I am not Korean. I’ve erroneously been called Chinese, Will Ferrell from Old School and female, but one thing I’ve never been called is Korean. I do, however, have a mild obsession with Korean epicurean culture, having sampled and salivated over everything from mouth-watering gogi gui barbecue to ogokbap five-grain rice. Due to the dearth of Korean dining possibilities in our bland and insipid purple bubble, I frequently escape to more metropolitan areas, if only to savor one mouthful of sizzling hot kimchi. When I found myself egregiously drooling during my Monday morning lecture, dreaming of a hearty bowl of fresh bibimbap, with an entire week of classes standing between my unsatisfied palate and taste-bud ecstasy, I knew that I had to adopt dire measures. One rushed visit to Albany’s Li’s Supermarket later, and I was able to provide my close friend and culinary icon Cate Cho ’10 with the wings and ingredients needed to make several servings of bomb-diggity bibimbap. Without hesitation, she swooped down into tasteless territory, picked me up and flew me directly to Korean cuisine paradise.
“I think bibimbap is pretty much like the ultimate food,” Cho said excitedly, as she chopped the red peppers and mushrooms in preparation for a delectable garlic sautÃ©. “First of all, it’s easy to make â€“ you just need rice, a lot of vegetables, various peppers, sesame oil, pepper paste called gochujang and perhaps some meat.”
While such a varied list of ingredients might come off as far from simplistic to those of us who are gastronomically impaired and struggle to get peanut butter and jelly ratios right, I found the dish surprisingly easy to make.
“First, you chop up and prepare the vegetables, which generally include peppers, lettuce, mushrooms, thinly diced carrots and sprouts, before bringing regular white rice to a light boil in a medium-sized pot,” Cho said. “Then you cook your meat, which for our purposes is ground beef, along with sesame oil and minced garlic before preparing several eggs over easy.”
Once all of the ingredients had meticulously been prepared individually, Cho proceeded to dump the rice into a large bowl and deposit the various vegetables and ground beef onto the different corners of the rice’s surface. She then evenly poured sesame oil over the rice so that it would trickle down through the body, through sloppy but almost abstract expressionist slabs of bright red gochujang onto the already colorful surface and finally placed the perfectly fried egg onto the very top, yoke delicately jiggling and ready to burst.
“In Korea, when it’s served in most restaurants, it’s brought out in a hot stone pot, which keeps the dish warm so that when you finish eating it, there is a crispy rice residue that accumulates along the edges of the walls of the pot,” Cho said, a look of longing just barely traceable in the corner of her eyes. “Once you finish the main contents of the pot, the waiters will pour hot water into the pot, and the overcooked and somewhat burnt rice along the walls forms this gruel-like soup. I think it might be the best dessert, ever.”
Lacking the resources and stomach patience on my part to respect such cultural observances, I watched with childlike euphoria as Cho penetrated the multi-layered culinary creation with a long spoon and began the magnificent process of bringing the diverse flavors and components together into one body. The delicious and pungent odor wafted off the nearly completed dish upwards to the second floor of Rice house, causing a clearly hungry Rousseau Mieze ’10 to arrive quickly at the kitchen door, nose curiously extended in front of him.
As I sat eagerly in my spectator seat, watching Cho throw ingredients together with native dexterity, I noted the incredible visual attraction of the dish being prepared before me. “Another value of bibimbap is that it has incredibly artistic value, that it’s really aesthetically pleasing,” Cho said. “You have all these beautiful and distinct colors being thrown together: green, yellow, orange, brown and white, all topped off by the striking scarlet of the gochujang sauce. When you put the egg on top, before mixing it, it looks like there is no better food. It’s just so beautiful!”
Finally, as my stomach’s rumblings became audible to the majority of campus and my sense of smell had been titillated to the point of imminent collapse, Cho gracefully heaped spoonfuls of bibimbap into my awaiting bowl. As the spoon seemed to magically present itself in my mouth, the flavors took me on a wild ride that I imagine might rival the high offered by crack. Two minutes later, without having any recollection of actually ingesting the delectable dish, my bowl had been scraped clean and I was dying for seconds. When it came, I drew the moisture out of my large bites, gulping down the spicy but perfectly seasoned juices of the dish, imagining faraway Korea where such a dish is a mere quotidian repast for most.
“Bibimbap is like the Korean soul food,” Cho said. “In Korean dramas you always have scenes where the pretty actress is really stressed by an incorrigible guy character, and she comes back home at midnight and makes a big bowl of bibimbap, shoveling it into her mouth kind of as treatment for frustration with guys. Kind of like a Western late-night ice cream of sorts. I think it’s an accurate description of what bibimbap is to a lot of Koreans.”
As I swallowed my final bites of Cho’s divine culinary creation, my heart sank, looking at the long sequence of dining hall meals that stood between another chance to make bibimbap and my daily intake of French fries and soggy mixed vegetables. But then, considering how easy bibimbap was to make and the spectacular kitchen qualities of myÂ friend, perhaps I might just be spending more time than expected in the kitchen this semester.