Bibimbap – Vegan Korean Rice Bowl with Tofu

Learning the story behind famous dishes never gets old, especially when it’s one that you’ve already encountered several times before.

To say that we’ve encountered bibimbap only several times would be a slight understatement, but we’d still never really known much about it until recently.

Now that we have, though, we’re that much more appreciative of such a lovely, diverse dish.

Chopped ingredients for toppings of the dish on chopping plate
click to download recipe

The Origins of Bibimbap

For a dish as popular in the Korean cuisine as it is, the origin of the contemporary version of the dish has a surprisingly agreed-upon source: the Siui jeonseo.

Written in the latter parts of the 19th century, the Siui jeonseo was a cookbook intended for the Korean nobility that very thoroughly examines elements of Korean cuisine (including making traditional alcoholic beverages, of course) and outlines different cooking methods for traditional foods. The true author of the Siui jeonso remains anonymous and a true mystery, but there are suspicions that they might have belonged to the nobility from the northern parts of what is now the modern day Gyeongbuk province.

It is in the Siui jeonso where bibimbap makes its first official appearance. Referred to as bubuimbap in the book, the premise for the recipe derived from the idea of bibida, the Korean word for mixing. The contemporary bibimbap variation of the name refers to the same bibida principle.

However, as with pretty much any other dish we’ve explored, there are differing theories as to how bibimbap really originated. In some cases, it isn’t even called bibimbap at all! References to a dish called goldongban illustrate a dish of “mixed disorderliness” in a single bowl eerily similar to that of bibimbap.

To be fair, though, each “bibimbap theory” does sound entirely plausible.

You May Also Like…

If you love rice dishes, you should also check out our other Peruvian fried rice with a Cantonese flair, or a Jordanian rice pilaf with lamb and yogurt sauce (mansaf with jameed).

Feel like eating your rice plain? Try our Korean Bibambap vegan with tofu and vegetables, or Korean Beef Bulgogi served with white rice.

Love chicken thighs? Try our saffron rice with marinated chicken thighs.

The Varying Other Theories of Bibimbap

First, there’s the theory that bibimbap is quite literally a meal fit for a king. During the Joseon dynasty, a regular meal for the king was called a sura. When the king’s relatives would come in to visit, however, a lighter meal called bibim would be served for the king and his guests. In this case, bibimbap is a derivation from this bibim concept.

Another theory comes from the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum. During the farming season, peasants couldn’t have regularly timed meals while spending their days in the rice fields, so they would compile their day’s worth of food and nutrients into one bowl.. a principle eerily similar to what the Egyptians did with their koshary.

Next, there’s a theory involving the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894-95. Korean society at this particular point in history was particularly unstable with multiple peasant-fueled revolutions against the aristocracy, but one of the most successful campaigns came in the Gobu province. While rebelling against the morbidly corrupt magistrate of Gobu, the peasants would mix together their ingredients and rice into a single bowl in the face of limited supplies.

Finally, there’s one last suggestion that the concept behind bibimbap originates from the jesa, or a traditional Korean ceremony performed as a memorial to the ancestors of the participants. Each jesa will have a set of sequential rituals to perform, but it’s in the final ritual – the eumbok – where the participants partake in a celebratory meal together of different offerings mixed together in a single bowl.

Whew! Those are a lot of theories!

About the Recipe

Regardless of where the true origins of bibimbap, the main principle is – you guessed it – to mix plenty of different ingredients of varying colors, tastes, shapes and textures into one bowl.

Chopped red cabbage, bell peppers, spinach leaves, carrots, tofu, tomato sauce, dashima, garlic, spring onions

From there, it’s truly up to the creator of the bibimbap what they intend to do with the dish. Different regions have completely different renowned versions of bibimbap from one another even. For example, the bibimbap you’d find in the city of Jeonju is very heavy on the bean sprouts and considered usually very spicy, whereas the kind from the city of Tongyeong is completely non-spicy, highly vegetable-based and vegan-friendly. The bibimbap from Andong, on the other hand, is very heavy on the beef in its version.

One particular ingredient that is very often in bibimbap of all shapes and sizes, however, is steamed rice.

The Special Way for Preparing Bibimbap’s Steamed Rice

The key to a good bibimbap (at least as we currently know it) is to really nail and have a true sticky rice leading the charge. To do this, you need to essentially bring your rice along a “journey” wherein it first boils then simmers then steams within itself.

During this three-stage process, the rice gelatinizes and becomes more resilient and sticky in texture. One of the best ways we can recommend to ensure your chances of success in this area is to pre-soak the rice for at least one hour prior to cooking.

Our Take on the Recipe

While the recipe below might seem daunting, preparing bibimbap can actually be very easily done in a short period of time. Basing our version off of a great original reference recipe, we did make a few changes to our ingredients and to our own process that yielded a bibimbap that was distinctively ours.

First, we opted to make our final bibimbap in more the Tongyeong fashion that was more suitable to the vegan diet. This wasn’t an overtly intentional change, but it did naturally fall into place throughout our own recipe development process. For what it’s worth, though, Cyrus did make some slow cooked beef for one batch we made and had rave reviews about it as well. If you prefer having meat or eggs in your bibimbap, definitely go ahead and do it… that’s the true beauty of the dish.

Thankfully, we have a really fantastic Korean market near us here in Washington, DC, and so we were able to find great Korean ingredients to add to our bibimbap. In particular, we really enjoyed adding both kosari and dashima to our recipe. Kosari is an edible Korean wild mountain green famous for its high protein content, and dashima – also referred to commonly as kombu in other cuisines – is a kelp or sea tangle that is fantastically high in minerals and nutrients.

If you do opt to add kosari to your own bibimbap, please do yourself a favor and get it pre-soaked and cooked. Using dried kosari is a bit of a pain, since you’ll have to soak it in cold water for 20 minutes then boil it for another 30 then soak it for at least 6 more hours before it’s cookable and edible. It’s far more convenient to get it essentially ready-made.

Soaking of dried kosari for the dish
Boiling of kosari for the dish toppings
Cooking of kosari in pan

Dashima, on the other hand, is slightly easier to use and can be easily soaked or boiled quickly within 10 minutes for eating.

Boiling of dashima in water

Other than that, the last few words of wisdom we can impart to you are certainly to make the yangyeomnjang sauce! We opted to use gochujang, a sauce of chili peppers and fermented soybeans, instead of gochugaru, a cayenne-like chili powder, in our version that gave a tangier and (we think) spicier flavor to it, but it’s certainly one sauce that’s an absolute must to have! And kimchi is also a fantastic accompaniment.

Variety of sauces for the dish - chili pepper and soybeans sauce, cavenne sauce, kimchi

All in all, though, bibimbap is a fantastic dish that is absolutely loaded with nutrients and exciting variety. It will certainly be one that goes in the record books as a go-to for fun dinners with friends and family!

What do you put in your bibimbap? Comment below!

Prepared dish with variety of toppings to select - tofu, carrots, dashima, bell peppers, red cabbage and more

Love Asian Food? Try one of these other recipes:

click to download recipe

6 thoughts on “Bibimbap – Vegan Korean Rice Bowl with Tofu”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.