Two years ago, Marc Urwand, the executive chef of the Standard hotel, added a promising item to his menu. It was bibim bap, a dish known to every Korean but very few others. Urwand thought that introducing it was worth the gamble, that the timing seemed so right for that journey from Koreatown to West Hollywood. How could anyone not love it? A bowl of pure, pearly steamed rice, garnished with shreds of seasoned vegetables and slivers of meat, a bit of egg and a spicy-sweet chili sauce. Bibim bap was satisfying and light, and beautiful to look at.
But Urwand was wrong. Hollywood couldn’t have cared less, and it disappeared within a month.
He should have waited a couple of years.
Now, just look around. Bibim bap is the hottest Asian dish in town. It has spread from mom-and-pop storefronts in Koreatown to trendy restaurants in Old Town Pasadena and super-hip spots on the Westside. It is being served in elegant hotel dining rooms, prepared tableside in an almost French presentation. A chain restaurant specializing in bibim bap is sprouting franchises around the city.
It has even turned up in Hollywood--at the Sunday farmers market.
Why is it catching on now? Everyone has a theory. It’s heathy: Bibim bap consists mostly of vegetables and very little meat, if any. And it’s comfortably like other, familiar rice dishes such as paella, rice salad and fried rice, only the rice is steamed, not stir-fried in oil. The recent World Cup games in South Korea also helped to raise its profile. Soccer teams ate it when they played at Chonju, the city in southwestern Korea considered the birthplace of bibim bap. Fans heading to the games found it in all classes on Korean Air and Asiana Airlines.
In Los Angeles, the first cross-cultural step took place about a year ago, when Gyu-kaku, a Japanese-Korean restaurant, opened on the Westside. The bibim bap was so popular, the restaurant added a second version to the menu. Now diners can choose between bibim bap with ground chicken and vegetables, or one with freshwater eel and mizuna, a feathery green. Chaco Kim, the restaurant’s director of business development, estimates that her young, hip customers order 40 of the rice bowls a night.
Fast-food stands that aim at a Western market encouraged the trend. David Kim draws lines of shoppers to his stall, Gourmet Korean B.B.Q, at the Hollywood farmers market. “Once they know about bibim bap, they order only that,” he said. “They like it because it’s pure, natural and all vegetable, not cooked.” Kim’s vegetables are only marinated, unlike most versions of the dish.
Another fast-food outfit, Han’s Bibimbap, educates customers with placemats that explain how to eat the dish and list each ingredient and its nutritional attributes. Han’s has three outlets in central Los Angeles.
Even the name is appealing. It’s snappy and fun to say. The word bibim means mixed. Bap is cooked rice, specifically the sticky, short-grained rice that Koreans favor. The rice is spooned into a large bowl, then covered with an enticing pattern of vegetables. Common toppings are carrots, daikon, shiitake mushrooms, soy bean sprouts, mung bean sprouts, spinach, zucchini, cucumber, onion, kimchi, lettuce and fine strands of dried seaweed.
Chewy toraji (bellflower root) and kosari (fern bracken) are popular in this Korean dish. Daikon sprouts, chrysanthemum leaves and todok, a mountain root, appear in some versions. Sesame seeds and sesame oil add subtle nutty flavor.
The idea is to introduce as many colors, flavors and textures as possible. “There is no rule” about what should be included, said Byoung Soo Lim, director of the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Yang Ji Express, a stall in the Koreatown Galleria food court, boasts that it has 20 toppings. Sa Rit Gol on Olympic Boulevard offers 10. Vegetarian bimbim bap from the Hollywood farmers market includes seven.
A traditional bibim bap is often meatless, but more commonly, a small amount of meat, typically beef but sometimes chicken, pork or seafood, goes on top of the rice along with a fried egg or raw yolk. The hot red pepper paste, kochujang, is served on the side, to be added cautiously, because it packs a lot of fire power.
The procedure is to stir the ingredients and kochujang together, using a long-handled spoon, not chopsticks. You also use the spoon to scoop up both rice and vegetables. The rice is usually hot and the vegetables cool, so the effect is like an ornate rice salad.
Another version of the dish, dol sot bibim bap, is served in a heavy stone pot heated to such a high temperature that the raw beef and egg yolk cook as soon as they are stirred into the mixture. The rice forms a deliciously crunchy, golden-brown crust.
Bibim bap in Los Angeles remains as traditional as it is in Korea. Western chefs have yet to do their own riff. The trendy Westside or Pasadena places that serve it are Korean-owned or -managed and mostly stick to standard versions. The most creative is Gyu-kaku’s unagi bibimba (that’s the Japanese word for bibim bap), which contains fresh water eel and mizuna. Kim, who was born and raised in Japan, once had a Japanese restaurant, Chaco, in Beverly Hills. Remembering the popularity of sushi with freshwater eel, she adapted that concept to bibim bap.
Temple, a stylish restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard, serves modern Korean cuisine fused with California influences, but the bibim bap is traditional. “It’s an easy crossover,” said Madison Gray, a server, as she instructed a customer in how to eat the dish. “We never had anyone say they didn’t like it.” Jun Kim, the owner, estimated that 30% to 40% of the orders there are for bibim bap.
Arirang in Old Town Pasadena serves three styles of traditional bibim bap--vegetable, mountain vegetables (such as roots and wild greens), and beef with vegetables--in a Korean-style setting. Sales are brisk. “A lot of people like it,” said manager Julia Kim.
Many Koreans recommend Jeon Ju, a little storefront restaurant in Koreatown that specializes in stone-pot dishes. The rice bowl there comes with traditional side dishes: beef broth with seaweed, kimchi and barley tea, served iced in summer. Little English is spoken, but the waitresses are friendly--and tactful. When a non-Korean struggling to pick up rice grains with chopsticks asked whether she should use a spoon, the waitress said either way was correct. Meanwhile, Korean women at the next table were gracefully, and properly, scooping out their bowls with spoons.
Some restaurants take liberties. Yang Ji Express sets out such unconventional toppings as corn kernels, green peas and garbanzo beans in a display that looks like a salad bar. An attendant in red shirt and baseball cap rapidly plucks a bit of each ingredient into a jumbo metal bowl. A separate bowl contains rice, to be mixed at the table.
Han’s Bibimbap makes a sausage and bacon bowl, another topped with masago (flying fish roe) and one with curry. David Kim at the farmers market tops one of his bibim baps with chap chae, a Korean mixture of clear noodles with vegetables.
Most bibim bap in Los Angeles is Chonju style, says Lim of the cultural center. Chonju (also spelled Jeonju) is about 150 miles south of Seoul, in a rich agricultural area that provides plenty of vegetables for toppings. As many as 30 ingredients may appear in a Chonju bibim bap.
The city is regarded as the cuisine capital of South Korea, and bibim bap one of its most popular dishes. It is thought to have first appeared in the 1800s, traditionally eaten after rites honoring departed ancestors.
“We prepare a formal offering table, with all kinds of food--meat, fish, vegetables, rice, wine,” said Jongsoo Choo of Northridge, who studied traditional Korean cuisine at one of Seoul’s most prestigious schools. “After the ceremony, we make a bibim bap out of that food. The men do the offering service, which the women cannot attend even though they prepare all the food. The men drink wine and some side dishes. The women who work in the kitchen, they eat the bibim bap.”
Choo scoffs at accounts that say bibim bap was first eaten by royalty. “It is not a formal dish,” she said. “You can compare it to a hamburger and hot dog.”
Today in Los Angeles, bibim bap spans a broad economic range, from the $5 farmers market dish in a Styrofoam bowl to the $18.25 raw-beef version at Seoul Jung in the Wilshire Grand Hotel. That one is finished off with luxury ingredients--pine nuts ground to a powder and a raw quail egg yolk. The serving bowl is costly Kwangju Yo brand Korean celadon, and the ambience is that of an aristocratic wooden Korean dwelling, with gleaming wooden floors, wood trim, fine art and flowers. You don’t even have to mix the bibim bap. The waitress does it for you.
Prices are much higher on the Westside than in Koreatown. Woo Lae Oak on La Cienega charges $18 for stone-pot bibim bap, compared with $8.34 at Jeon Ju. Temple’s $14 bibim bap is nicely served with kimchi and other side dishes presented on a long slim tray. Gyu-kaku, where prices are moderate ($6.95 and $7.95), pampers its guests with tableside service. Servers carry the ferociously hot stone pots to the table on wooden holders and check customers’ tolerance for hot chile before mixing in the kochujang.
Most Koreans prefer to eat bibim bap in restaurants rather than prepare it themselves. “I made bibim bap one time at home,” said Sejung Kim of the Korean Cultural Center. “I will never make it again. Too much work.”
The easy way out is to plop leftovers onto a bowl of rice for a quick meal. Still another option is to buy frozen bibim bap such as Cheonil Korean bibim bap stocked by the market in the Koreatown Galleria. This vegetarian rice bowl is packed in Korea, but instructions are provided in English. It’s a simple dish, with just a few vegetables including fern bracken, bellflower and carrots. When reheated, it tastes freshly made. The kochujang sauce, packaged separately, is more complex than some restaurant sauces here.
Although a minority, there are some people who don’t like the dish. “I would starve to death if I had to eat that,” said a Korean Air passenger who asked not to be named, “but the rest of the plane was just gobbling it up. They couldn’t get enough of it.”
Koreans are proud when they see others trying the dish. In the glossy, spacious food court of the Koreatown Galleria, a middle-aged woman rushed up to ask one such customer, “You like that bibim bap?” When the answer was “yes,” she smiled and said, “I’m so glad.”