You might say that bibimbap (Bee-BIHM-bahp or bee-BEEM-bahp) is soul food in Seoul. It’s so representative of Korean cuisine, it’s served as an airline meal to people visiting South Korea. It literally translates to “mixed rice” and describes a bowl of hot rice topped with a variety of vegetables, seasoned with gochujang, a Korean chili paste. Sliced meats, fish, or tofu and raw or fried eggs are common embellishments. Ingredients are arranged to accentuate contrasting colors, and diners stir the contents together just before eating.
Pan Asian influences are evident in Korean cuisine. Honoring the Asian principal of balancing five flavors (salty, sweet, sour, hot and bitter) and five colors (red, green, yellow, white and black), Korean cooks share the Chinese love of stir frying, a quick cooking technique that makes the most of limited fuel, and rice is the backbone of nearly every meal. One distinct feature of Korean cuisine is the constant presence of kimchi, or pickled vegetables. You may be familiar with spicy cabbage kimchi, but in Korea there are countless varieties, exploiting an array of vegetables and even seafoods.
Bibimbap is open to interpretation—you can expand or contract the number of toppings. It accommodates both vegetarians and omnivores, and it’s a creative way to use odds and ends from the fridge. You might even vary the starch: Bibim Gooksu is made with noodles. And if you botch the name, don’t worry—it’s also called Bibimba, Bibimbop and Pib-im-pap—it’s fun to eat however you say it.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.