Living in Korea as an English teacher was an amazing adventure, especially since I cashed in on the opportunity to live on the beautiful paradise that is Jeju Island. I can’t recommend taking a year to teach abroad there enough. However, I’ve said time and time again that South Korea is one of the most challenging places to live as a vegetarian. Challenging, though, doesn’t mean impossible.
Dining out is the status quo in South Korea, as it’s about the same price as buying groceries and cooking for yourself; it’s also incredibly social and an experience that you don’t want to miss out on as an expat. My favorite go-to dish on an evening out was bibimbap, a traditional rice bowl (‘bap’ means ‘rice’) filled with veggies. It isn’t uncommon to get this sans meat, making it easy for you as far as communication is concerned.
Whenever I come home to Michigan, I like to share my travel experiences with my parents as much as I can. One of the ways that I do that is by cooking up an authentic meal from one of my previous destinations. The other night, I was craving a good ol’ bibimbap and, luckily, I found an Asian market nearby that had all the extra ingredients that I needed.
This is an especially nice option for those who aren’t super adventurous with flavors, as it’s fairly basic, but don’t get me wrong: when made correctly, bibimbap is packed with flavors that are sure to please even the faintest of pallets.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30-40 minutes (for rice)
- 2 c dry rice; Koreans use glutinous short grain white rice, but I went with a healthier alternative of brown rice here
- 2 large carrots
- 2 large cucumbers; you can also you zucchini here, if desired
- 7 oz/200 grams Enoki mushrooms; you can also use shitake for more flavor
- 3 large handfuls of water spinach
- 4 eggs (leave these out to make the meal vegan)
- 3 tbsp sesame oil
- a few garlic cloves, dependent on your personal taste
- a few small squares of gim (dried and salted seaweed), optional
- 4 tbsp gochujang (Korean fermented chili paste); optional if you don’t like a spicy kick, but it would always be present if a Korean made it
Your first step depends on what kind of rice you have. If you have a rice cooker, go for that. If not, bring two cups of water to a boil before adding the dry rice. Reduce to a simmer and leave to cook for about 30 to 40 minutes. Bibimbap is best when the rice has a little bit of crunchy texture to it, so once the water has been fully absorbed, leave the rice over heat to crisp up, stirring regularly so as to not burn it.
While the rice is cooking, julienne the carrots and cucumbers. Enoki mushrooms have gritty roots, so make sure to shop off the bottom inch or so. You can also chop the gim into julienned strips.
When the rice is ready, lightly heat the sesame oil with minced garlic. Take turns sautéing the carrots, mushrooms, and spinach for 30 seconds each- just enough to get the flavor the oil infused into the veg. You do not want them to be overly wilted at all. Lastly, fry the eggs.
Bibimbap is composed by adding rice to individual bowls. Then, each component is separately added to make a circle. The fried egg is placed on the top last, along with a scoop of gochujang. Eat immediately.
*When I made bibimbap on this particular occasion, I also sautéed some pre-fried tofu in a mixture of soy sauce, honey, and freshly grated ginger. This gives some extra bulk to the meal, especially if you’re making it for people who are accustomed to having meat in every meal (like my parents).
Yields 4 servings