Mixed veggie dish an ambassador for Korean foodWhen Bill Clinton visited Korea to promote his autobiography in February, former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo invited him to dinner at a Seoul hotel.
On the table that evening was neither a posh French course meal nor an all-American buffet. Following Mr. Lee’s philosophy of “When in Korea, eat as Koreans do,” dinner consisted of a bowl of bibimbap, mixed rice with assorted vegetables and side dishes.
When the bowl arrived, however, Mr. Lee fretted that he might have made a bad choice. Bibimbap comes with spicy pepper paste sauce, which was no exception for the bowl to be served to Mr. Clinton.
While everyone shook their heads in apprehension at the bowls, Mr. Clinton beamed.
After ripping off some lettuce to mix with the bibimbap, Mr. Clinton then made a hash with the vegetables and rice as if this were the best delicacy in the world.
After taking one spoonful of bibimbap, he then dumped in a bowlful of kimchi to everyone’s surprise.
Mr. Clinton told his Korean friends it is the best way to enjoy bibimbap. Mr. Lee asked if he had tried the dish before, and Mr. Clinton said he is a huge fan.
Mr. Clinton added that bibimbap works best when he has a stuffy nose. No wonder Mr. Lee recalls today that the one person who enjoyed the Korean food the most Korean way was Mr. Clinton.
And it’s not just Mr. Clinton. Bibimbap is now considered one of Korea’s best known dishes along with kimchi and bulgogi, or marinated beef. Bibimbap has long been the first Korean food that is served on flight to foreigners on their way to Korea.
Paul A. Richards, the chief executive of SC Johnson Korea, said the first meal foreigners in business class seats look for is a bowl of bibimbap whenever they fly to and from Korea.
Mr. Richards is a big bibimbap fan, and he even has a theory why the dish is well received around the world. First, you can eat a lot of vegetables. Secondly, you can control the amount of hot pepper paste sauce. Thirdly, you can have fun mixing everything.
On the other side of the earth, bibimbap is also popular. Just visit a restaurant named the Korea Palace at the intersection of Lexington Street and 54th Avenue in New York and you’ll know the popularity of the food.
The restaurateur, 47-year-old Park Jeong-seon says at least 70 bowls of bibimbap are ordered every day by New Yorkers, along with lunch delivery orders. For those who do not want the spicy hot pepper sauce, a special soy sauce is also available.
Japan is no exception in surrendering to the charm of bibimbap. Visit a restaurant called “Choi-san no Kitchen” (Mr. Choi’s Kitchen) in Yokohama at lunchtime and you’ll find a long queue of locals waiting for a bowl of bibimbap.
One bowl is 890 yen ($8), which can be a bit too expensive for a casual lunch, but it’s sold out every day. Many Korean restaurants offer a variety of bibimbap, from spring greens to sashimi to salad bibimbap. And it’s not just Korean restaurants that serve Korean food. Quick-stop Japanese eateries such as Matsuya or Vegetaria are also now serving it.
The acclaimed video artist Nam-joon Baek describes his world of art as something like bibimbap.
“I’m not doing anything profound,” he said. “ What I’m doing is just mixing everything, just like a bowl of bibimbap that I used to eat when little.”
The dish reminds us that the world today is a place of fusion. No wonder bibimbap is gaining popularity around the world.
by Choi Min-woo