February 22, 2010

Bibimbap Without the Stone Bowl

I spend the better part of the Monday mornings and the early afternoons glued to my computer, reading my way through various emails, blog entries of my friends, and summaries of the weekend's NBA games. I generally disregard any pangs of hunger until the sun starts to wane, after I've rummaged through my DVR to catch up on shows, and just enjoy the fact that I won't be having such freedom after I find new employment.

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
Ste 101
Los Angeles, CA 90006
(213) 386-5678

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.


Zach said...

How much is the dolsot bibimbap at that place? (Please say under $10!)

H. C. said...

Nice, brief primer on Bibimbap, Matt! Now I'm craving the dish!

@Zach, from what this review said--looks like $10.19, so just a little over!

Zach said...

Can somebody lend me 19 cents? :-)

Gastronomer said...

Zach, I will lend you 20 cents!

Matt, I really liked this post. I really like this dish.

Burp and Slurp~! said...

I don't like bibimbap...because I don't like rice. Now, before you hang me for blasphemy, I have to admit that dolsot-bibimbap is totally different..that cracked, crusty rice that's left, and you pour tea over to make that rice gruel...oh, heaven.
I like the barley ones though! I'm from Jeon Ju so we're famous for the barley bibimbap! :-)

Zach said...

@ Burp & Slurp - I won't hang you, but I have to say not liking rice could be the strangest dislike I've ever heard. And I'm not just saying that because I freakin' LOVE rice. Seriously, couldn't live without it...

mattatouille said...

Hey, It looks good but my will taste even better. Because I make them with Kalbi and fresh seafood.

Burp and Slurp~! said...

@Zach: I know. And I'm Asian. I'm a sad Asian who does not like rice. Or tofu. T___T

Kung Food Panda said...

Looks good Matt! I'm a fan of dol sot bibimbap! I think what's served in the cast iron skillet is probably even better!

Kung Food Panda said...

Oh ya, and Gochujang is damn essential. My mom can run through a big plastic container of that fairly quickly.... :)

Lori Lynn said...

Love learning about foods I have never tried. It looks awesome.

Joshua Lurie said...

Matt, I've enjoyed your cooking posts, even though it's pretty likely I'll never make bibimbap at home. I'm with you on the JeonJu pick. That has always been my favorite bibimbap. The seafood version at Park's is also very good, but more expensive.

Aaron said...

First time I heard about gochujang, though I'm sure I've tasted it before without notice. Is this one of those key Korean ingredients I need to have around like Vietnamese fish sauce, Chinese soy sauce, or Japanese mirin? I want to expand my Korean repertoire beyond kalbi and bulgogi.

Artchick said...

Hi Mattatouille,

I went on a crazy search for a cast iron bowl to make bibimbap ( like it is served in the restaurants in Philly). I found those heavy stone bowls at H mart but they were too heavy and too expensive. Thank you for sharing how to make it in the cast iron skillet. I have the Korean red pepper paste. I will be attempting my own home version of hot bibimbap this week although the weather here is unseasonable warm.