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Momofuku Bo Ssam

The king of dinner party meals.

Momofuku Bo Ssam

The Ultimate Dinner Party Meal

Claim: the Momofuku Bo Ssam meal is the most satisfying and interesting dinner party meal there is. It has everything you want as both a host and eater.

As a host, the pork shoulder is a killer centerpiece that’s relatively straightforward and unintensive to create. The oven and fat inside the pork do most of the heavy lifting so it’s more patience than technique. The sides are also completely discretionary, meaning you can go as simple or intensive as you want. I made a lot of my own sides this time but previously I’ve purchased containers of pickled and spicy things from a Korean grocery to good results.

As an eater, bo ssam is fun to eat. You use tongs to pull your own pork, taste a diverse set of flavors and textures with the sides, and wrap everything in a soft, big piece of cold lettuce before chowing down. The sides/lettuce make the meal feel less heavy than your typical pulled pork, and it’s fun to make your own lettuce wraps and eat with your hands.

All told this is my favorite meal to make and eat.

The Momofuku Food Empire

I’m generally a fan of David Chang’s Momofuku food empire. Ssam Bar in the East Village is one of my favorite restaurants in NYC, and its reservation-only bo ssam meal (see also the whole rotisserie duck ssam which is incredibly good) is one of my favorite eating experiences in the entire city. The popularity of the NYTimes-published recipe is no fluke, and anecdotally I have a coworker who followed the recipe without even tasting the “real” version first and raved about it.

I also love the Momofuku cookbook.


On the other hand, Lucky Peach, Momofuku’s media arm, does stupid things like promote an omelet made with instant ramen noodles to cater to the lowest common social media denominator. Which is ironic because I subscribe to and enjoy the Lucky Peach magazine for the explicit reason that I appreciate its insight.

Also I think the ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar is the worst in the city. It’s inedibly salty. Ippudo or Totto are far better options.


Bo Ssam for Six

Anyway, let’s talk food.

I’ve made this bo ssam meal once before and while it tasted good I wasn’t fully satisfied with my first attempt. I made a couple major missteps:

  1. I made the pork shoulder in a slow cooker, because hey, pulled pork is trivially easy in a slow cooker and less work from me;
  2. I cut the skin off. I thought it’d help the initial sugar/salt mixture adhere better to the meat and make the meal healthier.

Cooking in a slow cooker made the idea of basting the meat as it cooked moot, as I didn’t want to remove the lid and lose my cooking heat. As a result it was drier than I wanted it to be.

Removing the fat cap meant I missed out on the crackly goodness of a sweet, glazed skin, as well as the moisture that a slowly melting fat cap imbues into the meat below it. Consequently my pork shoulder became an unexciting, run-of-the-mill slow cooked pork shoulder and was salvaged by the flavors of the sides.

When executed properly the pork isn’t relegated to a bland, filler protein. The pork should stand alone in its flavor profile, adding a sweet/salty/smokey component that is better complemented by vinegary and fermented sides. With a group of four coming over for dinner one Saturday I was determined to give the bo ssam meal another shot and to execute it properly.

Side 1: Cucumber Kimchi

Other than a squid-based side that I purchased from a Korean grocery (as a replacement for the oysters that are called for in the original recipe) and a bag of pre-made kimchi, I made all of my own sides for this dinner. I learned from the first dinner that the flavors of the pork/rice really popped when coupled with extremely flavorful toppings. “Flavorful” here can best be described as “vinegary”, “fermented”, and/or “spicy”.

Unfortunately I only bothered photographing two of the sides I made. Shrugs.

I am a huge fan of this cucumber kimchi recipe. Cucumber kimchi is different from cabbage kimchi in that it’s sweeter and tastes “fresher”, which is due to the brightness/crunch of a cold cucumber slice.

Don’t go with big, banana-sized English cucumbers. Buy smaller persian cucumbers because they taste better.

Salting the cucumber slices is key, but you can’t overdo it. It helps to draw out moisture and give the underlying cucumber a tangier flavor and softer texture.

Remember to wash the salt off and drain the cucumbers as best you can.

The rub. Super simple: Korean red pepper, rice vinegar, sesame seeds, scallions, grated garlic and sugar. It’s more paste than sauce, as the cucumbers themselves provide the wetness.

Notice how the cucumbers are darker; that’s due to the salting process.

Mix by putting everything in a container and shaking it. Great immediately but better in the fridge for an hour or two.

Super easy and really delicious.

Side 2: Quick Pickled Onions

As I’ve become better at cooking I’ve noticed more of the nuances of restaurant dishes that I enjoy. One such thing is how a splash of vinegar or something pickled is a great way to add a burst of flavor and help cut down the richness of an otherwise fatty bite. Considering the prevalence of pickled sides in Korean cooking I have no idea why it’s taken me 30 years to realize this.

I figured a quick pickle of some red onions would add an interesting flavor option. I was right.

Sliced red onions, a little sugar, and apple cider vinegar. Simple. Sit in fridge for as long as you feel like.

The Pork Shoulder

And finally what we came here for.

We crushed a seven pound pork shoulder between six of us. I was worried that there’d be too much meat but was soon reminded that my friends are gluttons. Our gluttony binds us together.

It’s important to salt/sugar your pork shoulder overnight to draw out moisture. The recipe itself calls for a lot of salt/sugar but I don’t think a thick application is necessary and I don’t end up using anywhere near the amount the recipe calls for. Just cover the pork enough that you can see moisture begin to draw out of the meat. Too much salt makes the end product very salty.

Cover in plastic wrap and place in fridge.

The next day. It’s not caked in salt and I wipe any visible salt/sugar off with a paper towel.

Difficult to photograph moisture loss. It’s there but modest given the size of this shoulder.

The cleaned, dried pork shoulder, ready to go into the oven.

I decided to get cute and cut a cross-hatch pattern into the skin. I thought it’d make for an interesting presentation and potentially better crust development.

I don’t know about the latter but the former was definitely true. A+++, would crosshatch again.

Now into a 300F oven for six to seven hours, basting on the hour.

One hour in.

Turns out “basting every hour” is impossible, because my pork didn’t even release enough liquid until three hours into cooking. The crosshatch has an unexpected level of separation and darker hue, but generally speaking the pork still looks uncooked.

Two hours in.

Still not enough liquid released to baste.

Three hours in.

Finally we’re getting somewhere. The meat is starting to release liquid and develop a darker appearance.

Side view shows how the skin begins to crisp.

And finally we can begin to baste the meat in earnest. This exact meal is literally the only reason I bought this turkey baster.

To their credit, turkey basters, while limited in application, perform their one job remarkably well.

Four hours in.

Starting to really look like the real thing now. Continuing to baste on the hour.

A sign that meat is going to pull easily is when it beings to shrink/separate from the bone like this.

Five hours in.

Aww yiss. Cross-hatching was definitely a good idea.

After around 6:15, I pull the pork from the oven and move it to the cast-iron skillet that I plan to serve it in.

I let it cool on the counter for a bit before the final sugar glaze. I kick the oven temperature up to about 500F.

The goal of adding brown sugar to the top is to sweeten and caramelize the skin for serving. The sweetness is really nice, similar to how a honey bbq sauce goes well with pork.

I went with straight brown sugar and no salt. You don’t want to do this for very long – maybe 10, 15 minutes max – because sugar burns easily. Burnt sugar tastes burnt, not sweet.

Boom. Around 12 minutes later, you can see how the brown sugar melts on top of the skin.

Tent the meat with foil and wait for a killer reveal to your hungry guests. The pork looks awesome and should be easily tearable with tongs or forks.

All the Sides

Quick-pickled red onions.

Cucumber kimchi.

Marinated spicy squid, purchased from the Korean grocery.

Ssamjang, which is primarily made of Korean miso and Korean red pepper paste.

Green onion salad, which is commonly eaten with pork belly and one of my favorite Korean meat toppings ever.

Ginger-scallion sauce, which is included in the NYT recipe and an absolute, 100% must for this meal. It’s one of those things that tastes way too strong in isolation and incredible when paired with other flavors.

I really, really like ginger-scallion sauce.

Pureed kimchi, for some ferementy, sour goodness.

How to eat

Grab a big piece of washed, cold lettuce, add some rice, a little ssamjang, some pork you pull with a pair of tongs and a little bit of every topping and wrap everything together in your hand.

Repeat and enjoy the king of dinner party meals.