A bed of hot, fluffy white rice. A colourful array of vegetables. Seasoned meat or fish. A dollop of gochujang (chilli paste), dwenjang (fermented soybean paste) or ganjang (soy sauce). Possibly an egg on top. Bibimbap is a quintessential Korean dish, but the options for what makes its way into the bowl are seemingly limitless — and its history and origin are equally contested.
Some theorise that the dish’s name originates from ‘goldongban’, a word that comes from written Chinese characters — ‘goldong’ meaning ‘to mix’, just as ‘bibim’ does in Korean, while ‘bap’ means rice — and refers to combining different ingredients with rice in a bowl. Korea’s goldongban ritual was traditionally a way for people to clear out their homes at the end of a lunar year, in preparation for the next. Pantry leftovers would be thrown together, including grains and dried namul (plants), with the resulting dish named ‘goldongjiban’. The first written instance of this word appears in Dongkuksaesigi, a book by Hong Suk-Mo, first published in 1849, describing Korea’s regional customs.
The first known recipe for bibimbap — called ‘bubimbap’ at the time — was recorded at some point in the later part of the same century, in a cookbook called Siuijeonseo, which offered an overview of the foods available in the latter stages of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). It was most likely written by a woman from the aristocratic class; in around 1919, Sim Hwanjin, the newly appointed governor of Sangju, borrowed a copy and transcribed it.
But it’s not certain bibimbap does derive from goldongban — some hypothesise that it emerged as a way for Koreans to use up leftovers from the jesa (ancestral ceremony) table. Others say it emerged from farmers having to feed a lot of people during the harvest — a theory that suggests bibimbap began much earlier than written records, during the late Goryeo dynasty (918–1392), when the structure of the Korean bapsang (traditional meal table) emerged. It’s a compelling argument. After all, when presented with a selection of greens, a bowl of rice and some sauce, wouldn’t it make sense for it all to end up in one large bowl, mixed together and eaten with a spoon?
Bibimbap is usually served in a metal bowl, although the ‘dolsot’ version is named after the — heated — stone pot it’s served in. Originating during the Three Kingdom period (57 BC to AD 668) from the pot used to cook rice over charcoal in centuries past, particularly for royalty, this style of bibimbap is more of a restaurant speciality than a home dish. The technique came close to disappearing during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), but was reintroduced in restaurants in the 1960s. Repackaging bibimbap in this way was seen as a way to reverse a decline in customer numbers following the Korean War.
The dish incorporates the five flavours that create balance in a traditional meal: salty, sweet, hot, sour and bitter, as well as the idea of obangsaek. The latter entails the five representative colours of Korean cuisine: red, green or blue, yellow, white and black. These signify the five elements (fire, wood, earth, metal and water) and the five main positions relating to a compass (south, east, centre, west and north). They’re also said to correspond to the five main organs of the body: heart, liver, stomach, lungs and kidneys.
Within these broad categories, there’s plenty of space for variation. The ubiquitous short-grain white rice that’s central to many a Korean meal can be replaced with barley, millet or a combination of grains and beans. Beef (a ‘red’ food) might be seasoned and stir-fried, or served as a tartare, but sliced pork is also a popular choice, as is raw fish or a variety of seafood. But there may be no meat or fish at all. As for the egg, this might simply be fried, or the white and yolk of the egg can be cooked separately to keep the colours distinct. Or, if a dolsot is used, the egg can be added raw, as it cooks when stirred into the ingredients kept hot by the stone.
The vegetables, meanwhile, change with the region and the season. In spring, you can expect tender shoots and kimchi made with young radish heads, while in winter, bibimbap may be brimming with rehydrated dried plants. Chestnuts, sesame seeds and perilla (a herb) seeds can also make their way into the bowl, while sesame oil is often drizzled on top.
Jeonju, a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy and the capital of North Jeolla Province, claims to be the home of bibimbap, and its version is considered one of the country’s signature dishes. The city even hosts an annual festival dedicated to its version of bibimbap — an especially savoury dish, as the rice is cooked in a beef bone broth. Traditionally, it contains 30 different ingredients and is served in a heated brass bowl. Local specialities such as hwangpomook (mung bean jelly, coloured yellow using gardenia fruit), Sunchang gochujang (a chilli-infused bean paste) and jeopjang (a soy sauce fermented for over five years) all make their way into Jeonju bibimbap, which is usually served with a side bowl of kohngnamul guk (soybean sprout soup).
There are many other regional variations, too. Jinju bibimbap, which features yukhoe (beef tartare) and mung bean jelly, is said to originate from a battle fought in southern Gyeongsang Province during the Japanese invasion of the 1590s. Some believe the soldiers caught a cow but didn’t have much time to eat, which is why the meat was left raw, while some say they didn’t have any bowls, which is why the ingredients were all mixed together into one big serving. Whatever the truth, Jinju bibimbap is still served at a few restaurants in the city of Jinju today.
In coastal areas, you’ll find hoedeopbap, a type of bibimbap whose name translates as ‘raw fish covering rice’. Here, steamed rice serves as a base for a variety of raw fish and raw veg such as lettuce, cucumber and perilla leaves. It’s usually seasoned with chogochujang, a sweet-and-sour vinegar chilli paste. A related type of bibimbap, albap, usually contains roe — most commonly that of a local flying fish. And in the city of Tongyeong, on the south coast, the signature style brims with seaweed and seafood, such as shrimp, clams and sea squirts. Sometimes the broth used to blanch the shellfish is added to the rice for extra flavour, and clam and tofu soup is served on the side. Meanwhile, further north, in the city of Andong, pan-fried and steamed fish makes its way into the bowl, with a soup of sea cucumber, seaweed, octopus and radish on the side. In mountainous regions, bibimbap often features sanchae (forest vegetables) and a barley base, with no meat, and a seasoned dwenjang (soybean paste).
Bibimbap is served over the border in North Korea, too. In the capital, Pyongyang, because beef was hard to come by, it would typically be substituted with pork, or left out altogether. Mung bean sprouts and a variety of mushrooms and mountain vegetables are also added to the dish, which is usually garnished with diamond-shaped pieces of egg, plus shredded, roasted seaweed. In the city of Haeju, meanwhile, the rice is salted and fried with pork fat. The bowl is topped with strips of pork and chicken, along with regional vegetables and dark soy sauce.
It seems highly likely bibimbap has no single inventor, no single place of origin and no definitive version. Rather, it probably emerged naturally, evolving and adapting to the point where there are now probably as many different bibimbaps as there are cooks making it. Season, terrain and taste have all played a part in creating a dish that’s highly customisable and unmistakably Korean.
It’s easiest to do all the preparation for this recipe beforehand and then stir-fry everything in succession in the same pan, wiping it down between ingredients and setting each ingredient aside when it’s done. The rice should be served hot, but the toppings can be room temperature. Note, fern bracken looks brown and stringy and can be found prepared in the deli section. If using it dried, soak it in water for at least an hour to reconstitute. Takes: 1 hr 30 mins Serves: 5
½ kg sliced rib eye (or bulgogi) beef
1 tsp soy sauce1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp sugar
8 garlic cloves
½ tsp ground black pepper
500g soybean sprouts or mung bean sprouts
7 tbsp vegetable oil
3 ½ tsp salt
500g spinach, trimmed
10 shiitake or other mushrooms, sliced (if using dried mushrooms, soak them in water for about 1 hr before slicing)
2 medium courgettes, julienned
250 fern bracken, roughly chopped
2 medium carrots, julienned
1kg cooked short grain rice, to serve
5 eggs, fried, to serve
5 sprigs crown daisies (optional), to serve
For the yangnyeom gochujang (seasoned chilli paste)
4 tbsp gochujang chilli paste
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar or Korean malt syrup2 tsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)
1 spring onion, chopped (optional)
1. Mix the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, 3 garlic cloves and black pepper in a large bowl. Add the beef and set aside to marinate.
2. Pour 120ml water into a medium-sized pan and bring to the boil. Add the soybean sprouts and cover (only some of them will be covered in water — the steam will cook the rest). Reduce the heat and simmer for around 10 mins. Drain, reserving the hot water to use for blanching. Leave to cool in the colander, then squeeze out any excess liquid and set aside.
3. Heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil in a frying pan. Mince 1 of the garlic cloves, add to the pan and stir-fry for 1-2 mins, then add the sprouts. Remove from the heat, add ½ tsp salt and toss well. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
4. Blanch the spinach in the reserved hot water. Rinse immediately in cold water, then squeeze out any excess liquid and leave in a colander to drain. Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp vegetable oil in the frying pan. Mince 1 of the garlic cloves, add to the pan and stir-fry for 1-2 mins, then add the spinach. Remove from the heat, add ½ tsp salt and toss well. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
5. Heat 1 tbsp oil in the same frying pan. Mince 1 of the garlic cloves and add to the pan along with the mushrooms. Stir-fry for 2-3 mins, then add ½ tsp salt and toss well. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
6. Heat 1 tbsp oil in the frying pan. Mince 1 of the garlic cloves, add to the pan and stir-fry for 1-2 mins. Add the courgette and stir-fry for another 2-3 mins until slightly limp. Remove from the heat, add ½ tsp salt and toss well. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
7. Heat 1 tbsp oil in the frying pan. Add the carrots and stir-fry for 2-3 mins until they soften but don’t lose their colour. Add ½ tsp salt and toss well. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
8. Heat the remaining vegetable oil in the frying pan. Mince the remaining garlic and stir-fry for 1-2 mins, then add the fern bracken and stir-fry for 2-3 mins more. Remove from the heat, add ½ tsp salt and toss. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
9. Tip the marinated beef into the frying pan and stir-fry for around 5-7 mins until thoroughly cooked, then set aside.
10. Put all the ingredients for the seasoned chilli paste in a bowl and mix well.
11. Divide the rice between five bowls. Arrange the vegetables and meat on top of the rice by colour, keeping similar coloured-vegetables away from each other. Add a fried egg to each bowl, then garnish with a sprig of crown daisy, if using. Serve immediately alongside the seasoned chilli paste, or with sesame oil and soy sauce, if you prefer it less spicy.
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