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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Bibim bap: A taste of Korean home cooking

 •  Bibim bap in your own kitchen

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Bibim bap can be a simple meal or a complex preparation of up to 30 ingredients.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Chae Won Choe says he's convinced that the secret to making good kim chee is held only by Korean aunties and grandmothers.

But anybody can make bibim bap.

Bibim bap is the loco moco of South Korea. Or perhaps it's more accurately compared to fried rice or a noodle casserole — a dish that can be made with a minimum of fuss, one that makes use of whatever is in the refrigerator and that is welcome any time of day, from breakfast right through to a midnight snack.

Rice, a scattering of fresh or prepared vegetables, a few strips of grilled meat or even fish or chicken, an egg (raw or fried) and a little Korean hot sauce. What could be more straightforward?

"To me, this is home," said Choe, as he prepared a version of bibim bap making use of intriguing prepared vegetable mixtures found in local Korean grocery stores.

Bibim bap literally means "mixed-up rice" and its history, conventions and techniques make a tidy introduction to the cuisine of Korea — among the least well-understood of Asian immigrant cuisines here.

The flavors — smoky grilled meat, bright-flavored vegetables, fiery pepper paste — are assertive. "Korean food is different than some of the others. The flavors are strong and it's a little in-your-face," said South Korea-born Choe, 32, who says he learned English from the Food Network when he arrived here as a school child.

The young chef spends long workdays preparing French-accented island regional cuisine at Chef Mavro restaurant but craves a bowl of bibim bap — especially his mom's — when he needs some quick comfort food.

Its roots are in the home kitchen. Some have said that bibim bap had noble beginnings, but Choe just smiles at that idea. "It may have been somebody in the royal palace that invented it, but it was definitely not royalty," he said. If the dish does have more formal connections, it is the fact that bibim bap is often the answer for using up leftovers from the frequent and lavish ceremonial feasts or family celebrations that dot the traditional Korean calendar.

Bibim bap illustrates the straightforward nature of Korean home cooking (as opposed to the esoteric and refined court and ceremonial dishes). "Korean food is very simple. It may be time-consuming (because of all the chopping, preserving, marinating, rehydrating dried foods and so on), but it's not difficult to understand," Choe said.

In Los Angeles, where food trends flash up like grease on a hot stove, bibim bap is tres chic now, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Seoul Jung restaurant in the Wilshire Grand Hotel sells a sort of luxury bibim bap — beef carpaccio with pine nuts and quail eggs served in costly Korean celadon ware — for a wallet-popping $18.25 a bowl. On the west side, Gyu-kaku serves versions made with eel and mizuna (an Asian green) or ground chicken and vegetables.

In the Islands, bibim bap is available at pretty much every Korean restaurant or Korean-owned plate-lunch place. Still, says Choe, the dish really began life as home food. "It's not the kind of thing you'd go to a restaurant to have," he said.

The exception may be dol sot (or tol sot) bibim bap. This is the classic version as prepared in Chongju (Jeonju), an agricultural area north of Seoul that is considered the bibim bap capital of South Korea. There, the dish is prepared in a well-seasoned stone dish or pot that is heated to such a degree that the rice sizzles into a crunchy, golden-brown crust and all the ingredients are cooked in a few, brief minutes. The stone dishes are available at Korean grocery stores, but the proper seasoning and care of the equipment is something of an art, and the Chongju-style dish can be made with as many as 30 ingredients. So many folks prefer to try this one in a restaurant.

Most non-Koreans in the Islands who think they understand bibim bap — a fried egg, grilled beef, bean sprouts and watercress over rice — would be pretty surprised to encounter a more authentic version.

Classic bibim bap is made with such ingredients as mountain greens, bracken fern, bellflower roots, radish or daikon sprouts, chrysanthemum leaves or todok root, herbs such as Korean watercress and other ingredients little known to Americans. Raw ground meats — beef, chicken or fish — are featured in some recipes, and organ meats are prized, too. If an egg is part of the dish, it's plopped in raw, allowing it to cook from the heat of the rice.

After a quick shopping trip through Palama Market, Choe whipped up a version topped with three already-marinated vegetable dishes: gourd meat (slivers of squash-like vegetable), san namul (a wild mountain green flavored with garlic and sesame seeds), and kosari (chewy brown bracken fern, dried and then reconstituted).

Also on top: fresh minari (Korean watercress) plus sauteed beef, a raw egg yolk, a drizzle of sesame oil and crunchy toasted seaweed. Korean watercress is an herb that merits a wider audience. It resembles Italian parsley but the leaves are dull green, not glossy, and don't have the trident shape. The taste is vegetal and very slightly bitter; it adds a great crunch and layer of flavor to bibim bap. It's also used in salads and in a dish made with seasoned raw oysters flavored with sesame seed, pepper paste, vinegar and sugar.

A generous mound of kochujang, the Korean answer to ketchup, was served on top. This ubiquitous condiment is made in a variety of styles, and there can be quite a range in quality. Choe approved of the choice of Wang brand imported by Hanmi — it's a chop sae-style, meaning it contains sweet glutinous rice, or mochi rice, as the base along with malt and soy. The rice adds a sweetness and smooth texture he favors. In South Korea, housewives long made their own kochujang, although commercial products are making inroads.

As side dishes — Koreans are very big on side dishes, and every meal involves an impressive spread of pickled and marinated and fermented things — Choe served takuwan and dong chi mi, known in English as water kim chee or summer kim chee, a fresh-tasting and not terrifically hot daikon cabbage pickle that makes use of rice starch to add sweetness and a slightly glutinous texture to the marinade water.

Islanders tend to eat bibim bap with chopsticks and to pick at the various bits and pieces. The Korean convention is quite different: the dish is served with a long-handled spoon which is used to vigorously turn and stir and incorporate all the ingredients together (done by the diner, not the cook). The mixture also is eaten with the spoon.

Bibim bap deconstructed

  • The bowl: Deep and roomy, so ingredients won't spill as you mix
  • The base: Cooked short- or medium-grain rice, steaming hot
  • The beef: Thin strips of rib-eye, eye of round, tenderloin or sirloin (or pre-cut bulgogi beef from grocers), marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds (bulgogi marinade)
  • The egg: Korean-style — raw egg yolk. Korean-American-style — fried egg, sunny side up
  • The "mixers": Korean-style — minari (Korean watercress), kosari (bracken fern), other prepared vegetable salads or preserves. Korean-American-style — bean sprouts, watercress, cucumber strips, sauteed onion or green onion
  • The fire: A generous dollop of kochujang, a tomato-red hot pepper paste made from chilis in a rice/soy/malt base
  • The sides: Kim chee, takuwan (pickled daikon, a Japanese turnip), clear soup

Where to find Korean ingredients on O'ahu: Palama Market, in a strip mall in the 1200 block of Dillingham Highway; Queen's Super Market, 1010 Kaili Street in Kalihi. Also Hyun Dae, a small store behind Sorabol restaurant, 815 Ke'aumoku