Among the most popular edible Korean exports is its beloved bibimbap. Chefs stateside now realize how visually arresting—with its vegetable rainbow, a sunny fried egg, and crispy rice—it is.
Bibimbap’s Humble Beginnings
Bibimbap is plated very precisely at American restaurants, but it’s a very common, humble dish in Korea. It usually comprises whatever leftovers are kicking around. Chef Sohui Kim, owner of Brooklyn restaurants Insa and The Good Fork, lived in Korea until she was 10. She has fond memories of her grandmother rummaging through the fridge and making bibimbap before school. “I enjoyed it more if it had my favorite leftovers,” she laughs. “If it was just vegetables I was less excited.” The best days were when there was bulgogi (barbecued beef), stir-fried pork or bits of tofu.
Traditional Korean bibimbap often consists of banchan—the small dishes served with meals—and spare bits of fish or meat. Breakfast is a fairly typical time to eat it. Kim remembers asking her grandmother to mix the traditional spicy sauce, gochujang, with a bit of rice syrup or honey. It made the whole thing a sweet start to the day—“comfort food at its best,” says Kim.
How to Make it Your Own
If you’re making your own—we love this recipe—Kim, whose Insa bibimbap is a bestseller, has a few tips. First, keep the modest heritage of the dish in mind. “Bibim means ‘mixed up’ and bap means ‘rice,’” she says. “Mix up rice with leftovers and delicious gochujang sauce, and it’ll be a very simple meal. It’s very rooted in how home cooks eat.”
You don’t have to use a stone bowl—which crisps up the rice—but it’s easy enough to buy one. A small Le Creuset, or any vessel that gets super-hot, could also work, Kim says. Prepare your vegetables first, sautéing them separately, and cook your rice. If you want crispy, toothsome rice, start heating your bowl or Dutch oven over an open flame on the stovetop. Add some neutral oil—she likes grapeseed and olive oil—and be sure to coat all the vessel’s sides.
Add the cooked rice to the pot. “You’re half-frying your rice in the stone vessel, so give it a good amount of time to brown and crisp.” When you hear it pop and crackle, says Kim, it’s cooked. Remove the bowl from the heat, add vegetables in “a nice configuration,” and put on a prettily fried egg. Serve the dish with gochujang, a funky Korean hot sauce, and a bit of kimchi on the side.
Then mix everything together! Combining the disparate elements is perhaps the most fun part of bibimbap. The primary thing to keep in mind? Although you could follow a recipe, you absolutely don’t need to do so. “There’s no set rule,” says Kim. “Anything goes.”
Chef Deuki Hong, who shared his wonderful “anti-recipe” for bibimbap, would agree. And if you have kids, consider trying to persuade them of the virtues of bibimbap for breakfast! (For safety’s sake, maybe skip the hot bowl unless the kids are mature enough to handle it.) They’ll love the active element of mixing everything together, and it’s yet another way to get them to eat their vegetables.