Bowled over

Everybody likes bibimbap

By
January 9, 2009

My four-year-old daughter loves to go to the library and check out stacks of picture books for us to read together on the couch. We’re forever gathering up books around the house to return to the library and then eagerly overloading ourselves with new ones to bring home.

One recent book in particular stood out for its appeal to both preschoolers and adults. Bee-bim Bop! tells the story of a mother and her hungry daughter who rush through a supermarket before heading home to whip up a dinner of bee-bim bop.

More commonly spelled “bibimbap,” the dish is a popular Korean meal of rice served with savory marinated beef and an array of individually prepared vegetables. Condiments served with bibimbap include lots of zesty kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), gochu-chang (a sweet, fermented hot-pepper paste), sesame oil, and slivers of roasted seaweed.

The first time I had bibimbap was in a jam-packed Korean barbecue restaurant in San Francisco. It arrived at our table sizzling in a heavy stone bowl. Colorful vegetables and slices of beef were nicely arranged over the rice and an egg was cracked over the top.

A bowl of bibimbap, ready to eat.

Bap (or bop) is the Korean word for rice, while bee-bim (or bibim) means “mix mix.” As we stirred with our chopsticks, the hot stone cooked the egg, and a delicious mélange was created. Eventually the rice at the bottom cooked into a crust.

(As distinctive as the dish sounds, I took little notice of it at the time, because I was too busy having my first Korean barbecue experience. The middle of our table opened up to become a grill fired with red-hot chunks of mesquite. With only a pair of slender chopsticks, I fumbled and hurried to turn paper-thin slices of marinated beef before the meat — or my fingers — burned. Then our table madly passed 20-odd panchan, or side dishes, back and forth, stuffing the contents into lettuce leaves with the beef, which was charred, sweet, and scented with sesame oil.)

Years later, my daughter and I follow avidly each time as the story of Bee-bim Bop! unfolds. She identifies with the little girl who tries to help her mom, while I appreciate the kitchen illustrations and the hurried mother’s impressive knife skills.

Inspired by the tale, which grew more mouthwatering each time we read it, we decided to make bibimbap ourselves, and liked it so much that we’ve added it to our family repertoire. Bee-bim Bop! has a foolproof and tasty beginner’s recipe. I had no problem finding the ingredients, which were no more unusual than bean sprouts and sesame oil, except for the gochu-chang. (Until I could find some at a pan-Asian supermarket, I substituted a Vietnamese garlic-chile sauce, and didn’t miss gochu-chang’s sweetness.)

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I soon began to appreciate bibimbap’s many delicious qualities. Spinach, mung-bean sprouts, and carrots are typical bibimbap vegetables and provide an eye-catching (and healthful) mix of color. At home, the egg may be served sunny-side up instead of raw, or simply omitted. Not much beef is required, but the few slices served with each bowl pack a punch, thanks to a soaking in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, garlic, and green onion.

Substitutions are easily made; indeed, some think of bibimbap as a dish to make when you have leftovers. I have added spaghetti squash sautéed in garlic and bits of leftover brisket. Other vegetable possibilities include julienned cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, and tender, peppery greens like watercress or young mustard.

I have served bibimbap with both white and brown short-grain rice, and cannot decide which tastes best. Brown rice has a sweet, full-bodied flavor, which makes it a good foil to the garlic, chiles, and beef. But mellow white rice is a welcome contrast to the seasoned toppings.

bibimbap toppings
Bibimbap toppings, clockwise from top left: Spinach, daikon radish, carrots, mung-bean sprouts, shiitakes, toraji, kimchi, and kosari.

As the kimchi and gochu-chang are served separately, the level of spicy heat in each individual bowl of bibimbap is a matter of choice. You might also serve the meat and vegetables arranged on a tray, so that everyone at the table can assemble their own bibimbap (unlike in restaurants, where bibimbap’s toppings are served over the rice). Those of you who feed others will recognize the diplomacy of this approach.

Happily, I’ve discovered a Korean market near my home, where I have found toraji (bellflower root) and kosari (bracken fern), mountain vegetables that are archetypal bibimbap ingredients. A woman who works at the market taught me how to soak the dried kosari, and boasted that it had been gathered in Oregon.

But you don’t need to have a Korean market nearby to make perfectly delicious bibimbap. Choose the ingredients that appeal to you — rice, vegetables, protein — and make the dish your own.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.

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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 9, 2009 at 11:34 AM PST

Bibimbap is the greatest. Have you ever made the stone-bowl version? It’s quite easy if you have a gas stove. Which I don’t.

2. by Liz Crain on Jan 9, 2009 at 1:07 PM PST

YUM! Thanks so much for this. I have wanted a recipe for a long time. Love it. I get it at Bewon but would love to make my own.

Quick story: The first time I had bibimbap I asked our server if he’d ever hurt himself delivering the sizzling cast-iron bowls to tables. He said he had and that’s why he always helps first-timers prepare theirs at the table -- adding the paste, helping them chop and mix everything together whether they like it or not.

Why: One time a couple on a date said they didn’t want any help mixing their bibimbap. Ess. told him to buzz off. Two second later as the server was filling their waters the woman was mixing up the fried egg and pushed the bowl completely off the tray. Just as it was about to fall in her lap the server caught it. He said he couldn’t work for two weeks his hands were so badly burnded! Ouch.

3. by anonymous on Jan 9, 2009 at 3:08 PM PST

i noticed this article and some of your other articles incorrectly translate this dish. “bi bim” translates to mixing while slightly flattening, not “mix mix”. it is a verb, not a sound or an onomatopoeia. just trying to educate the masses. :)

4. by Kelly Myers on Jan 10, 2009 at 7:10 AM PST

Matthew, Tell me about using a gas stove to heat the stone bowl. I’m curious. It must be much faster than using the oven?

Liz, I share your enthusiasm completely. A friend told me that the best bibimbap she had was in the Korean countryside. It was made with brown rice and had leaf lettuce and various namul. The thought of crunchy lettuce over rice makes me look forward to trying a springtime bibimbap with new spinach, asparagus, and more. How about spring Chinook? Think of all the great textures.

Anonymous, Is the slight flattening you describe specific to bibimbap? Is it done to affect the texture of the dish somehow?

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 10, 2009 at 10:23 AM PST

Kelly, the gas stove thing couldn’t be simpler. You put the bowl of rice on the stove, turn the burner on high, and let it sit there for about five minutes. If you’re a daredevil, you can arrange the toppings while it heats.

6. by terriodea on Jan 10, 2009 at 11:28 AM PST

My husband was stationed in Korea when our youngest was barely a year. I loved the Koreans use of the egg-in the winter, they add it as a nourishing “extra” to food that otherwise goes eggless in the summer. Bibimbap, however, always has the egg no matter the season which is why I like it best. When we returned stateside, I also checked the same book out of the library and we loved it too.

7. by Emily H. on Jan 13, 2009 at 2:24 PM PST

Thanks so much for this piece! I also love this dish, but I have never made it at home. Though I’ve tried it in a number of Korean restaurants, the best version I’ve had by far was at Lantern, a pan-Asian restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., where there’s a huge emphasis on local ingredients. Consequently, I guess, the ingredients in this bi bim bap were impeccable; the chef even makes her own gochu chang, which was delicious, and the whole dish was just amazing. Now I know what’s going on my menu for next week.
If anyone has any thoughts on how to make gochu chang from scratch, I would love to hear them!

8. by Kelly Myers on Jan 13, 2009 at 3:45 PM PST

I also want to know how to make gochu-chang. So far, the only brand I’ve found is sweeter than spicy. It seems like the sweet and hot should be more balanced. I bet homemade gochu-chang tastes cleaner and punchier than the stuff I have.

9. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jan 13, 2009 at 4:40 PM PST

There’s a recipe for homemade gochujang in Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee’s book Eating Korean, which I find to be by far the best Korean cookbook in English. However, it’s not simple. You need both barley malt and soybean malt powders, and it ferments for a month.

As for the sweetness factor, are you thinning your gochujang with rice wine vinegar? And if so, what rice wine vinegar are you using? I find the standard supermarket rice vinegar (Marukan) to be unpalatably sweet, even the “unseasoned” variety. My favorite brand is Kong Yen, but anything unsweetened should be fine.

10. by Kelly Myers on Jan 13, 2009 at 8:58 PM PST

Matthew, Thanks for the tips on adjusting and making gochu-chang. (I’m hoping the hunt for soybean malt powder will not deter me.)

One more thought: I didn’t have any gochu-chang when I made bibimbap with brown rice, and used a chili garlic sauce instead. This worked pretty well, and I think it was because short grain brown rice is itself naturally sweet and nutty.

It made me think that in the future, I may adjust my gochu-chang depending on the components of my bibimbap. I can see how you might want the gochu-chang to be less sour and less hot for a delicate bibimbap with a white fish and pea shoots than you would for one with beef or bulgogi.

11. by Sissie Sue on Feb 6, 2009 at 6:06 PM PST

I adore bibimbap, especially the kind served in the hot stone bowls. And when I fly to Asia, I try to fly on one of the S. Korean airlines -- they often serve BBB on the flight over, and it’s MUCH better than traditional airline food :-)

12. by emyers on Mar 23, 2009 at 7:22 AM PDT

I made this recipe yesterday and it was great. I loved Korean food when I lived in SF and I never tried to make it myself before. My son enjoyed assisting with the preparation and loved selecting his own ingredients. I enjoyed the novelty of shopping at our local Asian grocery and, although it wasn’t quick to prepare, I was happy to meditatively follow the step by step instructions.

13. by knitswithasilentk on Jan 28, 2010 at 11:18 AM PST

My 1yo son loves the Bee-BimBap book. He gets so excited when I’m reading it, with the wonderful rhythm, he jumps up and down.

14. by anonymous on Aug 15, 2012 at 8:04 PM PDT

My kids also loved this book! Maangchi.com has a tutorial for making your own gochujang. Bibim in my mind is best translated as a noun, something that has been mixed and rubbed together...

15. by Deasy Ferayanti on Mar 15, 2014 at 9:39 PM PDT

it make me hungry :)

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Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.

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