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By Daniel Gray
Dolsot Bibimbap is one of Korea’s most enjoyable and distinctive dishes, and provides the chance to learn a little Korean – a dolsot is a stone pot and bibimbap means “mixed rice”, and that’s exactly what the dish is: warm rice, served in a heated stone bowl and topped with various vegetables. The latter vary according to the season and whoever’s making it – they could be throwing in cucumber, carrot, mushrooms, bean sprouts, bellflower roots, alfalfa, sprouts, egg, beef or tofu. You then add a bit of gochujang (spicy red pepper paste) to the rice and mix everything up before eating, well, almost everything. I recommend you leave a small layer of rice on the bottom of the bowl – this will crisp up during the meal and add a caramel-like crunch when you are getting near the end.
One of my favorite places to get this dish is at Sanchae House, on Mount Namsan. It’s near the Myeongdong side of Namsan, right next to the famous cable cars that ride up to the peak. Sanchae House has a rustic, woodsy interior and their bibimbap is the perfect meal after long day of hiking around the mountain.
The menu focuses on popular, healthy Korean fare. You will find dishes like barley bibimbap; green tea bossam (poached pork seasoned with green tea); and an acorn jelly salad called dotorimuk. Now just because it’s “healthy” doesn’t mean it can’t be delicious.
I went with dolsot bibimbap because after a long day of walking, I want a hearty and scrumptious meal. At Sanchae House, they start you out with a warm rice tea, which is made from the crispy bits of rice on the bottom of the rice cooker. The creamy bits of rice have a slightly sweet flavor and the heartier bits of rice have a satisfying pop. This is followed by a large fresh leaf salad with spiced soy dressing, black sesame seed porridge, and a chilled water kimchi soup. Korean food is all about balance, so the warm, nutty porridge should be eaten with a sip of tangy, chilled kimchi soup and then with a bite of the crunchy salad.
A couple of minutes later, the main courses arrived: a bowl of bubbling soybean stew and the dolsot bibimbap. The bubbling soybean stew had chunks of tofu, noodle-like straw mushrooms, onions, and other vegetables. This soybean stew, called toenjang jjigae, is a very flavorful stew and a staple at most Korean meals.
The dolsot bibimbap at Sanchae House has fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, julienned turnip kimchi, bracken fern stems, ground pork, an egg yolk, and dried, roasted seaweed. Before you eat, it’s important to mix – an intricate skill for which you should use both hands. Your writing hand should hold the spoon and your other hand the chopsticks. First scoop at the rice with the spoon, but, again, remember to leave a thin layer of rice at the bottom (you’ll thank me later). Also be sure not to touch the stone bowl with your hands – it’s hot! As you scoop with your one hand use the chopsticks to disperse the different vegetables. Do this over and over until you have the rice, vegetables, and red pepper paste thoroughly mixed in. Then taste your bibimbap. If you need more spice, add a bit more red pepper paste. That’s the great thing about bibimbap – you are completely in control of your taste.
I recommend you eat the dish like a Korean would. Have a bit of bibimbap, followed by a sip of soybean stew; then have a bite of salad, and follow this with some kimchi. Each dish has a distinct flavor that compliments each other. When you are nearly finished with the bibimbap, use your spoon to scoop out some of the crunchy bits of rice on the bottom of the bowl. These crunchy, caramel-like bits are my favorite part of the meal, a tasty end result of patience and forward thinking for which your palate will thank you.
Sanchae House (산채집)
Price: 8,000 for the Dolsot Bibimbap, 10,000 for the Barley Rice set menu, and 15-25,000 for large speciality platters such as bossam.
Directions: Go up around Namsan Mountain from Myeongdong Road to the base of the Namsan Cable Cars.