Bibimbap at Home (is possible)

One of the new dishes that I have added to my repertoire in the past few months, had no time to write about because I’ve been busy with my studies, but which has become an instant repeatedly-returning favorite in our house is bibimbap.

Bibimbap is a fairly well-known and loved Korean dish which is a favorite in just about any Korean restaurant in the West, sort of like a good fried rice is ordered repeatedly in Chinese and Thai eateries hereabouts.  It’s crunchy and spicy, and fresh, and endlessly customizable because you can make it with sliced steak, or bbq beef, or some pulled pork, or seafood, or vegetarian, and the number of the combinations (with or without homemade kimchi!) is limited only by your imagination.  And, in fact, we’ve been eating it in a lot of those permuations while I have been writing my dissertation, because in addition to its awesome culinary qualities, it’s also really quick to prepare, and does not necessitate much advance preparation.  It is one of those dishes you might decide to have, and be eating in about 45 minutes from the moment you made the decision.

I say 45 minutes advisedly, because while lots of books and blogs say that a ‘quick meal’ should be half an hour or less, I believe any hot meal that takes less than an hour from scratch is quick enough – there are things you can certainly make in under 10 minutes (halloumi or saganaki cheese salads come to mind!), but those aren’t what I think of when I think of a filling dinner, which bibimbap certainly is.

Unlike fried rice, however, bibimbap is less often prepared at home because as it is made in restaurants, it requires a specialized piece of cookware – a fairly expensive granite (stone) bowl which is heated until very hot and used to finish cooking the dish on the table in front of the eater.  Unless you have a gas stove and these bowls (and if you do, more power – and bibimbap! – to you!), you are obviously limited to the more conventional cookware.  But, with a bit of thought, that isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a limitation to your bibimbap dreams!  How so?  Well, the stone bowl in which it is traditionally cooked and served is nothing but a high-heat-capacity vessel that stays hot for a while.  What do conventional Western kitchens have that is similar to that?

If you answered ‘cast iron’, then bingo, you win (bibimbap, hopefully).  A cast iron skillet or, as it is in my case, a wok-shaped flat-bottomed cast-iron fondue pot (that’s what that wok-looking thing in the picture is – fondue pot with the lid removed!) works rather well.  If you have a large skillet or a cast-iron wok, or a wok-like thing like mine, it’s practical to cook bibimbap for 2-4 people in that, but if you are alone or have several smaller skillets, it’s entirely possible to make it in single portions like in the Korean restaurants.  It’s even more convenient than in stone because cast iron pots have handles, which make a lot of things in the kitchen easier.

Before we get to the how (which is really very easy, and if you’ve ever made stir-fry or fried rice, you know all the techniques!), let’s talk a bit about the ingredients.

Things you will definitely need:

  • Short-grain rice (sushi rice or Nordic porridge rice, uncracked, or any fat short-grain rice that stays whole and becomes gently sticky when cooked).
  • Untoasted sesame oil, peanut oil, or any other high-smokepoint cooking oil.
  • Korean chili paste (gochujang), although I have made this with sambal, too, with good results.
  • Eggs or egg yolks (I prefer yolks only) – raw if you live where it’s safe to eat those, or poached/pasteurized if you live in countries where salmonella isn’t eliminated in poultry and eggs.

Things which are all optional but you’ll need some of in order to avoid a miserably boring bibimbap:

  • Toasted sesame oil
  • Soy sauce (I use kikkoman brand)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Carrots, matchstick-cut
  • Cabbage, shredded
  • Green onions (scallions, salad onions) – green and white parts separated, white+light green parts halved or quartered lengthwise, green parts sliced into 2cm pieces
  • Yellow onion, french sliced.
  • Some seaweed (nori is fine), cut into small bits
  • Kimchi
  • Mung bean sprouts
  • Broccoli rabe or any other green vegetables, cut into smallish chunks
  • Chicken, steak, shrimp, pork, duck – cut into stir-fry sized strips.  I’ve also made this with seasoned browned ground beef of good quality, browned in large-ish chunks, and it worked well.
  • Shiitake or other mushrooms, thinly sliced.
  • Red chili, seeded and matchsticked, to garnish.
  • Whatever else you feel would look and taste good on the rice.

Here is what you do:

  • Steam the rice:  Take approximately 80-100g of dry rice per person (depending on how hungry the persons are!), and rinse thoroughly with cold water in a sieve till water runs clear.  Set to drain.
  • In meantime, measure out water into a pot in a proportion of 200g of rice to 265g of water.  You might have to do a bit of math to recalculate to your own amount of rice, but I trust you to do that.  Doing this by weight has given me consistent and good results for steaming rice without a rice cooker.  Obviously if you have one, steam as in the machine directions.
  • Once rice is drained, add it to the water, and bring to the boil, at which point you should turn the heat to low, cover the rice with a tight-fitting lid, and cook for 10 minutes.  When those 10 minutes are up, turn the heat off and leave the rice where it is (on the warm burner) for another 10 minutes or longer.  (As you deal with everything else, you can leave the rice on the turned-off burner for longer as needed.)
  • While the rice is steaming, prepare your vegetables by stir-frying them quickly in a hot pan or wok with non-toasted sesame or other neutral oil, and setting them aside.
  • Stir-fry your meat or seafood, or if you are having a steak, sear it on both sides, and slice across the grain.  Kimchi can be used as-is or quickly stir-fried as well if you like.
  • Mix the desired amount (I use a couple of tablespoons, generously, for 2 people) of gochujang (Korean chili paste) with a teaspoon or two of soy sauce, a few drops of rice vinegar and a teaspoon or two of toasted sesame oil and set aside.  If using sambal, you can use it straight out of the jar.
  • When all the prep is done, put your cast iron vessel on the stove, and start heating it on medium-high heat.  Pour in a few tablespoons of your cooking oil, and use a bit of paper towel to wipe a thin film of it on the sides (the bottom should have a small puddle similar to that of a wok for stir-frying).  Preheat until the oil puddle starts to shimmer, and/or barely first hint of smoking.
  • Dump all the rice into hot oil.  Beware of splashes.  Fluff the rice to even it out somewhat, and sprinkle the top with seaweed (if using).  The rice will sizzle.  You will want to let it sizzle until the sides/bottom of the rice begin to form a barely-colored golden crust.
  • Carefully place any of the desired toppings on top of the rice, leaving a ‘bare’ window in the middle.
  • Add the gochujang mix or sambal to the available spot.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds generously (if using).  Top with a raw egg yolk per person – 2 yolks for 3 people work ok in a pinch. (if using poached eggs, bring those to the table).

Bibimbap II ETR

Take the cast iron off heat, and if you are making individual servings in small skillets, serve those to the table (on trivets, as they are obviously hot!), topped with an egg, to be mixed with chopsticks by the eater.  When I prepare a communal bowl in my wok-shaped pot, I bring it to the table, put it on a cork stand, and mix the egg yolks, chili paste and toppings in with bamboo utensils, breaking up the rice crust into bite-sized chunks, and then serve into bowls.

Serve sliced red chilies or kimchi (or additional sliced greens for garnish) at the table.

Sit down, and stuff your faces.

The end.

*As always, I make no claims of authenticity – only that this turns out pretty close to what a good Korean restaurant typically serves you, and that it’s damn delicious.  Which it totally is.

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