Roll me up a treat!
Traveling to foreign lands offers guests the opportunity to try out several dishes native to their destination country. When I first came to Korea, I knew next to nothing about the cuisine, save from its famous kimchi. After years on the peninsula, I’ve had wondrous opportunities to sample amazing dishes ranging from seasoned beef in Insadong, to Jeju’s famous black pork, to Busan’s fresh seafood. However, when locals ask me what my favorite Korean dish happens to be, the answer often shocks them: the gimbap (김밥).
For those not familiar with this staple of the Korean diet, I’ll briefly explain this delicious treat. The food item in question is made from rice (bap/밥). The gim (seaweed/김) is used to roll the rice and other ingredients into a tight package and then is sliced into bite-sized pieces for consumption. The rice is typically lightly seasoned with a little salt and oil, giving it a slightly different flavor than if ordering rice with a meal. Typical ingredients also include fish cakes, imitation crab meat, egg, radish, ham, carrots, spinach, and cucumbers. The dish is similar to the Japanese futomaki, which was introduced to the peninsula during the occupation period (1910-1945).
Today, one can find gimbaps in just about every restaurant or convenience store. While the original gimbap is still popular, over the years variations have cropped up, making it a very diverse treat, which is why I love it dearly: it’s cheap, it can be eaten on the go, and is easily changed to suit your taste. Common varieties of gimbaps available on most menus are cheese (the standard gimbap with a few slices of American Cheese placed inside), beef (갈비), tuna (참치), and kimchi (김치). A few restaurants will also have the donggaseu (돈까스) or pork cutlet variety available.
Gimbaps-to-go are rolled in aluminum foil, making them the snack of choice for Korea’s hikers. In fact, the typical 250g gimbap packs in a very nutritional 400 calories, which is ideal for those on the trail. The easily digestible carbohydrates provide instant energy to the body. However, because gimbaps are are small and sliced, it also makes them ideal for snacks during the day. While the calorie count is high, it’s the perfect treat to share with friends when out walking or taking a quick break at the office.
Perhaps the greatest feature of the gimbap is its price. For this filling treat, expect to pay no more than W1500. If one orders one of the specialty gimbaps, the prices go up to W2500 or W3000 per roll, but considering how filling an entire gimbap can be, the price is right. This leads me to why the gimbap is my favorite Korean food. With the average gimbap being so cheap, making them at home just doesn’t make sense. The individual item costs make the price-point for rolling one or two very high; however, when becoming creative, the sky’s the limit.
Over the years, I’ve substituted various ingredients to those considered standard to make special gimbaps for my family to enjoy. Two of my favorite variations include “The Mexican Gimbap” which lays down seasoned chicken, sauteed onions and peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, black beans, and salsa in the laver and “The American Gimbap” which includes Angus steak, sauteed mushrooms, potatoes, and a light dash of steak sauce. These two creations transform the snack into a meal or a great party appetizer.
The most difficult part of making the gimbap is rolling the seaweed. This takes time and practice to get it down correctly, but here are some tips for when you first start out. As seen in the video, you only want to cover the laver with about 85-90% of rice and spread it very thin. Moving up about 10% from the bottom, use the next 25% of the space for your fillings. The ideal final width is about 5cm, so don’t over-fill. Once you have all the ingredients in place, roll from the bottom, tightly wrapping the seaweed around the fillings to about the 50% mark on the rice and tuck the leading edge under your fillings. This creates a nice seal. Finally, roll out the rest of the gimbap.
If you’re traveling to Korea, and have never tried a gimbap, make sure that you do. They are healthy and the perfect snack to keep you energized while out sightseeing or conducting business. If you’re living in Korea, what is your favorite variety or recipe?