red leaf lettuce is probably the most common in modern ssam but other lettuces, steamed or parboiled cabbage, and kaenip (also known as perilla) leaves are also are popular.

    There are many other types of ssam wraps, such as milssam (thin crepe wrap), dried persimmon, chwinamul (a korean leafy green), seaweed, and pumpkin leaves.

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    The Rice

    Steamed rice in an iron pot
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    Rice, white or brown, is almost always included in ssambap (hence the name "rice wraps"). Some people don't put rice inside their bo ssam (pork belly wrapped in cabbage) but prefer to eat it on the side.

    To make Korean rice on the stove you need to wash the rice thoroughly until the water is almost clear, and then give it one boil and a subsequent 15-minute simmer with the lid on. The quality of the rice is as important as the texture and flavor of the other fillings, so choose high-quality short-grain rice.

    Some low-carb eaters happily eat ssam with no rice inside it. Substitute thin noodles for a different ssam experience, but for it to be considered true ssam it has to include rice.

  • 03 of 04

    The Protein

    Close-up of Pork Served In Plate On Table
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    The most popular fillings for ssam are galbi (short ribs) or beef bulgogi (thinly sliced ribeye). These are also picnic and outdoor barbecue favorites since they're easy to cook on the grill. But pork (like daeji bulgogi), raw fish (hwe), chicken, and other types of seafood also are popular inside Korean lettuce wraps. It might be helpful to start with more familiar proteins and then ease your family into other more adventurous alternatives like salty anchovies or oily mackerel.

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    Condiments and Sauces

    A crispy squash pancake at the Bamboo House Restaurant in Seoul, Korea.
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    Many like the seasoned and spicy ssamjang for ssambap, but kochujang (red pepper paste) or daenjang (soybean paste) can be used for a milder variation. Some people also add kimchi (pickled cabbage) to their ssam; the variety of additions are endless, such as pungent raw or cooked garlic, scallions, raw sliced hot peppers, or sweet onion slices.

    Although not common, there are vegetarian ssambap. Simply make a filling quickly sautéing the vegetables of your liking until cooked but still crunchy. Give the filling a meaty quality using mushrooms (portobello or shiitake) and add some crunch with black or regular sesame seeds on top.