Why It Works
- Cooking and seasoning the toppings separately ensures each has an ideal final texture and flavor.
- The acidity of fresh radish kimchi complements the flavors of the other vegetables.
One could argue that there’s no single dish that more fully encompasses traditional Korean cuisine than bibimbap. Literally a combination of the Korean words bibim (mixing) and bap (rice), bibimbap comes in many varieties and involves mixing together rice with different side dishes (banchan) that are cooked separately—it’s a complex, millennium-old tradition defined by eating rice with multiple side dishes concentrated into a single bowl. And because you could, hypothetically, mix rice with any combination of toppings both at home and in restaurants, there isn’t one universal recipe for bibimbap, nor is there a right or wrong way to make it.
This recipe gives instructions for bibimbap that’s topped with ground beef and individual banchan of carrot, squash, radish kimchi, spinach, mushrooms, and fried eggs. While we highly recommend making all of these toppings, you should feel free to omit some depending on your convenience or preference, or to substitute with other banchan or types of kimchi you may have. That’s the fun of bibimbap—all the possibilities.
Common Types of Bibimbap
Of all the various bibimbaps found in Korea, the most lavish is Jeonju bibimbap, found mainly at restaurants piled high with about 30 different toppings, including bracken (a type of fern), bellflower roots, various dried vegetables (namul), and yukhoe (Korean-style raw beef). Due to the amount of labor required to prepare the ingredients needed for this dish, many places no longer offer true Jeonju bibimbap. Today, most restaurants in Seoul serve bibimbap with raw and sautéed vegetables in place of Jeonju’s traditional garnishes. Many toppings are derived from dishes used in religious rituals, and as modern Korean society moves away from these customs, finding and preparing ingredients like dried vegetables has become more complicated and challenging.
Other types of popular bibimbap include ones topped with sea pineapple (a sea squirt that’s best in April), yukhoe, and sanchae (wild mountain greens). While bibimbap comes in these and a multitude of other forms in restaurants, the most beloved type of bibimbap in Korea today is what I’d refer to as the homestyle version, which usually consists of leftover banchan (side dishes), a dollop of gochujang, and a drizzle of sesame oil. (In fact, bibimbap’s popularity at restaurants in South Korea has fallen off at least in part because it’s so easy to make at home using whatever banchan you have in the fridge.)
Although Korean cuisine continues to evolve, and despite bibimbap’s infinite possible forms, there are certain ingredients that usually come to mind when bibimbap is mentioned, including beansprouts, fresh radish kimchi, sautéed Korean squash, and spinach namul. This recipe is intended to be easy to make and delicious, and representative of Korean bibimbap as you’d see it in many homes today.
The Origins of Bibimbap
There are several theories about the origins of bibimbap, though most are built on the same basic idea that the classical, millennium-old tradition of preparing multiple side dishes to serve alongside rice (known as “Bapsang Culture”) led to the inevitable practice of putting it all in one bowl together. Some argue this practice sprung up after days of commemorating the dead, when families cook many dishes to ceremonially serve to their ancestors—combining those dishes in one bowl not only makes efficient use of leftovers, but also represents the idea that the family is unified as one.
Some trace bibimbap to farming practices, where appetites were large after hours in the field, but time was short to put it all together into a meal. Others simply think the practicality and ease of mixing it all together in one bowl made it a fairly obvious practice regardless of occasion or locale. According to scholars from the Academy of Korea Studies and Korea Food Research Institute in Songnam, South Korea, bibimbap “developed alongside the Korean meal table,” where rice was (and still is) enjoyed with soup and an assortment of banchan. Whatever the specifics of bibimbap’s origin, the dish’s melding of multiple components into a single bowl is a reflection of Korea’s “we” culture, which can also be seen in the fact that in Korean, we always say “our” mother/father/country and not “my” mother/father/country.
How to Prepare Bibimbap
It is crucial to prepare all the ingredients for bibimbap separately—this allows you to control the doneness and seasonings of each ingredient during their prep.
Any of the vegetables and meat can be julienned or sliced thinly to make them easy to mix. How long you spend preparing the vegetables will depend on how many toppings you’d like, your knife skills, and your speed as a cook. This recipe is written for maximum ease, but if you’re a more confident home cook, you can change the order of the recipe for a faster total prep time.
To assemble bowls of bibimbap, start by mounding a layer of cooked short-grain rice in serving bowls, then artfully arrange each prepared vegetable and meat on top and drizzle lightly with sesame oil. Though the vegetables can be enjoyed room temperature or warm, the rice should be hot. Serve with a sunny side-up egg on top, if desired.
How to Eat Bibimbap
A dollop of gochujang (red pepper paste) is an essential part of bibimbap, though you can also use a variety of mixed sauces, like store-bought or homemade yak gochujang (gochujang mixed with sautéed ground beef), ganjang soy sauce, or gang doenjang (a thick soybean paste stew). Exactly how much gochujang you add is also a personal decision: In addition to the dollop served with each bowl, it’s best to put a small bowl of additional gochujang on the table so diners can add more, if desired, as they mix it all together before eating.