Kimbap: Daniel Gray's Korean Food Story

P1200946-793164Readers, these days, I have been recording with KBS World Radio about Korean food. Each week, I go on to talk about some of my favorite Korean foods. I have gotten permission to share the stories with you on this site. You can hear me on Wednesdays at 10am.

Kimbap is for Koreans like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are for Americans, fish n chips for the British, Crepes for the French or marmite and margarine sandwiches for Australians. It is a nostalgic everyday snack food that many Koreans associate with school picnics and festivals.

It is a simple dish. It is just rice seasoned with some roasted sesame oil placed on a sheet of seaweed stuffed with various vegetables and meat like yellow egg, orange carrots, white cucumbers, green spinach, pink ham, brown burdock, and yellow turnip. They are then wrapped carefully, yet firmly, brushed with some more sesame oil (to prevent the seaweed from ripping) and then sliced into rainbow disks that tastes best when eaten from the fingertips.

Variations of kimbap are boundless. It can be stuffed with tuna fish, kimchi, beef bulgogi, shrimp, crab, cheese, and even crispy, tiny anchovies.

I have even seen dessert kimbap and "nude" kimbap that has rice on the outside. Kimbap is limited only by the imagination.

On school picnics as a child, I remember having a Korean lunch box, called dosirak, stuffed with rice rolls made by mother. All the other kids had them as well and while they were all similar in style and ingredient, each child would swear their mother made the world's best.

Mothers would often wake up early to prepare these vegetable and meat stuffed rice rolls. It is a labor intensive snack that requires love and attention and a dash of mother's pride. Even though you can find kimbap stores on nearly every corner, many mothers still make them by hand.

Nobody knows who made the first kimbap but some historians say that it is associated with the Korean dish: bossam which is poached pork belly topped with kimchi and wrapped in brined cabbage leaf.

A popular variation of this dish is Chungmu kimbap which is simply rice wrapped with seaweed and served with a side of turnip kimchi and braised squid or other seafood. It comes from the fishing town of Chungmu. Wives here had to come with a lunch food that would not spoil when their husbands would be out working on the hot seas all day. By separating the stuffings and meat from the rice rolls and serving it with fermented side dishes, the fishermen could have a hearty meal out at sea.

Another variation of kimbap comes from the popular Kwangjang Market in Seoul's Jongno area. Mayak Kimbap translates to narcotic kimbap. The story goes that these small cigar-shaped rice rolls were addictive like drugs and caused people to line up by the dozens to get packages of these rice rolls for themselves and for their families. The dish is simple to make. But instead of having a big sheet of seaweed it starts with only a small rectangle- about the size of a palm. It is topped with rice, sesame seeds, carrots and turnip and wrapped to make a rice roll about the size of an adult's index finger. They are fun to eat and the most important part of this dish is the sauce which is a piquant mustard and vinegar dip. I think it is the sauce that makes mayak kimbap so addictive.

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