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Hot Bowl

The Korean rice dish called bibim bap is landing on trendy menus all over the city

July 17, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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