When the idea of eating comes fully to my mind, the first place I go is the fridge. Thankfully my folks left me a note this morning saying that they'd left ingredients for bibimbap.
Bibimbap, or literally "mixed-up food" is a homey, comforting dish that's probably the first one the average American or non-Korean diner is going to encounter. It could be Korean cuisine's pad thai, chop suey, sukiyaki, or shaking beef - an approachable and familiar dish that doesn't require a mental leap to process on the palate. It also gives license for creativity, with any number of ingredients up for grabs, as long as it involves rice, vegetables, and the all-important gochujang.
Gochujang is the patent Korean sauce that rivals kimchi for its pervasion in Korean cuisine. This isn't an overstatement in the least - an incredible number of Korean dishes depend upon this red chili paste that's at first almost sweet, then spicy, then finishes off with a mellow sesame oil note. The paste goes into countless stews, soups, sauces, and dishes such as ddukboki or spicy rice cakes. After eating my way through Korea last Fall, I was convinced that gochujang was an underrated ingredient.
Growing up eating bibimbap, I'd always fiddle around with how much gochujang I could handle. The adults would get a heaping spoonful, careful not to spill the dense paste onto an innocent lap or tablecloth (the stuff stains!). I'd mix up my rice, adding the paste in little by little until the rice showed a slightly ruddy tint. My mom would then come over to drizzle some "cham-gee-reum" or toasted sesame oil, binding the bouquet of flavors together in warm, luscious fat.
In restaurants, I would order this dish more commonly cooked in the dolsot or stone pot, which is fired up to a screaming heat and then served with the rice still sizzling on the bottom, wafting that amazing browned rice aroma all over the room. Unless you're hardcore, it's unlikely that you'll have these heavy granite stone pots laying around the house (though they are very useful if you make Korean soups and stews with frequency, and tend to cost very little at large Korean household stores). Instead I use an even better vessel - a cast iron skillet.
Working in nearly the same way, I heat up the skillet and pour in a tablespoon or two of sesame oil after it gets hot. I wipe around the oil so it spreads evenly, then lower the heat to about a medium-low. You don't really want to fry the ingredients, you just want to warm them up enough until the dish is palatable. The residual heat from the cast iron will do its job in searing the rice on the bottom.
The perfect topping for bibimbap is a half-fried egg, the runny yolk perfecting the rice beneath it. Just for insurance, in case your cast-iron skillet isn't seasoned well enough, dabble on some vegetable oil and fry an egg sunny side up. Make sure the heat in the pan isn't searing or else you'll have a nasty mess, but if you let the egg fry up nicely, it should not stick. Season with salt and pepper, then remove the egg to a side dish to top the bibimbap at the end.
Next I put on meat and vegetables, in this case: pre-grilled bulgogi, spinach, slivered squash, soybean sprouts, and mu saengchae, which are julienned pieces of spicy Korean daikon radish. I then dump in about an equal amount of cooked white rice, about 1.5 cups for a single serving. Personally don't like it when there's too much rice, overwhelming the vegetables and meat. You'll see in the photo above that you want a bit of both in each bite. Then mix in a dollop of gochujang and drizzle in 2 tablespoons (if you want it rich like I do) of sesame oil. Keep stirring until the ingredients are incorporated.
As a final step, top the dish with the egg and bring up the heat to high, letting the rice sizzle. Carefully bring the whole thing do the table and enjoy, preferably with a cold, tall glass of barley tea or a diminuitive cup of frothy Korean beer.
My favorite version of dolsot bibimbap in Koreatown can be found at JeonJu Restaurant. The chunks of marinated short rib in the dolsot are delicious, and the massive stone pots create the ideal crispy rice.
Jeon Ju Restaurant
2716 W Olympic Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Note on pronouncing this dish: the soft, airy "b" sounds of the "b's" are incredibly difficult to pronounce for the non-Korean. Just try to soften them by saying 'bee' 'beam' (and this is the hard one) 'bbahp'. A common mistake I hear is to say the last syllable like "bop" like bebop jazz - it should be a more open "ah" sound.