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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Hungry Vagabond Gets Treated Like a King

Whenever I tell Koreans that I'm a veg*an, they generally ask the same question: what do you eat? Most of them don't seem to realize that Korean cuisine is full of awesome vegetarian goodies: pancakes made with green onions, chives, kimchi, potatoes, or lentils; noodles hot, cold, creamy, or spicy; all kinds of soups porridges; tofu in various guises. Then, of course, there's also 정식, or Jeongsik, or Table d'hôte, or the "set meal." No matter what you call it, it means rice, soup, and anywhere from, say, five to thirty-five side dishes, almost all of them veg-friendly.

However, the king of Korean vegetarian fare is, without question, Bibimbap (literally, mixed rice). Normally, I wouldn't take it upon myself to write about it, given that it's probably the simplest, most well-known, and most widely-diffused Korean food out there, with the possible exception of LA Kalbi. Thanks to Hansik, though, I recently underwent the most extreme and regal Bibimbap experience of my life:

Bibimbap with a master. This Granny (a term of respect in Korean) has been making Bibimbap for 52 years and claims that her mother invented it, or at least the high-class version.

Your standard Bibimbap - even the one I ate on the airplane on the way over here nearly five years ago, which, incidentally, was the first Korean food I ever tried - is vegetable heaven. Julienned vegetables like sauteed radish, carrot, and bracken, along with steamed and seasoned spinach, some bean sprouts, and a bit of roasted seaweed sit atop a bed of rice. Throw an egg on top if you'd like, drop on a dollop of red pepper paste, and stir it all up. Voila: a natural, low-maintenance, delicious vegetarian meal. At a cheap restaurant, this will run you about 3 dollars; at a fancy one, closer to 6.

For Kings, or, in this case, a bunch of vagabond foodies, Bibimbap can really be scaled up. Check out our table above: everything I just mentioned, plus sweet and spicy balloon flower root (it's OK if you have no clue what this is), sauteed zucchini, sautéed shiitake mushrooms, thin-sliced egg, mung bean jelly, ginko nuts, pine nuts, crushed sesame seeds, and a special broth made right there at the restaurant.

Some of the high-class toppings

Listening attentively to half a century of wisdom.

Being that everything will eventually get all stirred together, you'd think you could just throw in all the ingredients any which way. It's not so, though! The master insisted that we put each ingredient in its own place, paying particular attention to color symmetry. White radish slices and bean sprouts should be on opposite sides for optimal aesthetic appeal; sauces and nuts at the end to give it that just-completed look.

Me, Greg, and Tanya enjoying the lesson. Unfortunately (for them) Andy and Anina had not yet joined the festivities.

Can you believe I made that?

It turns out that even mixing it requires a particular technique. In addition to stirring everything up and mixing it evenly, one has to be sure to smush it together just so, in order that the perfect balance of soy sauce, sesame oil, and pepper paste will be mashed in to each grain of rice.

I got a little help from the boss on this one. Oh my god was it good.

It turns out, then, that Bibimbap has a fairly unique quality: no matter who puts the dish together for you, the final result is the outcome of your own skill. Even if you go all the way to Jeonju, search out the "Hangukjib," (the name of this restaurant) and order the most deluxe bibimbap on the menu, it's up to you to make it or break it! I see a little something symbolic in this: money can't buy you the best bibimbap; only familiarity can. Good food calls for good cooks, but also for good eaters, eaters who know something about the story and the theory of their food. Eating is consumptive, of course, but at its best, it's also participatory. More than many other places I've been, Koreans seem to be intent on holding on to this respectful, if not quite reciprocal, relationship between eater and eaten. Not as much as they should, given how many treasures their cuisine contains, but enough that just living and eating here as made me aware that people can, in fact, approach their food in different ways, some better than others. I owe many thanks to this Grandma in particular, and to others like her all around the country, for helping me learn how to really enjoy and appreciate food. Now, go get a bowl for yourself.

Me, Tanya, and Greg with two generations of Bibimbap Matriarchs.

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