Bibimbap is the first Korean food I ate in country. I ate it on the plane; to me that counts. Since I liked the airplane version, I figured it must be a tough dish to mangle. I was expecting the bibimbap to be spicy and bright red, which was my only true impression of Korean food pre-arrival. It was after I finished the bowl of rice, zucchini, meat, shredded carrots and bean sprouts that I realized I had missed the little tube with a red cap labeled “pepper sauce.”
Bibimbap is a pillar in the house of Korean food. Like so many others, it starts with a bed of rice on high heat. This toasts the already-cooked rice and gives it a wonderful light crisp. Traditionally it is then surrounded by hot and cold vegetables including zucchini, mung bean sprouts, carrots and mushrooms. Finally, add your pepper sauce, to your liking and top with a fried egg. Spoon mix or stab with chopsticks to mix and eat.
I love the way bibimbap looks, a whirl of vegetables neatly arranged with the big yellow eye of the egg to top it off and a dollop (or three) of pepper sauce in the middle. In many Korean households bibimbap is a leftover dish. Anything but the kitchen sink can be added. Potatoes, meat, spinach, radish, tofu. I love koki bibimbap, or bibimbap served with meat. So I decided it would be the first dish I made in Korea.
When I arrived in Korea, my colleagues told me that one of the simultaneous drawbacks and perks the country has is that it costs less to eat out than to cook for yourself. How can making rice based food be that expensive?! I thought. I assumed they didn’t cook much.
Their advice proved true in trial. A dish of bibimbap or koki bibimbap at a typical restaurant in Ilsan is about 5,000 won (just under $5). To make this dish for one, I spent around 20,000 won, or about $18. This is primarily due to the cost of beef. One (non- American portion) serving of pre-chopped beef cost 10,000 won alone. Most of my vegetables were not expensive except for the mushrooms. I had already bought most of the spices and oils needed. Sesame oil in Korea, I was pleased to find, is MUCH cheaper than in the States.
Throwing traditional method out the window due to my lack of pan options and teeny two-burner stove, I had to cook the bibimbap in a few haphazard stages. The rice should be cooked first, and I cooked it last. The rice, however, was already cooked packaged rice (that is how most people buy it here…it’s better than any Uncle Ben’s garbage we have in American grocery stores) so I was just heating it and crisping it in oil. Still, this is probably something equivalent to not salting the boiling pasta water in Italy: a sin.
I was pleased and shocked at how easy it was to prepare and cook very tasty bulgogi to serve as the koki, or meat, for the dish. Bulgogi is another Korean MVP that is basically well done meat served in a light sweet sauce or marinade. It’s delicious and juicy enough to turn even a starch queen like myself into a zealous carnivore. All it takes is soy sauce, sesame oil, and raw sugar. Coat the meat and let it soak in the fridge for 30 minutes- 2 hours. I cooked the Shitake mushrooms by simmering them in the same exact sauce. Small victory for the newbie: they were great.
To master: getting all the vegetables right. They all are to be prepared a different way: whether steamed, sweetened, sort-of brined or what have you. Next time.
I used a recipe from Epicurious, but it didn’t thrill me. Namely, their directions for cooking the carrots and the bean sprouts together yielded oily over-cooked vegetables that did not taste at all as fresh and tasty as what I’d eaten out. For trial two, I will be using this recipe.