Friday, January 24, 2014

A hot mess

One of the most well-known dishes served in Korean restaurants is known by the fun alliterative name of bibimbap, a bowl of rice with an assortment of vegetable, meat and other toppings. In restaurants it's often served in a hot stone pot called a dolsot, and comes to the table hissing and sputtering so furiously you can feel the heat of it radiating in your face.

A one-bowl dish, bibimbap is a good option for a solo diner - it's not easy to do Korean barbecue for one, after all! Gamja Bawi in the food court at Koreatown Plaza on Western Avenue is known for serving one of the best and cheapest versions in town.

I went there on a Sunday afternoon, and the court's dining area was filled up with large families, tables pushed together in groups of eight or more. I could easily imagine some had come from church to enjoy lunch, noisily chatting and eating, to follow up with an after-lunch coffee.

"One second!" said the cashier to me as she served up some extra pickled radish for the guy ahead of me. "One second, one second!"

The place is loud, the voices clash and reflect against the tile floors and shiny ceilings. Dishes and trays clash and clatter as the bussers clear tables, and children shriek and laugh, jumping so their flip-flops slap the floor. The cashiers at some food stalls shout out numbers for pick-up, while at others, they ring an electronic beacon like a ringing doorbell, and at still others, they both shout and ding-dong, and when diners pickup their food, they singsong loudly, "Thank you!"

When my sizzling food arrived, it looked beautiful and enticing, with each component separately clustered around the bowl, crowned with an over-easy egg, its golden yolk like a little sun.

You're supposed to mix up bibimbap, stirring the rice up from the bottom with the ubiquitous long-handled metal spoon of the Korean place setting. On the hot oiled surface inside the dolsot, the rice has crisped into a crunchy crust, which cracks up as you stir. The egg breaks and mingles with the rice and other bits, coating them with the molten yolk.

Mixing it up transforms the bowl from a pleasing composition of distinct elements to a jumbled mess, but that's the whole point of bibimbap. Translated, bap is the word for "rice," and bibim means "mixing" - so bibimbap is "mixing rice."

When it's finally cool enough to put in your mouth, each bite is a different mixture of rice, meat, carrots, spinach, egg, sesame, and gochujang, the fierce chili paste that seems to flavor all Korean food. The rice is alternately creamy and crunchy, and the whole thing is hearty, comforting and delicious - a simple concept that's simply good.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I love bibimbap. Actually, I haven't had a Korean meal I didn't enjoy.

In the NY metro area, Korean food tends to be underrated and underrepresented. We had a huge Korean grocery open up in the northern suburbs, so I think that will change soon.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It's been far too long since I've had Korean BBQ (or anything else).

Not much of that in Berkeley Springs!