Gimbap has suffered somewhat of an identity crisis in the Western world. In Korean, gim translates to seaweed and bap cooked rice — but it is not an iteration of sushi. The two could be likened to pasta and dumplings; while the foundational elements are the same, they are fundamentally different.

Hospitality speaks to Sáng by Mabasa’s Kenny Yong-soo Son and Chae’s Jung Eun Chae about the core components that make up gimbap, its soul-food status in Korea and why the compact roll is a meal in and of itself.

Gimbap is a foundational dish in Korean cuisine that has morphed into the form it’s consumed in today over 600-plus years.

The term gimbap was first printed in a newspaper in 1935, however the beginnings of wrapping cooked rice in gim can be traced as far back as the beginning of the Joseon period in 1392, where gim was produced in the Gyeongsang and Jeolla Provinces. It’s long been a picnic essential, an on-the-go lunch option and a labour of love for those who make it.

Kenny Yong-soo Son from Sáng by Mabasa in Sydney’s Surry Hills grew up eating gimbap, and says it’s a dish that reflects a country and its people. “Gimbap to Korean people is soul food,” he says. “We take it to picnics and eat it for lunch. It’s like bibimbap — it strongly represents who we are. It represents the personality of the people; it’s good, tasty soul food.”

Melbourne-based Chef Jung Eun Chae describes the prominence of gimbap in Korea as ever-present.

“It’s one of the most familiar and popular dishes in Korea,” she says. “It’s widely enjoyed at picnics or outside because it’s convenient and easy to consume. It’s not difficult to find a gimbap franchise on almost every corner of the street; it’s commonplace to see students from hagwon (private cram school) or office workers pop in to a gimbap franchise to grab a quick bite to eat.”

Simply put, there are many differences between gimbap and sushi. For one, the ingredients inside gimbap are cooked, whereas sushi is oft filled with raw seafood. Confusion between the two is still commonplace for someone who has yet to experience the dish and simply sees two commonalities: rice and seaweed.

“It does look kind of similar approaching the two,” says Son. “But I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when describing gimbap is the foundational stuff like nori, which is a Japanese word for seaweed — we never use the word nori, we say gim.”

Chae points to the treatment of the rice as a key marker between the two. “Sushi rice is usually seasoned with vinegar and mirin, whereas gimbap rice is seasoned with sesame oil, sesame seeds and salt,” says the chef.

Sushi is typically dipped into soy and served with wasabi and pickled ginger, whereas gimbap mostly forgoes accompaniments as the flavour is already packed inside. “Every ingredient is seasoned and cooked,” says Son. “You don’t need dipping sauce because it’s flavoured on its own.”

“Side dishes are not usually served as it defeats the purpose; it’s a simple dish best served on the move,” adds Chae. Gimbap might be a mostly standalone foodstuff when it comes to condiments, but there are some dishes it’s commonly enjoyed with. Both Chae and Son tip tteokbokki (stir-fried rice cakes) as one of the top pairings.

“A lot of restaurants in Korea sell them and we order them together,” says Son. “We dip the gimbap into the tteokbokki sauce and it works beautifully.”

Gimbap isn’t on the core menu at Sáng, but it does make an appearance now and then. The restaurant recently ran a takeaway special; Chungmu gimbap (a thinner
version) with spicy poached squid and pickled white radish. “We don’t usually do
gimbap on our regular menu; sometimes we have it as a lunch special,” says Son.

“During lockdown, it was all about the things we grew up eating and dishes people weren’t able to get from a typical Korean restaurant.”

But when they do make gimbap, the Sáng kitchen — run by Son’s parents and Chefs Seung-kee Son and Jin-sun Son — starts with the rice. “It’s best to use rice that’s made overnight because it hardens up a bit,” says Son. “The rice is slightly undercooked so it doesn’t become mushy.”

The rice is sourced from Korea, with Son comparing it to sushi rice in terms of its composition. “It’s firmer and quite rounded in shape,” he says. “It’s not as hard as basmati; it’s in between soft and firm and it has some stickiness, so it holds together well.”

After the rice has been cooked, the seasoning process commences with Korean sesame oil, salt and sometimes a bit of sugar. Restraint must be exercised as the interior ingredients have individual flavour profiles that combine in the roll.

While white rice is the most common, other types can be swapped in. “Brown rice and black rice can also be used for a healthier option,” says Chae, who also warns against overcooking. “It’s important to cook your rice so it’s not too watery or sticky as it makes it difficult to spread evenly on the gim.”

On the seaweed front, gimbap requires dried, thin sheets, which hold all the components inside. Korea is the third-largest producer of seaweed in the world and has an annual harvest of 1,761,526t, so gim is not hard to come by.

“You can almost always find gimbap seaweed at local grocery stores and there are many brands to choose from,” says Chae. “If you are particular about seaweed, Wando, a county in the South Jeolla Province, is known to produce the best-quality gim.”

Sáng also sources seaweed from Korea. “We use fresh seaweed that’s been dried out and cut into a square; the thickness is about 1mm,” says Son.

When it comes to gimbap fillings, there are countless and arguably limitless options. But they almost always include danmuji; yellow pickled radish. Fishcake, braised burdock root, carrot, spinach, egg and bulgogi-style beef are also commonplace.

“You want each ingredient to accompany the other and the textures to work together,” says Son. “When the gimbap goes into your mouth all the flavours combine and it works when it’s a single bite; hence why it’s cut into a mouthful.”

Preparing the ingredients is the most time-consuming aspect of the process, especially when you consider how quickly people consume gimbap. “For such a simple end product visually speaking, you go through it quite fast because you just pick it up and eat it,” says Son.

Makers also need to consider the uniformity of the produce. “All the ingredients are sliced length-wise because the entire length of the gimbap needs to be covered,” says Son. “For example, you don’t want a thick carrot; it’s julienned and then spread from beginning to end.”

The construction starts with laying out a gimbal; a bamboo mat, which “helps roll gimbap easily, neatly and tightly”, says Chae. “You place a sheet of dried seaweed on top of the mat, add the ingredients and roll your gim while gently pushing on the gimbal.”

Overfilling is another pressure point, which can lead to gimbap that falls apart. “You never want to overpack it with rice; it ends up bursting,” says Son.

Chae also warns against going heavy on the fillings. “It’s important not to overstuff as it can cause the gimbap to burst at the seams,” says the chef. “There is an old saying in Korea, ‘sounds like a gimbap bursting at the side seams’, which means talking gibberish and nonsense.”

Gimbap rolls are found across Australia in homes as well as Korean grocery stores and venues. But preconceived notions of the price and value of products such as gimbap often fail to take the labour and skill required to produce such things into consideration.

A quick consumer education can go a long way to understanding why gimbap costs $6 in Korea and $15 here. “It’s the same for things like bánh mì; it’s quite cheap, but it shouldn’t be,” says Son.

“It’s so hard for a restaurant to price up gimbap and make people understand that it takes a lot of effort; there’s five or more ingredients going into a single thing and it has the potential to be pricey depending on what you’re using. There’s a generic ideology of what gimbap is, how much it costs and where it should be sold.”

So next time you sit down at a Korean restaurant or spot gimbap at a store, consider it as a small window into Korean cuisine and an opportunity to experience a realm of flavour profiles, textures and history in one bite.