Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Kimbab is my favorite food in the entire world
My favorite food in the entire world is 김밥, kimbab. Kimbab is rice, meat, and vegetables wrapped up in seaweed, and then sliced to form neat, round, colorful cross-sections. The meat is traditionally beef marinated in the ubiquitous Korean bulgogi marinade, salty and sweet, and when combined with ribbons of egg, pickled daikon radish, sautéed spinach, and julienned carrots, it’s a very happy looking dish. Now, it’s become trendy to replace the beef with canned tuna, to add processed American cheese, which makes me ill, and other modern ingredients. It's Korean picnic food, the kind of food that kids love, which is why you'll never see it on the menu of a big Korean restaurant. I love it intensely.
Unfortunately, I only get to eat it a couple of times of year, in the few compressed weeks that I’m at home with my parents in Korea. It’s simple food, with no sophisticated searing or deglazing. But it’s the kind of food that in Korean is literally called a “handful.” The rice has to be good, each grain distinguishable and yet sticky, and carefully seasoned with salt, a little vinegar, and sesame seeds. The unsalted seaweed is easy enough to buy. But the carrots have to be sliced and slivered and sautéed in oil. The spinach needs to be blanched, squeezed of excess water, and dressed with sesame seeds and sesame oil. The pickled radish, even though it comes packaged, still needs to be cut into neat long strips. The eggs have to be beaten, salted, and cooked into thin pancakes that are carefully sliced, also into neat long strips. If you are my mom, you will also have to julienne and sautée burdock root, which adds a wonderful slightly sweet, chewy element. And this is all pre-assembly.
To assemble, you need a clean bamboo roll, on which you place a sheet of seaweed, spread some rice, and then lay out the rest of the fillings. It’s not difficult work, but it takes a little practice knowing how much rice and various fillings you can comfortably stuff into a neat seaweed roll, and my rolls always come out sort of square. If you’re going to go to all this trouble, you might as well make ten or twelve rolls, which means you can spend all morning making kimbab. In other words, I rarely make kimbab for myself. So when I come home, one of the first questions my mother asks me is, “How many times do you want to eat kimbab?” And she always makes sure it is on the menu at least two times while I am at home, little caring that it’s kiddie food to my dad.
Growing up, I ate kimbab all the time. It was a frequent lunch that I took to school, that my mother carefully packed for me. My sister and I left for school at 7:30 a.m., which meant she got up at 6 to make my favorite food, after prepping the night before. I didn’t even know what this meant until I was in law school, five years after I had left home for college, when I decided to make kimbab myself for a party. It wasn’t right, the rice wasn’t right, the rolls weren’t round. My back ached from standing, chopping, rolling for so long. I had no idea. It really is the most delicious food in the world.