Once a week, I go to my friend Helen’s apartment and we cook. She shows me the ropes of traditional Korean food, the only food she’s ever cooked, and I show her how to make something else. After nearly two years of eating Korean pancakes, or pajeon, at restaurants and a couple of wobbly attempts at the stove, I finally (!) learned how to mix and fry good pajeon at home. I taught her how to make buttermilk pancakes and tomato sauce, neither of which I’ve been making very long myself. Our approach in the kitchen is similar, in that we’ll both dive in headfirst, and that makes the whole thing a blast. I try to record her measurements, but nothing is ever precise. She uses paper coffee cups, metal soup spoons, and the spot between the top knuckles on her index and middle fingers – her pinch – to measure. The rest is all instinct.
She taught me to roll kimbap last week, which is as important to a Korean picnic as the sandwich is to the American. Most Westerners are more familiar with makizushi, or sushi rolls, and kimbap is similar, conceptually, but different. Instead of vinegar, rice for kimbap is seasoned with roasted sesame seed and sesame oil (I’ve read that some people do use vinegar for their kimbap rice, but it isn’t very common). Crabstick, pickled radish, fried egg, cucumber, and ham make up the most popular components. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume you don’t find that mix particularly mouthwatering? Neither did I until a bitter and blustery night last December. I needed dinner on the go, so I ducked into one of the city’s most beloved kimbap spots, unbeknownst to me, and ordered The Seoul Roll. It was fresh, so it was warm, and I could eat it with my hands as I walked. When a food and a place are so intertwined, you can only love one while resisting the other for so long.
Kimbap is adaptable and approachable once you have the right setup, and it’s especially appropriate now that picnic season’s in full swing. The first thing you need is a package of dried seaweed in big sheets, specifically for rolling kimbap. Look for the photo on the front of the package. All Asian groceries will have it. Note: once the package is open, it needs to be used right away. Gim doesn’t keep.
You could also use a mat like the one below. Supposedly this tool is the difference between loose rolls and tight rolls, but Helen didn’t use one when she taught me, and I have an easier time without it. If you use one, your rolls might be beautiful and tight, but they might be that if you don’t use it, too. Put a piece of plastic wrap between the sheet of gim and the mat if you do (more on the subject further below). Otherwise, a clean, flat surface is great.
Rice. You need it! Sticky, short grain rice. I’ve tried quinoa and brown rice, but white rice works best. Cook it and mix with roasted sesame seeds and a scant teaspoon of sesame oil.
Spoon a layer of rice on the gim, thinly and gently. Spread to the edges and leave an inch of free space at the top.
Add your ingredients one by one. Layer bulkier, heavier components at the bottom, and go for a balance of textures and flavors. Cut long strips of vegetables and other ingredients, or overlap shorter strips like the peppers below.
I like kimchi, and I add it to everything. Like kimbap.
Avocado is not traditional, and neither is lettuce. But fusion can be really fun.
After you’re finished layering your ingredients, brush the top of the gim with water or sesame oil to help the end of the roll stick, and you’re ready. I started to roll with the matt for the photo, but then I got flustered, and I finished rolling without it. There’s a panoply of videos online showing how to make it work. Like here, starting at 1:43.
A sharp knife with a straight blade works best to slice the roll into pieces. A dull or serrated knife will tear the gim, and that, says Helen, is the mark of a poorly rolled kimbap. Mine ripped, and I didn’t cry about it, but a sharp knife definitely helps.
Brush the top with sesame oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Wrap the sliced rolls in foil to transport to a picnic.
Mike and Ashley came over last weekend, and the four of us made a spread of fusion kimbap, like so:
Jambalaya (Mimsie) : sausage, peppers, cajun-spiced tomatoes, rolled with brown rice
Ballpark (Mike) : sausage, mustard, relish, onion
Chicken Salad (Ashley) : chicken, lettuce, mayonnaise, avocado
BLT (me) : bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise
Health Nut (me) : spinach, radish sprouts, carrots, cucumber, hummus, rolled with quinoa
Kimchi Breakfast: kimchi, cheese, egg
Invite some friends over, deal a deck of gim, and roll to the beat of the South (or whatever you’re listening to these days). Then go on a picnic and sit on the grass in the sun. Now that’s some fusion.