Food & Culture

Anatomy of a dish: bibimbap

It's all about the mix with this colourful Korean classic.

By Pat Nourse
A bowl of bibimbap
The key here is understanding that "bibim" means "to mix". One of the most distinctive dishes in the Korean culinary canon, not least for the artful quality of its presentation, bibimbap is all about a mixture of tastes and textures. According to Paul Lee of Sydney Korean import company Table 181, bibimbap, a dish with its roots in the cuisine of the royal court of the 14th-century Joseon Dynasty, "consists of oh-sek (five colours) and oh-mee (five flavours)". Those flavours are sweet, salty, hot, bitter and gosohan-mat, a term which Lee likens to the quality of a creamy cheese or good sesame oil. Dig in.

1. The rice

Short-grain rice cooked in beef stock is the classic move, but brown rice is a winning alternative, as are mixtures (called japgokbap in Korean), which include short, brown and black rice with millet, barley and other grains.

2. The meat

There's many a fine meatless bibimbap, but beef remains one of the most popular additions, whether thinly sliced, or served raw, as we have here, as the tartare known as yukhoe, marinated in pear juice, soy and rice wine.

3. The toppings

A variety of approaches can be taken to achieving the five colours Korean tradition calls for in a bowl of bibimbap. The colours are green (here we've used zucchini and Korean watercress), yellow (bean sprouts in this version, or mung-bean jelly), white (daikon here, or perhaps chestnut, pine nuts or bellflower root), black (we've used shiitakes; bracken or kombu might also feature here), red (here raw beef and carrot, but it could also be red dates). The egg in the centre is a classic garnish, and while it's often fried before it's added, a runny yolk is best for mixing well through the rice and toppings.

4. The sauce

Jangs, fermented mother sauces, are essential to Korean cooking and gochujang, a sweet-hot ferment of sweet rice paste and dried red chilli, is a defining component of bibimbap. It's the gochujang that brings the salt, too; serve it on the side and season your other ingredients lightly with this in mind.

Where to find one

While the arrangement of salmon, roe, cucumber and buttered onion at Paper Bird might be the lushest take in Sydney, Rising Sun Workshop's breakfast bibimbap mixes spicy almonds and pineapple salsa to winning effect. In Melbourne, meanwhile, Wooga is the one to beat.
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  • Author: Pat Nourse