Bibimbap, or The art of visual frustration

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I guess the Korean dish Bibimbap must be one of the visually most frustrating foods in existence. Essentially, what you do is cook rice, sauté some vegetables, stir fry some meat and then arrange everything in a bowl.

Immediately after serving, Bibimbap looks something like this:


However, immediately before eating, Bibimbap looks like this:


This is because immediately after serving, after having looked at it for a few seconds, you take a spoon and mix everything into a moderately undefinable mixture. "Bibimbap" apparently means "mixed meal".

It's even more frustrating in a Korean restaurant, where the waiter brings the Bibimbap to the table, shows it to you for a split second and immediately starts mixing everything without letting you appreciate the food in its unspoiled state.

I wonder whether in Korea there is actually a minimum time where the Bibimbap must be undisturbed and you are simply expected to look at it and do nothing before mixing it all up.

Simple Bibimbap recipe:
per person:

  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 tablespoon dried seaweed
  • 3 mushrooms, sliced
  • 1-2 tablespoons beansprouts
  • 1 smallcarrot
  • 50g beef, cut in thin stripes
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbsp Korean fermented hot pepper paste
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil

Boil the rice. 
Soak the seaweed in some water, (optionally) season with hoisin sauce and rice vinegar.
Sauté the mushrooms.
Sauté the beansprouts.
Cut the carrot into thin stripes (julienne).
Stir fry the beef briefly over high heat, (optionally) season with bean paste
Fry the egg.

Put the rice in a bowl and place the egg in the middle. Arrange the drained seaweed, mushrooms, beef, carrot stripes, beansprouts and pepper paste around the egg.

Season with sesame oil and serve immediately.
Look at it.
Take a big spoon and mix everything up, then eat.

1 Comment

Dear Horst,
I have just come across your post, and I am very happy to offer to help you in this matter. I am a Korean American living in Vienna, and I congratulate you for discovering bibimbop all on your own.

I will now explain to you why your experience has been the way it is. The next time you go to your Korean restaurant, take some time out to spy on any other Korean customers there might be around you who are also enjoying a bibimbop. You will then probably be surprised to realize that the waiter does not mix the pot for them. That's because the real rule is that the diner is supposed to do this themselves. But most Westerners don't have a clue about this, and also don't really know how to do it. Hence, the waiter is saving his breath and energy and just goes ahead and does it for you.

A while ago, my mother opened a pan-Asian restaurant in the US in an area that had not experienced much Asian food. I helped her out for a little while. When people would order bibimbap, and then we would try to explain to them how it works, they would give us a blank stare, then look down, sort of pick at the dish in a confused manner, and finally, fail to mix it at all, and therefore find the whole experience disappointing. Sometimes, they would look at us imploringly, and ask us to mix it for them. In Korea, this would be a bit like asking someone to blow your nose for you. I would try to explain that the Korean cuisine is very active, that one needs to put a little muscle into it. But I would NEVER mix it FOR them. If they couldn't figure it out themselves, then that was unfortunately their loss.

So, my point is, your instinct is absolutely spot on: Bibimbap is meant to be a DIY experience, meaning, you can stare at it and appreciate its colorful, pre-jumbled state for as long as you like. Then, you take your spoon and do with it what you like (hopefully, this involves a bit of mixing). So the next time you go to that Korean restaurant, try to let the waiter know that you would like to mix it yourself, Korean-style. He will probably be pleasantly surprised.

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