When I moved here from South Carolina a little over 5 years ago, I had no idea that what I would miss most would be the Korean restaurants and grocery stores available to me there. If I had known that there were no Korean restaurants anywhere near here–and only one grocery store in a town too far away to visit often–I would, at the very least, have stocked up on kochu chang (also spelled gochujang and gochuchang), the spicy pepper paste that gives my favorite Korean dish, Bibimbab (aka Bi Bim Bap), its characteristic flavor.
Bibimbab consists of a bowl of rice with several separately cooked vegetables served on top. For non-vegans, bibimbab includes meat among the toppings and a fried egg over the top, but my husband and I would often go to our favorite restaurant and ask that the meat be replaced with tofu and the egg eliminated. We’d also ask that the little side dishes served with each meal be vegetarian. If you have a chance to go to a Korean restaurant, try getting your bibimbab prepared dol sot–cooked in a heavy stoneware bowl, the rice becomes almost crispy along the bottom. (I’ve been searching for an affordable source of these bowls for years and haven’t found it yet; since each one weighs about 5 pounds, mail ordering them is not very practical.) [Update 3/2/06–Found ‘em!]
When I make bibimbab, I usually prepare about 4 or 5 toppings for the rice. The rice is mounded in a bowl, and each topping is arranged in a wedge radiating down from a dollop of sauce at the top. Last night I made what I called a “modified bibimbab” with just three toppings. Hey, we’re lucky to have it at all on a weeknight!
Ginger-Garlic Bok Choi
6-8 baby bok choi (or bok choy) (about 1 1/2 pounds)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1/4 cup water
1 tsp. dark sesame oil (or to taste)
1 tbsp. soy sauce or tamari
1 tsp. sugar or alternative
1 tbsp. rice wine or sherry (optional)
sprinkling of toasted, crushed sesame seeds
Prepare the bok choi by washing it well and chopping it into bite-sized pieces. Splash a little of the water into a wok or deep skillet, heat, and throw in the garlic and ginger. Sauté for about 3 minutes and then add the bok choi and the remaining water and stir. Cover and cook until the bok choi is bright green and tender-crisp, about 4-6 minutes.
Remove the cover and add the sesame oil, soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine. Stir and serve, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
In the process of making the vegetable dishes, I discovered that we were out of that most necessary ingredient, kochu chang (or gochujang), a hot chili paste that’s considered one of the essential seasonings in Korean dishes. But, thanks to Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian, I was able to whip up a surprisingly similar-tasting substitute. So, if you can’t find kochu chang in your area, here’s what you do:
Kochu Chang Substitute
4-5 tbsp. red or brown miso
1 1/2 tbsp. red paprika
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbsp. sugar or alternative
Mix all ingredients together well.
My husband pointed out that this was less spicy than the real thing, so feel free to add more cayenne. To make the kochu chang into the sauce for the bibimbab, you will need to add (whether you’re using real kochu chang or the sub):
2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. toasted and crushed sesame seeds
Many of the dishes that make up bibimbab can be made ahead and served either cold or at room temperature. So, if you’re better organized than I am, you can easily prepare most of this meal in advance and just cook your rice right before serving. It really is a meal worth going to some trouble for.