When I think of my favorite comfort foods, the vast majority of them are, shall we say, a bit wanting in the nutrition department. Dolsot bibimbap is the exception. Like mac and cheese or potato pancakes, this popular Korean dish has plenty of carbs – but it's also a well-balanced meal, with a rainbow of vegetables and protein crowning the bowl of hot, steaming rice.
In Korean, bibimbap means "mixed rice" – a dish composed of cooked rice and an assortment of vegetables (and often meat or tofu and an egg), all stirred together with a dollop of hot red pepper paste just before eating. It's a flavorsome and remarkably healthful medley of colors, textures, and flavors.
The best kind of bibimbap, in my opinion, is dolsot bibimbap, in which the ingredients are served in a heated dolsot, or stone pot. The heat from the pot makes the rice sizzle and turn crispy on the bottom. Here the egg can be added raw and it cooks as it's mixed into the hot bowl. Don't have a dolsot? No problem; it can also be made in a cast iron skillet. (And if you prefer not to use raw egg, you can fry the egg first, or omit it altogether.)
The toppings in this recipe are pretty basic and open to modification. Substitute bulgogi for the tofu if you eat meat; try mushrooms, radishes, zucchini, onions... Burdock and lotus roots are two of my favorite mix-ins but I wanted to keep this version fairly accessible. Just keep in mind that a variety of colors and textures will make this beautiful to look at and fun to eat. Bibimbap is also a great way to eat leftovers if you have little bits of various vegetables and grains in the fridge.
The one ingredient that I'd argue isn't really optional is gochujang, or red pepper paste. Made from chiles, rice, fermented soybeans, and salt (and frequently a sweetener), this thick, deep red condiment is a staple in Korean kitchens. It gives the bibimbap a spicy, umami, and slightly sweet flavor. If you don't have access to a Korean market, you can find gochujang online at HMart. (I've seen bibimbap recipes that use Sriracha instead of gochujang and although it might be tasty, it is not the same.)
Vegetarian Korean Dolsot Bibimbap
Makes 2 hearty portions or 4 regular portions
1/2 cucumber, julienned
8 ounces firm tofu
Toasted sesame oil
1 large carrot, julienned
1 cup soybean sprouts
5 cups spinach leaves
Toasted sesame seeds
4 cups cooked rice
1/2 sheet roasted seaweed (preferably Korean-style kim, but Japanese nori also works), cut into small strips with scissors
Gochujang (red pepper paste)
Cucumbers: Sprinkle cucumbers with salt and leave to drain in a colander for 20 minutes. Squeeze out excess water.
Tofu: Rinse and drain tofu. Cut into 1/2-inch thick slices and place between clean kitchen towels (or paper towels). Place a heavy object such as a skillet or cutting board on top to press out excess liquid. Let sit 15 minutes. Heat a tablespoon of sesame oil in a pan and fry tofu, turning once, until golden. Remove tofu from pan. When cool enough to handle, cut into strips.
Carrots: Heat a tablespoon of sesame oil in a pan. Add carrots and a pinch of salt and stir fry until cooked through. Remove from pan.
Soybean Sprouts: Blanch in a pot of salted boiling water, just until wilted. Plunge into ice water to stop cooking, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Mix in a small bowl with 1 teaspoon sesame oil, a pinch of salt, and a dash of sesame seeds.
Spinach: Blanch in a pot of salted boiling water, just until wilted and bright green. Plunge into ice water to stop cooking, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Mix in a small bowl with 1 teaspoon sesame oil, a pinch of salt, and a dash of sesame seeds.
To assemble: Place a dolsot or 10-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat. When it's good and hot, add a tablespoon of sesame oil and swirl to coat. Add the rice and pack it down evenly; it should sizzle at the bottom. Arrange the cucumber, tofu, carrot, soybean sprouts, and spinach on top. Cook for a few minutes until ingredients are heated through. Place the egg on top and garnish with sesame seeds and seaweed.
To serve: Bring the pot or pan to the table. (It's hot, so make sure to protect your hands and the table with a trivet!). Add a tablespoon of gochujang and a drizzle of sesame oil and mix well with a spoon. Divide into individual bowls. If desired, each diner can add more sesame oil and gochujang to taste.
Related: Recipe: Chap Chae (Korean Noodles With Vegetables)
(Images: Emily Ho)