Friday, January 20, 2012

Quasi-Homemade, Almost Too-Easy Bi Bim Bop


My father recently had a Shakespearean moment. 

On my recent New Years holiday visit to Los Angeles, the whole family accompanied my sister-in-law to her local Japanese-Korean grocery store complex near Little Tokyo.  Yaohan, Super H-Mart, and co. are as large as entire suburban strip malls now; these kinds of Asian grocery stores entertain a vast number of shoppers and are built complete with food courts, clothing shops, ceramic pottery stores, and myriad “specialized” boutique salons (many of them targeted towards  “brightening” Asian skin tones or “straightening” coarse Asian hair).

As we walked through aisle after gleaming aisle of meticulously packaged goods, my father became more and more entranced.  Finally, as we passed through the food courts with steaming bowls of dumpling and udon noodle soups and the well-stocked prepared-foods section full of beautifully arranged sushi platters and bento boxes (really, they had every size and combination imaginable), he declared that one need never ever cook again.  Then he had his Miranda (from The Tempest) moment: “Oh, what it would be like to live in these times, near here!”  He didn’t quite proclaim it a “brave new world,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.


Of course, Miranda’s exclamation was prompted by her naivete of the world outside her little island, and my father’s was too—to some degree.   The rest of the world has become so global (kogi taco trucks?), but a lot of people of my parents’ generation seem flabbergasted every time they see a non-Asian willingly consuming wickedly spicy Korean soups and stews.  And, yes, they are still astounded (why, I’ll never understand) that my American husband of almost 12 years (who also lived in Japan for 3 years) can wield chopsticks better than a native-born Asian—but I was never very adept with those skinny sticks, so that’s not a useful comparison. . .


Despite the fact that my California relatives persist in believing that large Asian communities exist only in L.A., the Chicago area has its own Chinatown and smaller pockets of other Asian enclaves.  Certainly, there is a large enough Asian population to support a thriving Super H-Mart near my Chicago suburb.  I take advantage of my proximity to such stores when I suffer cravings for a quick, not-quite-from-scratch Bi-bim-bop.  In fact, the meal pictured above, including the side dishes, can only be considered about 1/5 “home”-made—and that’s mostly because I steamed some rice and boiled some water. 


Like Bul-go-gi, Bi-bim-bop (literally meaning “mixed rice”) has become very popular with non-Koreans.  It might appear at first like a mystifying tangle of meat and vegetables and rice, but it's really quite easy to assemble.

1) One constructs Bi-bim-bop by first laying down about of cup of cooked rice in a deep bowl (which will facilitate the mixing process without making a huge mess).  Please, invest in a good rice cooker.  I know how to boil or steam rice on the stovetop and have done so since before I was 10 years old.  But, really, no self-respecting Asian would serve a guest rice that was not steamed in a rice-cooker since it’s simply best that way.  My Zojirushi rice cooker has been with me for over 15 years now.


2) On top of the hot rice, you mound 3-4 different types of marinated or fresh vegetables (bean sprouts, spinach, cucumber, sautéed zucchini—the varieties are limitless).  Sure, you can get different kinds of veggies from the store and painstakingly julienne them and marinate them or sauté them.   Or, from your trusty little (or super) grocery store, you can get store-made marinated mixed veggies like you see here.


3) Then you top the veggies with some cooked (and slightly chopped up) bul-go-gi which you can either get from the store if you are in a hurry or marinate yourself, following the basic recipe that I supplied in another post: http://eatingreadingwriting.blogspot.com/2011/11/bul-go-gi-korean-fire-beef.html

4) The crowning glory is a sunny-side-up fried egg.  (I’ve heard vegetarian students walking into Korean diners in university campus towns and ordering "Bi-bim-bop, no meat, but with two fried eggs.”)  Then you mix up the whole concoction with the aid of moisture from the runny egg yolk, the juice from the bul-go-gi, and a sauce you can also get from the store—or make yourself by whisking together some Korean hot chile paste, roasted sesame oil, rice vinegar, and a little sugar.


It also improves the meal if you can wash that down with some miso soup (and there are so many varieties that just require boiling water).  Side dishes of traditional cabbage kimchee and some fried marinated tofu round out a meal that looks impressively home-made but which requires very little actual cooking.

O, what a brave new world…

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