Bi Bim Bap
By Theresa Lemieux

Food Fit for a King

Eglinton West eatery Bi Bim Bap is named for its signature offering: a Korean rice dish with a long history and countless variations. “A meal made for kings and the dead,” owner Sam Lee explains, noting that an offering to royalty or one’s ancestors should contain the best of the best. But the ingredients inside these savoury bowls and the preparation process varies considerably from region to region, much like pasta does in Italy.

“It’s pretty much rice mixed with anything,” Sam explains. The structure of most Korean meals is a bowl of sticky rice surrounded by various side dishes called banchan. “Koreans tend to eat our rice separately, this is one of the few dishes where we mix everything. Almost like fried rice without the oil.”

Sam’s bi bim bap is prepared in a stone bowl, in the time-honoured method. The rice — both healthy brown and more customary white are on offer — is topped with eight vegetables that Sam and his wife and co-chef, Janet, cook or marinate separately, some of them for up to three days.

The kimchi is prepared with the same care, and remains the one side dish that is present at every meal. Because they have a no-shellfish policy, however, Janet makes her own with miso instead of the traditional shrimp paste. The experimental chef has made baby nappa kimchi, mini radish kimchi and dandelion kimchi, as well as white kimchi, without the chili peppers. The dedication to homemade food at Bi Bim Bap is typical of Sam and Janet’s cooking style, as is their concern for their customers’ health.

I believe all the menus in Toronto should have calorie and sodium counts. It’s what our kids are gonna eat. We’ve got to educate them a bit. - Sam Lee, co-owner
bi bim bap - Bi bim bap, kim chi, gluten-free dining
Bi Bim Bap co-owner Sam Lee operates the popular Eglinton West eatery with his wife and co-chef Janet.

Healthy and Tasty

“I don’t like using sugars,” Sam notes. “We’re a bit more traditional. In the old days in Korea, they didn’t have that much sugar, they used fruit. We use apples, pears, whatever we can get our hands on, and cook them down.”

And it’s not just sugar that Sam and Janet try to avoid, but salt too. Sam has partnered with the Toronto Board of Health’s Savvy Diner Program; the pilot program encourages restaurants to lists the nutritional value of food on the menu. “I believe all the menus in Toronto should have calorie and sodium counts. It’s what our kids are gonna eat. We’ve got to educate them a bit,” says Sam.

Sam’s dislike for additives also extends to MSG. He doesn’t add the flavour enhancer to his food, and makes certain it’s not in the ingredients they use. He feels unwell when he ingests it, and had a queasy time of it when first testing all products in order to catch any that fail to list it in the label. Clients don’t seem to find the flavour lacking without it, however. “It’s not just salt that gives flavour,” he says, “there’s spicy, sweet, sour.” The house-made sauces are bursting with complex flavours, and the apple chili sauce has the added benefit of being gluten-free.

bi bim bap - Bi bim bap, kim chi, gluten-free dining

Making it Wok

The dishes might be flavourful but diners shouldn’t expect tons of scorching heat. “Koreans like the taste of the chili peppers rather than the heat,” Sam explains. “Korean chili peppers range from pretty mild to crazy hot, but you can taste the peppers. Most of our sauces are based on the flavours of the chili pepper and not the heat.” Bi Bim Bap does serve one extremely hot sauce; “not just hot for Koreans,” says Sam, “but for the world.”

Bi bim bap may be found all over Toronto, but the dishes you’ll find at Bi Bim Bap are exceptional. The menu is small and specialized, which makes sense given the time and attention put into every aspect of the food. The focus on their signature dish allows Sam and Janet to maintain the authenticity of Korean cuisine while playing with their creations.

bi bim bap - Bi bim bap, kim chi, gluten-free dining
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