“Crunchy carrots! Cool cucumbers! And rice! You are so delicious. (And there are so many of you.)”
I had just asked Alicia what she wanted to put on top of our bibimbap tonight, and she recited me one of her favorite lines from the book I wrote for her. She went on to add:
“I’ve got one. How about artichokes?”
“Well, we could put artichokes on our bibimbap, but we don’t have any artichokes at home today.” In the end, I steered her toward carrots, cucumbers, bean sprouts, spinach, thinly sliced beef, and shiitake mushrooms—the ingredients I already had in our fridge.
Bibimbap, the Korean dish of rice served with a variety of toppings that all get mixed together in a big bowl, has existed since at least the 16th century. It’s never gone out of style, and it’s easy to see why: It’s infinitely customizable and it can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like.
This makes bibimbap an absolutely ideal food for kids. Kids, like adults, enjoy exercising autonomy and like to feel that they have some degree of control over their own lives. Our parenting philosophy—especially when it comes to eating—has been to offer Alicia as many opportunities to express this autonomy as we can. The key is to control those opportunities so that no matter what she chooses, she’s going to get good, healthy food into her little system, and bibimbap is packed with the good stuff.
Maybe tonight she only feels like eating green vegetables. That’s fine by me—spinach, cucumbers, and rice make a good supper. Or maybe today she doesn’t want carrots. A-okay. (As it turned out, tonight was a no-meat night for her, as is often her choice.)
Cooking bibimbap can seem a little daunting when you think about all the individual toppings, but it’s actually a very streamlined, simple process. Virtually every topping is served in one of three ways: dressed raw, simply blanched in simmering water, or very briefly stir fried. As far as workflow goes, you can prep all your ingredients first, bring a couple cups of salted water to a simmer in your wok or saucepan, simmer ingredients that need simmering in succession, then empty out the pan and set it back on the stove to briefly stir fry those that need to be stir fried. I never bother cleaning my wok between ingredients when stir frying for bibimbap.
As for kids getting involved in the process, there are a ton of opportunities. Right now, Alicia is really into her red Y-shaped vegetable peeler, and she’ll insist on being designated carrot-peeler. Bigger kids with some knife skills under their belt should be able to start with cucumbers and mushrooms. While carrots, cucumbers, and other long, skinny vegetables are typically slivered into thin matchsticks for bibimbap, splitting them lengthwise and then slicing them thin is easier to do and, frankly, tastes and looks just good.
Nearly every topping for bibimbap gets dressed similarly, with a pinch of salt, a little drizzle of toasted sesame oil, and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, and this is something that toddlers can handle easily with a little supervision. It’s also a great opportunity to start training their palates. I’ll have Alicia season food just a touch, then taste it and ask her things like, "Does it need more salt?" or, "Do you want more sesame flavor in there?” (and make sure that if you ask for their opinion, you never override their suggestion—the goal here is empowerment and enjoyment, even if that means your spinach comes out a bit more sesame-y than you’d prefer.)
Bibimbap is often seasoned with plain gochujang, but making a sweet-hot gochujang and honey sauce is another opportunity for palate-training. The simple sauce in this recipe combines spicy gochujang with some aromatic toasted sesame oil, sweet honey, sharp vinegar, and umami soy sauce. Kids can taste or smell each component on their own before seeing how they taste once combined.
My daughter has an on-again, off-again relationship with spicy foods. I know she can handle them because she went through a two-week-long phase of dousing everything in Sichuan toasted chili oil, but she’ll still sometimes demur when it comes to adding hot sauce or chilies to her food. We make it a point to never tell Alicia that she’s not going to like something before she tries it, but with spicy foods, after she declines, a simple “that’s okay, Alicia, you don’t have to eat the spicy stuff. Usually people don’t like spicy stuff until they’re really big kids or grown-ups anyway” will get her to immediately change her mind.
Finally, when serving bibimbap, I’ll make a big bowl with all the toppings for me and my wife Adri in the kitchen, but for Alicia I’ll scoop out a separate bowl of white rice, then offer her a plate with every topping on it, and a fried egg to the side (sometimes we’ll go with a raw egg yolk instead of a fried egg—tamago kake gohan is her favorite breakfast). She can then pick and choose how she’s going to eat her food (she, like many kids, typically prefers everything on her plate separate). One of our favorite activities at dinner is to come up with interesting bites (“okay, this time try eating a carrot, and a cucumber, and a bean sprout at. the. same. time.”). Our next favorite dinner activity is to pretend that she’s a specific species of dinosaur, and take bites of food that only that dinosaur would eat.
“Papa, I’m a baby kosmoceratops and kosmoceratops are herbivores, so I’m eating spinach.”
“Alicia, how about you’re an oviraptor and you eat eggs?”
“Actually papa, oviraptors didn’t really eat eggs.”
Yes, she’s actually-ing me already.
Have any child development specialists done studies on why toddlers seem innately attuned to picking up and retaining obscure dinosaur facts?
- For the Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) gochujang (see note)
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) roasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon (3g) toasted sesame seeds (gold, black, or a mix)
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) honey
- 2 teaspoons (10ml) rice vinegar (see note)
- For the Toppings:
- Roasted sesame oil, for sautéing and dressing as needed
- Toasted sesame seeds, as needed
- Minced garlic, as needed (optional)
- Thinly sliced scallions, as needed (optional)
- Soy sauce, as needed
- Kosher salt
- 2 cups (about 5 ounces) soy bean or mung bean sprouts
- 2 cups (about 3 ounces) packed fresh spinach leaves
- 1 medium carrot, peeled, split in half lengthwise, and cut on a bias into thin slices
- 1 kirby or Japanese cucumber (or 1/2 an American cucumber), peeled, split lengthwise, and cut into half moons
- 4 ounces shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced
- 4 ounces ground beef or thinly sliced beef (such as beef you’d find for shabu shabu or bulgogi at an Asian supermarket, thinly sliced Philly cheesesteak beef)
- 2 teaspoons honey
- To Serve:
- 4 cups cooked white short-grain rice
- Raw egg yolks or sunny-side up fried eggs, as desired
For the Sauce: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and stir together with a fork. Kids (and adults) can taste and smell each of the ingredients as they go in before tasting all of them combined (have some milk on hand in case the gochujang is too spicy for anyone).
For the Toppings: Set up your topping station by putting out bottles and containers of sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic, scallions, and soy sauce on the counter. Set a stack of 6 small bowls on the counter as well.
In a wok or a small saucepan, bring 2 cups of water to a simmer. Add the bean sprouts and cook for 3 minutes. Fish them out with a slotted spoon, run them under cold water until you can handle them easily, then squeeze out excess moisture or spin them dry in a salad spinner (either of these is a great activity for kids). Place them in one of the small bowls.
Add the spinach to the simmering water and cook for 1 minute. Repeat the draining, cooling, and squeezing process and place the spinach in a second bowl.
Empty out the wok, and return it to medium-high heat, allowing it to dry fully. Add 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and heat until shimmering, then add the carrots and stir-fry until heated through and lightly softened, about 1 minute. Transfer to a third small bowl.
Return the wok to medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil and heat until shimmering, then add the cucumber and stir-fry until heated through and lightly softened, about 1 minute. Transfer to a fourth small bowl.
Return the wok to medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons of sesame oil and heat until shimmering, then add the mushrooms and stir-fry until lightly browned , about 3 minutes. Transfer to a fifth small bowl.
Season the beef with 2 teaspoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons honey, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, some minced garlic (if using), and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Return the wok to medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil and heat until shimmering, then add the beef and stir-fry until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a sixth small bowl.
Now season all of the vegetables to taste with about 1 teaspoon of sesame oil, a sprinkle of sesame seeds, a dash of soy sauce, and some minced garlic and/or scallions. Make sure you and your helpers mix thoroughly (I like to use clean fingers) and taste as you go.
To Serve: Serve steamed rice in individual bowls at the table, allowing diners to pick and choose their toppings, and finishing off each bowl with a fried egg or a raw egg yolk (if desired), and a drizzle of as much or as little sauce as you’d like (even if that’s none). Mix it all up, or eat it all separately: It’s your food, you decide.
Gochujang is a fermented chili and wheat paste with a sweet-hot flavor. You can find it in any Asian supermarket, and in most well-stocked Western supermarkets. You can also order it online.
If you don’t have rice vinegar, you can use another vinegar such as apple cider or white wine. Those vinegars tend to be more acidic, so start with half the amount and add more to taste.
For the toppings, you don’t need to use all of them. A mix of 4-5 toppings with varying colors is a good place to start.