Bibimbap--my favorite Korean food

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Bibimbap: My favorite Korean food                         Recipe

Mother Linda's            

The colors and textures of its ingredients make this one of Korean's most appetizing and appealing dishes--and one they are promoting to the world.

I love bibimbap, one of Korea's most quintessential foods, and a dish they are actively promoting to the world for its healthy benefits. But I don't just love it because its healthy, but for its wonderful combination of colors and textures that makes it so appealing and attractive.

For years, I have been judging the quality of Korean restaurants by one item on the menu: bibimbap.

Over the years, I've been through a range of experiences in relation to this national Korean dish. I was fortunate enough to have been introduced to the dish by a Korean friend, who discussed the ins and outs of eating it. For example, though not pictured above, most bibimbap comes with an egg perched on top. When done right, the egg yolk should not be cooked through, but runny enough to be mixed into the rice, vegetables and meat along the red pepper condiment called gochujang.

However, due to the fear of raw eggs in the US, routinely I get served bibimbap with a completely un-authentically fried egg on top. I used to send it back and ask for one done "the Korean way." Now I am sure to mention I want it done that way--upfront. I have had to ask for the gochujang in the past, but less so lately.

At a recent Korean food event put on by the Korea Foundation and the Korean embassy in Washington, DC, Chef Ahn Jung-Hyun explained how to prepare bibimbap and the deeper meaning of the colors and textures of the food elements in bibimbap (see the video below) and Korean food in general.

Korean food contains five different colors. Red, as found in the beef (when raw) and carrots, signifies good fortune for money. The white of signifies all the techniques to earn money. Black foods like shitake mushrooms signify wisdom, while the green of Korean squash or zucchini signifies growth or a driving force, and the yellow of eggs stability.

Oriental philosophy discusses how the five different colors are good for different organs of the body. Red is good for heart and small intestines, white is good for lungs and large intestines, black foods are good for your brain and kidneys, green for the liver and yellow foods are good your stomach and spleen. Three textures in bibimbap are the chewiness of the beef and shitake mushrooms, the crunchiness of the carrots and turnips, and the softness of the eggs.

The fermented gochujang is promoted as one of the healthiest elements--and is often considered medicinal. But bibimbap is usually also served with a wonderful pickled (i.e., fermented) cabbage condiment called kimchi, as well as other pickled side dishes. These fermented foods are packed with good probiotics for the digestive system. I always feel energized after a meal of bibimbap.

Global Pepper Exchange

I did have to chuckle a bit about this event. A lot of the punch of Korean food comes from red peppers. They are the base of the gochujang; they spice the kimchi. But sweet or hot red peppers or chilies are not indigenous to Korea. In fact, there were absent from their cuisine until the global exchange of foods after Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492--and event scholars call the Columbian Exchange (Crosby, 1972).

After chile peppers were taken back to Europe, they were quickly transported around the Horn of Africa into Asia, including India, Indonesia, China, Thailand, and of course, Korea. Peppers probably came to Korea in the 16th century via the Portuguese whose traders introduced them to India, Southeast Asia, and China. They were probably introduced to Korea by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries who brought hot peppers from China to Korea during that century (Andrews, 1993:26). So, even though Korean cuisine arises from 5,000 years of tradition, it was without its pepper punch until 500 years ago.

Today, it is said that Koreans [meaning South Koreans] have the highest per capita consumption of chile peppers in the world (Dewitt, 1999:176). Total chile production in South Korea is about 200,000 tons on 326,000 acres, making it the fifth-largest producer of chile peppers in the world. Chile peppers utilize 35 percent of the agricultural area for vegetables, far ahead of two other crops: Chinese cabbage and garlic.

Thus, it was fitting, and at the same time somewhat ironic, that the healthy benefits of Korean food, with so many pepper-based and pepper-spiced condiments, was being promoted back in the New World. However, I think this new exchange, in the opposite direction, is perhaps one of the best benefits of globalization.

First posted May 9, 2009

References

Andrews, J. (1993). Red hot peppers. New York: Macmillan

Andrews, J. (1995). Peppers: The domesticated Capsicums (2nd ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Crosby, A. W. (1972). The Columbian exchange: Biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Pub. Co.

DeWitt, D. (1999). The chile pepper encyclopedia: everything you'll ever need to know about hot peppers with more than 100 recipes (1st ed.). New York: William Morrow.

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