“It’s the proper chew,” Seung Hee Lee, the coauthor of Everyday Korean, says about kimbap, and I’m form of aggravated I didn’t consider that earlier than. As a second-generation Korean American, I ate loads of kimbap rising up and have just lately been making it obsessively—and desirous about what precisely makes it good (and never so good). I simply hadn’t been capable of sum it up so pithily.
Kimbap, certainly a splendidly balanced chew, actually interprets from Korean to English as “seaweed rice,” although it’s extra precisely described as a rice roll—a bit of kim (seaweed) coated with well-seasoned bap (rice) and rolled round fillings. It’s irritatingly too usually referred to as “Korean sushi” due to its visible similarity to futomaki, Japanese sushi rolls. Sushi, nonetheless, it decidedly shouldn't be.
The comparability is especially fraught as a result of kimbap is likely one of the quintessentially nostalgic meals in Korean delicacies, related by these in Korea and within the diaspora with childhood—with discipline journeys, picnics, and lengthy automobile rides. To this present day, dad and mom take squares of toasted, nutrient-rich kim and wrap it round bap and banchan (facet dishes) to stuff into the mouths of choosy youngsters. Moms rise early to roll, minimize, and pack kimbap to eat as mess-free meals on the street or showcase at social gatherings.
Eunjo Park, govt chef at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, thinks the distinction between kimbap and futomaki comes down to 3 issues. First, merely, “kimbap is Korean, sushi is Japanese”—they’re completely different culturally. Second, “kimbap rice is seasoned with sesame oil and is extra savory, the place sushi rice is vinegar-based. Third—and most vital—is the filling.” Futomaki tends to be full of uncooked seafood and feels virtually like a palate cleanser, whereas kimbap is extra balanced and has extra heft.
I describe kimbap as a labor of affection. The rice have to be made effectively (not too sticky, not too dry) and seasoned with salt, sesame seeds, and sesame oil, simply sufficient to offer taste (an excessive amount of sesame oil, and the rice might be too slick for the kim and style greasy). Every filling—historically a sautéed protein (like marinated beef bulgogi or eomook, pressed fish cake), omelette, danmuji (pickled radish), and crisp greens like carrots, blanched spinach, and cucumbers—must be made individually. Then every kimbap must be organized, ideally with a skinny layer of rice, and rolled, usually utilizing a bamboo mat to help, then sliced—all to make that excellent chew.
The origins of kimbap are murky, the discourse influenced by the lingering results of Japan’s occupation of Korea, formally from 1910 to 1945. Sources, together with the Encyclopedia of Korean Tradition, cite two variations—the primary, that Koreans have been wrapping rice in kim to create a ssam (wrap), referred to as a kimssam, for the reason that manufacturing of kim started within the Jeolla Province in the course of the Joseon period (1392–1897). Kimbap, then, is the pure evolution.
At the moment, kimbap has come to symbolize Koreanness.
Others argue the dish’s lineage is derived from futomaki introduced over to Korea in the course of the Japanese occupation. “Kimbap,” as a phrase, didn’t enter the Korean vernacular till 1935, when the phrase was printed within the Dong-a Ilbo, a day by day newspaper established in 1920. Additional, in keeping with the Federation of Korean Cultural Heart, kimbap was made within the Japanese fashion, with rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar, till the Seventies—when a transition to the extra savory rolls occurred.
At the moment, kimbap has come to symbolize Koreanness. “Is hamburger actually American meals?” Lee asks. “When you return to the origin, it’s from Germany or one thing, however ask any American—they assume hamburger is their meals. To me, kimbap is like that. It doesn’t matter the place it actually got here from. All of us grew up consuming it, [and] we've our personal methods and ideas and preferences on the way it’s executed.”
Kimbap, naturally, has been evolving because the diaspora grows and modifications. Over the previous decade, we’ve been seeing extra variations pop up round the US, from conventional fare (like at Seoul Kimbap in Honolulu and Ajumma’s Kimbob Deli in Dallas, each of which serve kimbap with tuna mayo, eomook, and bulgogi) to extra modern takes, like Park’s at New York’s Ssäm Bar, that push the boundaries of kimbap—and in so doing problem notions of custom and Koreanness.
“It’s so exhausting, particularly as a Korean chef cooking Korean meals, to be inside custom however go above and past with out breaking that custom,” Park admits. Whereas she performs wildly with the inner parts of kimbap, she sticks to the acquainted construction—bap wrapped in kim—approaching it as a canvas on which to make her personal spins that symbolize who she is as a chef. Previously, she’s used unconventional proteins like foie gras and uncooked bluefin tuna. At Ssäm Bar right this moment, she accompanies vegetable kimbaps with a uncooked facet as a topping—for instance, a kimbap with pickled onions, shiso, and cucumber, served with spicy uncooked scallops. As she says, she makes kimbap, however why shouldn’t she use uncooked seafood?
Then there’s Kimbap Lab in Williamsburg, the place cofounder Sarah Lee and her accomplice, chef Received-il Lee, launched a brand new method of consuming kimbap in 2016—by dipping kimbap in novelty sauces, like a mayo made with ssamjang (a gochujang- and doenjang-based sauce with different components, like garlic, honey, sesame oil, and toasted walnuts, blended in) or a vegan seaweed sauce. The sauces carry one other layer of taste and texture to their kimbaps that lean extra conventional with fillings like spicy pork, yubu (fried bean curd), or gochujang rooster.
“We have been the primary ones to do the pairings with kimbap,” Sarah Lee says, talking to me from Seoul, the place she’s presently staying. She tells me Korea’s kimbap scene has additionally been altering lately, with extra health-conscious and vegan choices. Excited by the contemporary rolls that really feel each acquainted and new, Koreans who journey to New York Metropolis and go to Kimbap Lab have repeatedly requested that they carry Kimbap Lab to Seoul.
None of that is to low cost conventional kimbap. At Fortunate Rice Cake in Los Angeles, Eunice Park makes conventional kimbap with bulgogi, Korean fish sausage, and imitation crab, specializing in high-quality components and leaning into the comforting qualities of kimbap.
This selection showcases the creativity to which kimbap naturally lends itself. Seung Hee Lee says, “You may customise your kimbap as you'd customise your burger, so long as you've your fundamentals down strong,” and I can’t assist however take into consideration Koreanness within the diaspora. The evolution of kimbap feels pure, a meals by which Korean Individuals can embrace and specific their identities, and, as somebody who makes a complete lot of kimbap herself, I agree. All you want are kim and bap—the remainder is as much as you.
Inline pictures by Giaae Kwon