This is a picture that I took back in April. Most of my lettuces have bolted since then but I still have perilla and beet greens left. It was great to have all the different varieties for a while!
What are the different types of greens used in Korean Lettuce Wraps or Ssam? Ssambap?
This was a question I always had whenever I visited any grocery store while I was living in Seoul. In the early 90’s, leaves used for Korean lettuce wraps (ssam) were just different lettuces, napa cabbage, perilla and squash leaves. But now there are so many new different ssam vegetables, it’s almost mind boggling. There are even dedicated ssam stands in Korean grocery markets that sell pre-washed, organic ssam veggies by the weight. Due to Koreans importing many different foreign lettuce varieties and even developing their own variety, there are now at least 15 or more varieties of different lettuces and greens that are sold for Korean lettuce wraps = ssam or ssambap.
**Note, Korean Lettuce Wraps is actually not an accurate description because Korean ssam or ssambap includes rice wrapped in vegetables other than lettuces. As ssam (쌈) just means to ‘wrap’ and ssambap (쌈밥) means ‘wrapped rice’, there is nothing in the words that say it has to be just lettuce…. it can be wrapped in kale, cabbages and even kelp.
Interestingly, in recent years, ‘ssambap’ has also taken on a new meaning where it refers to pre-wrapped ssam that comes in lunch boxes or served at restaurants in lieu of plain bowl of rice. For example, here’s a picture I took at a shabshabu restaurant called Jinsang in Kangnam, Seoul. They have a dish called Sangchussam Shabu and it comes with shabushabu beef and rice nestled in lettuce (상추 sangchu) with ssamjang on the side.
Unfortunately, I never got to explore the topic of the different leaves used for Ssam during my stay in Korea. But as I was writing my post on Ssam and Ssambap recipes recently, I realized that it would be great to share all the different ssam materials that Koreans use to make their ssambap with. So I did a bit of research and had fun finding out what each of the greens were. I kind of knew what they were called in Korean but for some of them, I had no idea if it was a vegetable only grown in Korea or if it was something that we could possibly grow here in the US or at any other country for that matter.
Below are two pictures that have all the different ssam greens used for Korean Lettuce Wraps that are labeled in Korean. And I wrote their equivalent English names on top of each.
BTW, the leaf for SsamKale (Baby Collard Greens) in the 2nd picture seems incorrect to me. The one in the picture seems to be something different than what I remember. I know this because if there is one Ssam veggie I remember from Korea, it is SsamKale (쌈케일). This was my favorite. No strong bitterness (which many Chicory varieties often have) but just a great mild, slightly sweet flavor that works well with any kind of meats. I always wondered what this variety was…and now, after extensive research, I have a match!!!
The hint came from some Korean documents that referred to SsamKale as also 콜라드 (“collaad”). Could it be?? Who would have thought that good ol’ collard greens would be repackaged as ssam material in Korean cuisine? All this time, I thought it must have been some type of Kale variety. Well… surprise!!! I actually found a document that says it is indeed young Collard Greens! I am definitely going to try to grow them next year – it should be fun.
NOTE – the photo is NOT mine.
Just to compare, this is a closeup picture of Ssamkale that I found from a Korean blog –
And then, here’s a picture of collard greens grown in the US. I know there are several varieties of collard greens and I have not gone as far as identifying which particular variety..If anyone can tell me, I would love to hear more about it!
Besides, the ones I have listed above, one ssam green called e-ssamchoo caught my interest because it is an entirely novel plant, developed by Prof. Lee Kwanho in Korea. This novel plant (patented 2003) was developed by crossing chinese cabbage and regular cabbage to produce an ideal green for Korean ssam.
Pretty neat!! Right??
There are also some additional ssam greens used for Korean Lettuce Wraps that is not in the picture above and here they are:
- Korean/Napa Cabbage ssam (배추 Baechoo) – use young, fresh yellow inner leaves for the sweetest ssam.
- Kelp (다시마 Dashima) – use tender kelp for ssam. Best served with chogochujang instead of ssamjang.
- Gomchee (곰취): grows in Eastern Asia mostly and is known as Fischer’s Ligularia. It is of the Aster family and is a perennial plant. Blanch before using as ssam since this is pretty tough.
Well, hope you get to explore your local market or home garden and make some great Korean lettuce wraps with all the different greens! And if you have a favorite that I did not mention here, I would love to hear from you!!