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Bowled over

(article, Kelly Myers)

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My four-year-old daughter loves to go to the library and check out stacks of picture books for us to read together on the couch. We’re forever gathering up books around the house to return to the library and then eagerly overloading ourselves with new ones to bring home.

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One recent book in particular stood out for its appeal to both preschoolers and adults. [%amazonProductLink "Bee-bim Bop!" asin=0547076711] tells the story of a mother and her hungry daughter who rush through a supermarket before heading home to whip up a dinner of bee-bim bop. 

More commonly spelled "bibimbap," the dish is a popular Korean meal of rice served with savory marinated beef and an array of individually prepared vegetables. Condiments served with bibimbap include lots of zesty kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage), gochu-chang (a sweet, fermented hot-pepper paste), sesame oil, and slivers of roasted seaweed.

The first time I had bibimbap was in a jam-packed Korean barbecue restaurant in San Francisco. It arrived at our table sizzling in a heavy stone bowl. Colorful vegetables and slices of beef were nicely arranged over the rice and an egg was cracked over the top. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A bowl of bibimbap, ready to eat."]

Bap (or bop) is the Korean word for rice, while bee-bim (or bibim) means "mix mix." As we stirred with our chopsticks, the hot stone cooked the egg, and a delicious mélange was created. Eventually the rice at the bottom cooked into a crust.

(As distinctive as the dish sounds, I took little notice of it at the time, because I was too busy having my first Korean barbecue experience. The middle of our table opened up to become a grill fired with red-hot chunks of mesquite. With only a pair of slender chopsticks, I fumbled and hurried to turn paper-thin slices of marinated beef before the meat — or my fingers — burned. Then our table madly passed 20-odd panchan, or side dishes, back and forth, stuffing the contents into lettuce leaves with the beef, which was charred, sweet, and scented with sesame oil.) 

Years later, my daughter and I follow avidly each time as the story of Bee-bim Bop! unfolds. She identifies with the little girl who tries to help her mom, while I appreciate the kitchen illustrations and the hurried mother’s impressive knife skills.

Inspired by the tale, which grew more mouthwatering each time we read it, we decided to make bibimbap ourselves, and liked it so much that we've added it to our family repertoire. Bee-bim Bop! has a foolproof and tasty beginner’s recipe. I had no problem finding the ingredients, which were no more unusual than bean sprouts and sesame oil, except for the gochu-chang. (Until I could find some at a pan-Asian supermarket, I substituted a Vietnamese garlic-chile sauce, and didn’t miss gochu-chang’s sweetness.) 

I soon began to appreciate bibimbap’s many delicious qualities. Spinach, mung-bean sprouts, and carrots are typical bibimbap vegetables and provide an eye-catching (and healthful) mix of color. At home, the egg may be served sunny-side up instead of raw, or simply omitted. Not much beef is required, but the few slices served with each bowl pack a punch, thanks to a soaking in a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, garlic, and green onion. 

Substitutions are easily made; indeed, some think of bibimbap as a dish to make when you have leftovers. I have added spaghetti squash sautéed in garlic and bits of leftover brisket. Other vegetable possibilities include julienned cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, and tender, peppery greens like watercress or young mustard. 

I have served bibimbap with both white and brown short-grain rice, and cannot decide which tastes best. Brown rice has a sweet, full-bodied flavor, which makes it a good foil to the garlic, chiles, and beef. But mellow white rice is a welcome contrast to the seasoned toppings.

[%image panchan float=left width=400 caption="Bibimbap toppings, clockwise from top left: Spinach, daikon radish, carrots, mung-bean sprouts, shiitakes, toraji, kimchi, and kosari."]

As the kimchi and gochu-chang are served separately, the level of spicy heat in each individual bowl of bibimbap is a matter of choice. You might also serve the meat and vegetables arranged on a tray, so that everyone at the table can assemble their own bibimbap (unlike in restaurants, where bibimbap’s toppings are served over the rice). Those of you who feed others will recognize the diplomacy of this approach.

Happily, I've discovered a Korean market near my home, where I have found toraji (bellflower root) and kosari (bracken fern), mountain vegetables that are archetypal bibimbap ingredients. A woman who works at the market taught me how to soak the dried kosari, and boasted that it had been gathered in Oregon. 

But you don't need to have a Korean market nearby to make perfectly delicious bibimbap. Choose the ingredients that appeal to you — rice, vegetables, protein — and make the dish your own.

p(bio). Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.


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