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Bibimbap Deconstructed – Taste of Harmony

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Bibimbap (비빔밥) – mixed rice and vegetables – is one of the most popular Korean dishes.

In this article we delve deeply into the heart of bibimbap to learn the health benefits and history behind one of Korea’s most beloved dishes – enjoyed worldwide.

 

Bibimbap is truly one of the most delicious and healthful Korean dishes. Literally translated it means “mixed (bibim) rice (bap)” and while it shares some similarities to a standard stir fried dish, there is one fundamental difference: with bibimbap the vegetables are cooked and seasoned individually in order to get the greatest health and flavor benefits.

Below we look at each element of the most traditional variety of bibimbap to learn about the ingredients and the history behind the dish. As I stated in my article Top 10 Korean Foods You Have To Try if you only sample one Korean dish, it should be bibimbap. First the history, then the ingredients.

The Brief History of Bibimpab

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The first recorded recipe of bibimbap comes from Siuijeonseo (an anonymous recipe book from the late 19th century). There are three main theories as to its origin. The first states that it was a royal dish prepared for the King as a light snack whenever he was hungry between meals. The second claims that it was a staple peasant dish during the farming season, and the third says that it was born in the Donghak uprising in 1894 when the peasants who revolted had to mix their vegetables and rice together in one bowl because they didn’t have enough plates or bowls to serve the vegetables as a side dish (source). It is said that the best bibimbap in Korea is found in Jeonju, the birthplace of the Joseon Dynasty (source). The clip above is a promotional video for bibimbap which showcases some of the other amazing art forms of Korea.

In the history of world cuisine this really is one of the greatest. If there were a seven wonders of the eating world, bibimbap would certain be close to, if not, number one. I have yet to meet a person who tried bibimbap who didn’t suddenly develop an intense desire to eat it as often as possible. To see a video clip of one of Korea’s great current pop bands (Super Junior) promoting bibimbap, click here.

The Ingredients

We have looked briefly at the rather obscure history of bibimbap so now we will look at each individual ingredient and the health benefits thereof. It should be noted at this stage that bibimbap can really be made with any vegetables, side dishes, and flesh (fish and meat) that you have on hand; the ingredients below are from a “purist” form of bibimbap.

This is also a good time to point out that regardless of the ingredients you use for your bibimbap, they must be fresh and the best quality. This is a rule that applies to cuisine the world over. Bad ingredients equals bad food. The most simple dish can reach the heights of Heaven if it is made with the freshest and finest ingredients.

Soybean Sprouts

Health Benefits: Equal in protein to animal protein, high levels of essential fatty acids, numerous vitamins and minerals, isoflavones, and fiber (source); vitamin C, folate (source)

The ancient Koreans who came up with the various cooked vegetable dishes were clearly very smart. Raw soybean sprouts contain natural toxins as a defense against animals – but when cooked those toxins are removed and the result is a delicious and healthful vegetable. Raw sprouts seem to have a bitter and slightly unpleasant taste which is completely replaced in cooking with a nutty flavor. Most interestingly, the crunchy texture is not lost through boiling. Soybean sprouts for bibimbap are prepared by boiling for up to 20 minutes and then seasoning with minced garlic, sesame oil, and salt. On its own this can be eaten as a side dish (kongnamul muchim).

Spinach

Health Benefits: Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Cancer, Anti-oxidant (source); high calcium, A and C vitamins, fiber, folic acid, magnesium (source)

Like the soybean sprout side dish above, spinach side dish is one of the most popular and common side dishes (banchan) in Korean cuisine. It is preferable to use large spinach bunches which retain their stems so you get the two difference textures – soft leaves, crunchy stems. For bibimbap the spinach is blanched for a very short time, rinsed in cold water, cut into bite sized pieces and seasoned with salt, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil. If you want to eat this as a side dish on its own it is called sigeumchi namul and the recipe is here. You may have noticed that iron is not listed in the health benefits above for spinach – that is because spinach is quite low in iron despite the Popeye myth (see item 6).

Zucchini

Health Benefits: Aids in digestion, prevents constipation, maintains low blood sugar and curbs overeating, improved prostrate health, anti-inflammatory, stroke prevention, high in manganese (source); helps cure asthma, prevents diseases like scurvy and bruising due to high vitamin c (source).

Zucchini – also known as courgette, adds more texture than flavor to bibimbap. The raw zucchini is slightly salted and left to sit for a few minutes to draw out some of the excess water. It is then lightly stir fried until translucent. This cooking process allows the zucchini to take on a wonderful soft buttery texture whilst retaining all of the health benefits and removing the slightly bitter flavor and unpleasant floury texture of the raw vegetable. Color is also very important in Korean cuisine (as you can see from the incredibly vibrant photo of bibimbap at the end of this article) and zucchini adds a brighter vibrant green and white to the dish, in contrast to the deep green of the spinach.

Shiitake Mushrooms

Health Benefits: Contains polysaccharides that strengthen the immune system, very high vegetable source of protein (18%), potassium, niacin and B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus (source); reduces cholesterol, blood pressure, and helps prevent cancer and thrombosis (source).

Shiitake mushrooms are becoming better known and available to westerners who are, in recent years, developing a greater taste for food from Asia. While you can buy them fresh the best flavor seems to come from the dried variety. Mushrooms are not unique for being dried in Korean cuisine as it has a large number of dishes which prefer dried fish and vegetables to the fresh variety because the drying process enriches the flavor. This is a method which is seldom seen in traditional Western cooking and one that should certainly be explored in the top kitchens of Europe and America. For bibimbap dried shiitake mushrooms are soaked in water until soft and are then sliced thinly and stir fried briefly with a seasoning of soy sauce and sugar in equal quantities – adding a delicious savory and sweet effect to the natural umami in the mushrooms and a splash of sesame oil. Umami is the name of the fifth taste sense which joins the traditional four taste senses of salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. It occurs naturally in many foods but is especially high in mushrooms and meat. When the umami is extracted for use as a food additive it is called MSG which is, surprisingly to many people, not unhealthy (source – see item 7) but all too often relied on in restaurants to make up for poor quality ingredients.

Carrot

Health Benefits: good for the health of spleen and stomach, impotence, night blindness, long term cough, excess gas, and improves kidney health (source); high levels of vitamins B,C,D,E, carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A), B6, copper, folic acid, and magnesium, essential oils, carbohydrates and nitrogenous composites (source).

In bibimbap carrots add an essential color, sweetness, and crunch. Like zucchini, the preparation for carrot is very simple – slice into matchsticks, slightly salt and rest for a few minutes followed by a quick stir fry to soften the vegetable ever so slightly. The end result is a pliant yet crunchy bite of salty sweet carrot. Carrots often function in Korean food as a garnish and the same is true here – it is usually added in a smaller quantity to the other vegetables. However, despite that, its role, whilst small, is significant. Think of it like that little sprinkle of granola you add to your morning yoghurt. Oh – and did you know that carrots were originally purple not orange?

Kosari (fernbrake)

Health Benefits: Full of antioxidants (source); excellent source of vitamins A and C, anti-inflammatory, excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, help prevent cardiovascular disease (source); rich in iron, potassium (source)

Kosari (Bracken fiddleheads) is probably the least known ingredient to most of our western readers. It is the young fiddlehead of ferns usually harvested wild from the mountains. To my European palette this amazing wild vegetable was an enigma; it somehow managed to taste both earthy and fresh at the same time. It has both a delicious deep root vegetable-like flavor combined with a bright herb-like sparkle. Kosari can be bought fresh, dried, or dried and reconstituted. If you buy it dried (the most common type found outside of Korea) you must soak it for at least eight hours before you can prepare it for bibimbap. The soaked kosari is lightly fried, cut into bite-sized pieces and seasoned with soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. While this is not essential to bibimbap, it really does enhance its flavor immensely and you should go to great extremes to secure some. Trust me – you won’t regret it. Plus, you will feel great pleasure when your local Korean grocer beams with delight that a non-Korean wants to buy kosari!

Egg

Health Benefits: High in protein and all nine essential amino acids, one of the few foods containing naturally occurring vitamin D, great source of choline which regulates the cardiovascular system, the brain, and nervous system (source)

While cooked egg white adds a soft inviting texture to bibimbap, the uncooked egg yolk adds an unctuous rich sauce by coating all of the vegetables and rice in the mixing. To achieve the perfect egg for bibimbap I recommend frying the egg in very hot oil and once most of the white is cooked use a spoon to splash hot oil from the pan over the top of the egg. As soon as all of the white is cooked the egg is ready. By using very hot oil you get three textures: the smooth soft white surrounded by a thin halo of crispiness and the sauce-like yolk. Ideally the yolk should remain completely raw to get the best flavor and richness. If for some reason you cannot eat egg yolks raw, just flip it until the yolk is cooked – you will still get the delicious flavor and two of the wonderful textures. And, as previously mentioned, the two colors of the egg contribute greatly to the overall appearance of the dish. Don’t forget to generously douse the egg in sesame oil once it is atop the mound of steamed rice and vegetables and meat. This is no time for skimping on flavor!

Ground Beef

Health Benefits: High in protein, zinc, phosphorous, iron, b-complex vitamins, selenium, niacin, and riboflavin. Cancer preventative (source). Reduces risk of colon cancer, reduces the severity of inflammatory conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis (source).

A common element in Korean cuisine is that a very small amount of meat is used in proportion to vegetables (roughly 20% meat and 80% vegetable). This could very well account for the fact that Koreans are the slimmest people in the world (source). Bibimbap is no exception to this rule. A small portion of ground beef is fried and seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, sugar, black pepper, and sesame oil. The result is an incredibly delicious, soft, flavorful meat. For an extra special texture I recommend frying walnut sized lumps of ground beef in a very hot pan. Once the meat browns on one side flip it – let it brown a little, then stir it firmly to create varying sizes of meat balls which adds a great texture and chew to the bibimbap. Also, don’t overcrowd the pan – put a few knobs of beef at a time and don’t touch it until it stops sizzling – that means the water has evaporated and the meat is browning. This is probably also a good time to mention that all of the vegetables above can be added to the bibimbap rice at room temperature. The meat and egg should be hot – as should the freshly steamed rice, but the rest don’t need to be – they will gain heat from the meat, egg, and rice.

In this article I have discussed the health benefits of the vegetables and meat especially but not the seasonings and rice – they are being reserved for a future article as they are so important to Korean cuisine that they should not be a side note.

Now that we have looked at the components of bibimbap, a few words should be said about how to eat it. Koreans typically eat rice with a spoon (ignore the brief chopstick stirring scene in the Super Junior clip at the top of this article); the table is always set with a spoon and chopsticks (to the right of the spoon) for each person. Once you are served you plunge your spoon deep into the heart of the bibimbap and mix all the ingredients together until you have a homogenous bowl of rice, vegetables, meat, and hot pepper sauce (either gochujang – hot pepper paste – or gochujang mixed with other tasty seasonings – add a little fresh ginger juice and sugar for a taste explosion). Before you begin eating, everything should be coated in the sauce – this ensures the best flavor.

There are two common ways you will be served bibimbap – either in a cold bowl with a cooked egg which you mix together, or in a stone pot (dolsot bibimbap – pictured directly above) which is often served with raw egg. In the blisteringly hot stone pot you should mix your rice to cook the egg. Often you will find a crust of over-cooked (browned) rice at the bottom of the dolsot – you can scrape this up with your spoon and eat it as a special treat after dinner or add a little water to make a delicious burnt rice tea.

Now that you have finished reading this article your mouth is bound to be watering. Head over here for a fantastic recipe for bibimbap you can easily make at home. It is the recipe I have based this article on.

Note: You get to choose how much hot pepper sauce to add, so this dish is ideal for families with varying tolerances to spicy food – if you don’t like hot food just add a teaspoon – if you love hot food, add three tablespoons!

All images are commercially licensed for use in this article. Reuse on any site other than koreataste.org is not permitted.

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Editor : Jamie Frater

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Comment(s) (4)

  1. avatar
    Serena K

    Wonderful description and so informative. thank you, I’m sending the link to all my non Korean friends and family…if you’re interested in making it even better,the photos of the soy bean spouts are actually mung bean spouts and the picture of the spinach is Chinese spinach. just wanted to let you know.

    • avatar
      Jamie Frater

      Thanks for the compliment Serena :) When hunting for images many of the image sellers aren’t too specific so it makes it hard to always get it perfect. I will be more careful in future though :)

  2. avatar
    bigmouth

    Wow, you must have done a lot of research to make this post. Thank you for your great effort.

    • avatar
      Jamie Frater

      Thanks bigmouth – it was a real pleasure to write this article; bibimbap is one of my all time favorite dishes :)

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