The name sounds like a jazz vocalist improvising in the middle of a tune. The mellifluously-named bibimbap, the quintessential Korean meal-in-a-bowl, is a good candidate for the title of most fun dish to order in world cuisine. It could not be simpler in concept, but it is hugely satisfying. I could eat these daily and be a happy camper.
The name of Korean Bibimbap means “mixed rice,” which is a pretty good description. A bowl is loaded with rice at the bottom, and topped with a selection of goodies that are laid out to look like a jewels floating on the white rice bed. Sliced beef, a selection of sautéed vegetables called namul, and several sauces, usually soy, doenjang (a soybean paste that provides a salt and umami kick) and gochujang (chili pepper paste adding a spicy kick). An egg is then cracked on top just prior to serving. And once handed the dish, after briefly admiring the mosaic of edibles lain carefully atop your rice bowl, you mix the still-hot ingredients together, folding the sauces and the gooey eggy goodness throughout. It’s nice (and unusual) to have a dish for which the final, necessary step before it’s ready for consumption is undertaken by the consumer—it’s up to you to finish the dish’s preparation, which offers a ritual that heightens anticipation of enjoying the meal.
bibimbap, an authentic korean icon
Having introduced the ingredients, we should take a closer look at what makes this dish uniquely Korean. Many cultures have some equivalent of a rice bowl. Heck, even Spanish paella might be considered in the same category. But bibimbap has some key Korean components. Namul, for instance, is a term for a variety of sautéed seasoned vegetables. Those featured can change, and are ideally seasonal, but may include some things that qualify as exotic to occidental palates, including daikon radish, soybean sprouts, and bracken fern stems (gosari). Even roots, stems, petals and fruits can be featured, and the vegetables may be blanched, fried, steamed, you name it. Namul is essential a catch-all term for vegetables prepared as a side dish (called a banchan), but which in the case of bibimbap, take center stage, the primary ingredient, aside from rice, in the rice bowl, with meat as more of a grace note than the main event. Gochujang is Korea’s answer to chili: many cultures have their own go-to hot sauce (Thai Sriracha, Dominican ranchero liquid, Malaysian sambal oelek), and this is as good as any. It’s also more complicated than most, since it is not just a puree of chili (with the common addition of garlic and perhaps sugar, which is the basis for so many hot sauces). Instead it takes a base of red chili, but adds to it salt, fermented soybeans, and glutinous rice powder (which is a thickener). The traditional recipe (from the 18th century) calls for it to undergo a natural fermentation process that takes years, sitting quietly in terracotta pots, usually outdoors or on a special stone platform called a jangdokdae. The Koreans are the world’s masters of exotic fermentation, and not even their basic hot sauce does without it. The distinctive flavor of gochujang means that it adds a lot more to a dish than simple heat, or heat plus sweet, as Sriracha might. It is the key flavor component to bibimbap, augmenting the soybean paste and soy that are also tossed with your rice bowl.
THE ORIGINS OF KOREAN BIBIMBAP RECIPE
Bibimbap is only about a century old, but it derives from Goldongban, a dish involving the same concept (a bowl of rice with vegetables, meat and sauce mixed in), which is far older, emerging sometime during the Joseon Period (14th-16th centuries). Goldongban had a ritualistic, and potluck, component to it. It was eaten on the eve of the lunar new year, allowing people to clear out their pantries at the year’s end, throwing whatever was left over into their rice bowls, tossing it together, and considering it dinner. I like this approach. My fridge is often full of renegade leftovers, and the idea that you can consciously create a dish with a rich history just by throwing them all into a bowl with rice appeals to my hoarding mentality (never throw away any food, unless it’s blue—and not blueberries). The first time bibimbap is mentioned by name is in a late-19th century cookbook, Siuijeonseo. Various theories suggest that it was a tradition dish for farmers during the harvest, as it could be easily made in large quantities to feed many farmhands, or that it originates in the jesa ancestral rites, wherein offerings of food made as a gift to ancestors would be assembled in a bowl before eating. These theories may be more complicated than is necessary—it doesn’t require some exotic origin story to think up throwing leftovers in a bowl of rice and eating it.
When it comes to preparing bibimbap myself, I have to admit that I must cheat. I just can’t seem to get my hands on a jangdokdae, so making gochujang at home is, I’m afraid, out of the question. Likewise for the soybean paste. I can handle blanching and sauteeing some exotic vegetables, but in the wilds of central Europe the bracken fern stems are in short supply, so I wind up having to opt for store-bought pastes and not-particularly-exciting vegetables. Part of the dish’s appeal is the color of the ingredients atop the rice (it was not do at all to pre-mix the ingredients in the bowl before serving), so I go for mushroom, daikon, cucumber, soybean sprouts and spinach, which I flavor with sesame oil, chili, soy sauce and sesame seeds. I sear beef rare and thinly slice it. When I’ve had bibimbap at restaurants, I’ve been served a special version called dolsot bibimbap, served in a special stone bowl that is red-hot and coated with sesame oil—a raw egg is thrown in and cooks when tossed with the rice against the heat of the stone. This also results in a nice crunchy crust to the rice at the bottom of the bowl (a favorite aspect of paella). But I’m fresh out of hot stone bowls, so I cook the egg over-soft before laying it atop my mixture. In go the bottled soybean paste and gochujang. It looks like bibimbap. It tastes reasonably like bibimbap. But I feel like I’ve cheated, foiled by my inability to get the right ingredients, and shamed at my over-reliance on premade flavorings, like my mail-order jar of gochujang. Ah well, at least it tastes good. Next Christmas I know what to ask for: hot stone bowls and a jangdokdae or two.