Bibimbap or not?

A story of rice bowls

The time was late – far past my bedtime, yet I was huddled under the covers watching food video after food video. A caption caught my eye — bibimbap. I clicked. I found myself watching a video of a man making bibimbap. Maybe it was the potatoes that set me off, maybe it was the lack of respect for a culture’s food, but I found myself reeling as fried potatoes were substituted for rice, cheese was mixed in and the typical egg was traded for a handful of salad greens, producing what he deemed, “an authentically delicious bibimbap”. This wasn’t the bibimbap I was familiar with — in fact, did it even count? I wasn’t sure.

Over the next few days, the question of authenticity teased me. Having grown up in an American town where the only Chinese restaurant was run by a White couple, I struggled with this idea of authenticity and fusion. Mostly:

  • What makes a food authentic, and is authentic food necessary for an authentic experience?
  • Does authentic food need to be cooked by a person of that specific culture?
  • And if not, who qualifies to cook the food of a culture that isn’t American?
  • What is fusion food?

No, I don’t have the answers (I do have thoughts, which I’ll explore in later posts) — and I really don’t think anyone has the “right answer”. These questions are meant to create a conversation around an action that we all have to do to survive (eat) and what we’re choosing to put in our mouths.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I can’t help admitting that the sudden rise in popularity of Asian food leaves me disgruntled and with a sour taste in my mouth. Not because I don’t love not having to bring only a PB&J sandwich to lunch or that there are finally more Asian restaurants in my area than I have fingers and toes, but because it all feels like a fad. A fad of chasing “Instagrammable” bubble teas, or Snapchatting the making of hand-pulled noodles. And on the chef’s end, jumping on to the train of Gochujang this, or ube that, because those ingredients are the ones that are hip, even when the ingredients don’t necessarily belong. Am I afraid that one day America will wake up and we’ll be obsolete? Maybe a little bit, but I’m more afraid that this increased interest with Asian cuisine isn’t accompanied by the same increased interest in the people and culture of that cuisine.

It seems as if America has snatched up Asian food and left the people behind, left their stories, their hardships and their culture. And that breaks my heart. I really do believe that understanding the stories and history of a culture is key in accepting and understanding communities different than our own. So, let’s learn about the history of mooncakes and the legend and lore surrounding the Mid-Autumn Festival. Let’s understand why many Asian dishes are braised and stewed instead of fried (or why the fried dishes are so prized). Let’s take a moment to talk to our friends about the history or story behind a dish. I promise you what you learn, will only make your meal richer.

And speaking of meal, let’s get to the star of the show – bibimbap. We’re making it today because it was the meal that sparked this conversation. And while I may not be Korean, it has come to be one of my favorite foods. Bibimbap wasn’t always called bibimbap, but it’s been around for thousands of years. The Royal family would often dine on bibimbap for lunch or dinner, and it wasn’t until much later that it transitioned to more of a humble everyday dish. I find that bibimbap, literally meaning “to mix” + “rice” reminds me of home, in a way that only a bowl of rice can do.

*What you choose to mix into your bibimbap can vary. I’ve followed a more traditional list of vegetables and proteins to mix in, but if you’re more familiar with Korean cuisine or have allergies, by all means, substitute away!

BIBIMBAP | Makes 2 bowls

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups rice (white, brown or purple is all fine)
  • 1 cup julienne carrots
  • 1 cup julienne zucchini
  • 2 cups spinach or Asian leafy greens
  • 1 cup shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup julienne burdock root
  • 1 block of firm/medium firm tofu – cubed into 1 inch pieces
  • 2 eggs
  • White sesame seeds (for sprinkling)
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Soy sauce (to taste)
  • Sesame oil (to taste)
  • Gochujang (to taste)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Over medium heat, saute carrots until soft to bite. Season with salt and sesame oil to taste.
  2. Over high heat, repeat process sauteing zucchini, spinach and mushrooms individually until tender. Season each vegetable with salt and sesame oil to taste.
  3. Heat frying pan until very hot. Once pan is hot, saute burdock root for 1-2 minutes, then pour in 1/4 cup of water and place lid of saucepan on to steam burdock roots. Once water has evaporated, test burdock root for tenderness. If it is not soft enough, repeat the steaming process. If it is tender enough for your liking, season with soy sauce and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
  4. In a frying pan, heat up 2 tbsp of oil until the pan is very hot. Add tofu and pan-fry until sides are golden. Season with salt and sesame oil to taste.
  5. In a fry pan, cook 2 eggs sunny-side up (I prefer my eggs fully cooked, in which case I was just cook eggs over-hard).
  6. Divide rice evenly into two bowls. Arrange vegetables and tofu on top of rice. Place one egg on each bibimbap bowl.
  7. At this point, you may add as much or as little gochujang as you prefer. I often top my bibimbap with an additional drizzle of sesame oil or soy sauce.

Enjoy!

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