How to Make Kimbap: Korean Seaweed Rice Rolls

updated Jun 2, 2023
How To Make Kimbap
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above shot of kimbap on a green plate on a sandy rustic surface
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

The one food I have consumed hundreds of times and never gotten bored with is kimbap (also spelled gimbap and pronounced “keem-bahp”). When I see kimbap, I can never pass it up — it brings me comfort. Practically speaking, kimbap is a complete and super-versatile meal. It makes excellent on-the-go fare for a weekday lunch box or weekend outdoor adventure and could just as easily be enjoyed as party food. You can find it in Korean convenience stores and outdoor markets, but it’s also a labor of love that you can put your own spin on.

Origins of Kimbap

The name kimbap translates to seaweed (kim) and rice (bap) rolls. For such a simple concept, one of Korea’s favorite finger foods contains multitudes. Perhaps the most easily detected kimbap is the type that is filled with thinly sliced ingredients, tightly rolled, then sliced into coins. 

Exactly when kimbap was formally introduced into Korean cuisine remains quite blurry, however some historians posit that it derived from bokksam, the Korean practice of wrapping rice into another food (typically lettuce, meat, or seaweed) in order to spark good fortune. Bokssam culture can be traced back to the Joseon dynasty (1312–1910). 

In the canon of kimbap, there are many forms. Samgak kimbap is a triangular style, then there’s the folded sandwich-style kimbap, while mayak kimbap is rolled and shaped like a chubby cigar. Kimbap may be flavored and shaped in different ways, but it’s still kimbap. 

Not Korean Sushi

While it’s certainly easy to describe kimbap simply as “the Korean sushi,” kimbap — as a food and form of cultural expression — has shown time and again that it is a force that truly stands on its own. Sushi rice is typically seasoned with vinegar, while the rice for kimbap can be left plain or seasoned with any combination of rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sugar, and salt. Not akin to sushi, kimbap is commonly enjoyed unaccompanied by a sauce to dip in, further strengthening its appeal as a food taken on the go. 

Arguably, the only similarity the two foods of separate cultural origins share is their chameleonic ability. They can both be customized with so many different ingredients. A traditional combination consists of bright danmuji (yellow pickled radish), quickly sautéed matchstick carrots, lightly seasoned spinach, and strips of egg. For more substance, Korean home cooks might add strips of uncooked Spam, bulgogi or ground beef, or shreds of surimi (imitation crab meat). Plant-based? You could swap in avocado for egg or make up the difference with more of your favorite vegetable. 

Calling it the Korean version of sushi may have been acceptable and comfortable in a bygone era of food culture, perhaps in an instance where a point of reference was called for and sushi was the most familiar. But a form of expression that was once harmless now registers as a move that delegitimizes one dish at the expense of generalizing the other. An additional shot is fired to the efforts of all the modern chefs and food creators who use either sushi or kimbap as a vehicle for cultural expression and who wish to pay it forward. You can go about enjoying kimbap and sushi thoughtfully and joyfully any which way, but you know what they say about comparison.  

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

Tools You Need to Make Kimbap

A bamboo rolling mat is the only specialized equipment you need, but even that can be improvised. In a pinch you might use a sheet of aluminum foil, plastic wrap, or even your hands to make a looser, slightly more rustic roll. A bamboo mat is inexpensive, though, and I do recommend picking one up from a Korean or Japanese market, a well-stocked cooking store, or online.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

Different Ways to Customize Kimbap

The beauty of kimbap is that you can fill them up with an endless variety of combinations. Once you master the basic method of making these seaweed and rice rolls, the possibilities are endless. All types of vegetables, protein, or sauces can tuck inside a roll of kimbap. Can you add in your favorite cheese or snack food and call it kimbap? Why, yes you can! I love to make two or three different flavors in a single rolling session — as long as you prep your fillings ahead of time and line them out on a workspace before assembly, it will be easy to tap into your creativity. Kimbap even makes excellent use of leftovers. What’s more, kimbap leftovers can be even more scrumptious the next day, battered in egg and gently pan-fried. 

To help you gain a deeper understanding of everything that kimbap can be, I turned to a few Korean American chefs and food content creators who have made and eaten their way through a lot of kimbap. These are their personal favorite riffs on the classic Korean fare. 

  1. Spicy buldak kimbap: Traditional kimbap rice is seasoned to have a mild flavor. But using any condiment on your fridge door can give the rice an extra boost and, in some cases, a touch more color. When she wants to pack in a punch, Gloria Lee of Gleetz Bapsang on TikTok likes to add a few drops of buldak ramen sauce in the rice to season before pressing it down on the gim. The sauce has the right amount of spice and adds a dramatic orange hue that looks beautiful juxtaposed with the rainbow of vegetables filling the kimbap. Speaking of vegetables, Lee says, “People underestimate

    burdock root

  2. Sandwich kimbap: Take inspiration from your favorite sandwich or burger for a fun new kimbap filling. In his cookbook, Korean American, food writer Eric Kim stuffs kimbap with the key elements of a classic cheeseburger. Sometimes I fill my kimbap with danmuji (pickled yellow radish), lettuce, mayo, and thinly sliced pieces of katsu or fried chicken leftover from a dinner party. Ruffled potato chips are a salty crunchy element that I was clued into adding by food writer Giaae Kwon and co-owner of Kimbap Lab in NYC, Dan Ahn. On a seaweed sheet and rice, they like to spread tuna salad, shredded lettuce, slivers of cucumber, the ruffled chips, slices of provolone cheese, and splashes of hot sauce. Try to tell me that doesn’t make you salivate. 
  3. Breakfast kimbap: For bright-eyed vibes and quick fuel you can eat on a busy morning, lean into your typical breakfast ingredients as your kimbap filling … and your microwave! This variation was shared by Joanne Lee Molinaro (widely known as The Korean Vegan), who originally came up with it as a hybrid solution for college students to enjoy kimbap in their dorm rooms. It came out so good and unctuous, Joanne calls it her favorite variation to this day. Start by heating up a pack of microwaveable rice, then continue with heating breakfast sausage and either heat up a store-bought omelette or follow a recipe for microwave omelette. On a piece of gim, spread the rice, then arrange the sausage and omelet in neat horizontal rows, followed by some cornichons, fresh spinach, and a little mayo mixed with gochujang. (Note: Because she follows a completely plant-based diet, Joanne uses vegan alternatives for the sausage, egg, and mayo.)
  4. Fresh tuna kimbap: If you want to make use of fresh fish in your kimbap, then this variation from Eunjo Park, former executive chef of Kawi and a general kimbap enthusiast, might be the one for you. Instead of usual suspect of canned tuna mixed with gochujang, she fills her kimbap with a log of fresh raw tuna that gets seasoned with housemade chili chutney (composed of spicy red chili chopped and cooked slow in oil with garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt) and rolls it with chives, cucumber, egg omelet, perilla leaf, and danmuji. 

How To Make Kimbap

Makes about 40 pieces

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 3 cups

    warm, cooked short-grain white rice

  • 2 tablespoons

    rice vinegar

  • 2 teaspoons

    sugar

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    sea salt

  • 1 teaspoon

    toasted sesame seeds, plus more for garnish

  • 5 sheets

    roasted seaweed (also called gim, nori, or laver)

  • 4 to 6

    fillings of your choice

  • Toasted sesame oil

Fillings shown here:

  • 5

    pencil-size strips pickled daikon radish (also called danmuji or takuan)

  • 1

    carrot, julienned and sautéed in sesame oil until crisp-tender

  • 4 cups

    spinach, blanched, squeezed, and seasoned with sesame and salt

  • 2-egg omelet with sesame oil and salt, cut into pencil-size strips

Other ideas for fillings:

  • Fresh cucumber, bell pepper, or avocado slices

  • Julienned and sautéed burdock root

  • Sautéed shiitake or portobello mushrooms

  • Kimchi and other pickled vegetables

  • Baked or fried tofu

  • Cooked meat such as beef, ham, imitation crab, or fish cake

Equipment

  • Bamboo rolling mat

  • Small bowl of warm water

  • Clean cloth or paper towel

  • Pastry brush (optional)

  • Cutting board and sharp chef's knife

Instructions

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  1. Season the rice. In a small bowl, stir the rice vinegar, sugar, and salt until the sugar dissolves. Pour it over the warm rice along with 1 teaspoon of sesame seeds and gently but thoroughly mix together. Let cool.

  2. Organize your workspace. Arrange your ingredients and tools so that everything will be close at hand when needed. Place the bamboo rolling mat on a flat surface with the long side nearest you (the bamboo sticks should be horizontal). Lay out the seaweed sheets, a plate or tray with fillings, and a small bowl of warm water. Also designate a place to put your finished rolls.

  3. Position the seaweed on top of the bamboo mat. With dry hands, place one sheet of seaweed on the bamboo rolling mat with the shiny side down and the long side nearest you.

  4. Spread a layer of rice on top of the seaweed. Lightly moisten your hands with water and evenly spread one-fifth of the rice (about 2/3 cup) on the lower two-thirds of the seaweed, leaving the top third of the seaweed empty. If the rice sticks to your fingers as you work, lightly dip them in water (avoid using too much water as it can make the seaweed soggy).

  5. Arrange the fillings on top of the rice. About an inch up from the bottom of the rice, arrange the fillings in neat, horizontal rows.

  6. Begin rolling. Beginning on the side nearest you, roll the bamboo mat up and over the fillings. Use firm but gentle pressure to hold the ingredients in place.

  7. Continue rolling. As you're rolling forward, pull the mat up and out so it doesn't get caught in the roll. Keep rolling and releasing the mat until you form a compact cylinder.

  8. Seal and season the roll. Dip your finger in water and moisten the edge of the seaweed to seal the roll. Wrap the entire bamboo mat around the roll and give it a firm but gentle squeeze. Using your hands or a pastry brush, lightly coat the outside of the roll with sesame oil to give it shine and prevent it from drying out. Set it aside.

  9. Cut into bite-size pieces. Begin cutting when all the rolls are complete. Using a towel or pastry brush, coat the blade of the knife with a thin layer of sesame oil. Slice the roll into bite-size pieces, periodically wiping the blade and re-applying sesame oil to prevent sticking.

  10. Garnish with sesame seeds (optional). Sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over the cut rolls.

  11. Serve. Serve gimbap at room temperature. Best eaten the same day.

Recipe Notes

Although short-grain white rice has the best texture, gimbap can also be made with short-grain brown rice or other grains. If using leftover rice, warm it up before seasoning with the vinegar, sugar, and salt mixture.

No dipping sauce is necessary but if you like, you can use yangnyeomjang Korean seasoning sauce.