During my time as an exchange student in South Korea, I surely had the chance to meet beautiful people who enriched my life with unforgettable encounters and loving memories. Other than getting the chance to visit beautiful places and get in touch with a lifestyle and culture so different from the one I was used to, I was also lucky enough to make friends with some of the most beautiful souls I have ever met in my life so far. One of them is Jihyeon, a bright and talented Korean girl who opened the doors of her house and welcomed me in her family.
The way I met Jihyeon was pretty uncommon, I must say.
After just one month from the time I first landed in Seoul and started my new and unfortunately short life as a foreign student for a local university, two dear Italian friends of mine decided to come and visit me, in order to share the experience I was living and give me some support making me feel “at home away from home”. Even though I met those two girls less than 2 years ago, in the mayhem of our university life, they immediately conquered a special spot in my heart and blessed me with a pure, genuine friendship. This is how they didn’t even think once before booking a flight ticket to come and visit me, excited at the idea of creating new memories in such a unique context. And it was during this special visit that I had the opportunity to meet Jihyeon and build a definitely unexpected friendship with her.
Jihyeon is a talented viola player, recently graduated in a renowned South Korean university.
The year before our meeting, she had the opportunity to study in an Italian conservatory for one year, which gave her the chance to perform in the same orchestra where one of my two already mentioned Italian friends was playing. This is how they met and, even after her homecoming, they kept in touch. For this reason, as soon as the upcoming travel to Seoul took shape, my friend contacted Jihyeon asking if she was available to meet up during the time of the stay. One thing led to another and finally, the day before my friends had to take their flight back to Italy, we all were invited to share a Sunday meal at Jihyeon’s house, together with her beautiful family.
I will hardly forget the amount of delicious food I ate that day, as well as the love and kindness I was equally fed with. As a matter of fact, that Sunday lunch I was invited to wasn’t simply the chance to discover more closely Korean culinary tradition and culture, but it also was the occasion which made me enter in touch with a family that embraced me full arms, making me properly feel at home. Back then I didn’t know that the same family would have hosted me in the future, giving me a home when I was looking for accommodation, but that day I truly felt I had just met big-hearted, beautiful people willing to extend their family love to anyone who was lucky enough to cross their way.
What is 김밥 Gimbap?
Before talking in detail about my experience preparing this typical food, I must do an introduction for those who either have never heard of it or simply know a little.
First thing I must clarify is that Gimbap is NOT a sushi roll, as commonly perceived. As a matter of fact, the Korean gimbap does not include any kind of raw fish, but a wide range of cooked meat and vegetables.
Two are the main ingredients which are essential in the preparation of Gimbap, already included in the name of the food itself: 김, which is a layer of edible seaweed, and 밥, namely cooked white rice.
Once the first steps involving these two core ingredients are taken, the remaining phase of the recipe is up to your taste: indeed, you can fill your roll potentially with anything your taste buds or the aesthetic sense may prefer.
However, in case you are interested in preparing a gimbap in its typical form, here you are with a short list of ingredients belonging to the traditional recipe: yellow pickled radish, carrots, spinach, cucumber, ham, imitation crab meat, beef and egg strips.
For anyone’s taste, don’t you think so?
And finally, if you are wondering how South Koreans eat this food, then let me tell you two simple words: lunch box or snack.
Gimbap is indeed the South Korean version of the classic sandwich people on the western side of the world eat as a “lunch on the go” or as a snack. It is cheap, you can find it in any ajumma’s stand and there is no existing Korean eomoni (i.e. mother) who doesn’t know how to roll a gimbap for her kids.
And this is what I love about this food: its simplicity and the easiness which makes this roll the South Korean comfort food par excellence.
My attempt to roll a gimbap
And finally, here we come with what is supposed to be the highlight of my story: the moment when I was invited to first roll my sleeves up and then roll the best I could a gimbap.
I can’t deny the nervousness and pressure that hit me as soon as I wore the plastic gloves and sat at the table; rather justifiable if we consider my absolute ineptitude to cooking, or more properly called ‘disability’. However, thanks to the precious help of my Korean eomoni and her incredible patience, I succeeded not to fail this simple task and to make her proud with my final product.
The few steps I had to go through were unbelievably simple: first of all, I had to lay the seaweed sheet on the small bamboo mat and think about what fillings I was planning to stuff my gimbap roll with. So far so good, isn’t it?
Then the first obstacle came with the first, tiny failure: the disposal of the rice on the seaweed sheet gave me some troubles, which could be solved only thanks to the keen assistance of my eomoni.
But like any other valorous warrior, I continued my venture and proceeded to my following quests, the placement of the chosen fillings and the final, essential part: the wraparound. Despite the negative expectations, I succeeded without much trouble nor effort: I was good enough to put the right pressure to compact the ensemble and not to trap the mat inside the roll. Applause for me!
Even though it was a very simple recipe and, all things considered, my contribute was null in most part of it, I still consider this experience as my first and only successful cooking attempt with a Korean recipe. But most importantly, it is and always will be one of the dearest memories I will cherish of my experience in South Korea: eating homey food and having the chance to take part in the domestic life of this beautiful family wasn’t simply an extraordinary cultural experience, but a special occasion to enter in contact with people who now I consider my family away from home.
To recap, this is the recipe of Jihyeon’s mom for a perfect gimbap (or what I can remember of it):
• 1 BAMBOO MAT, square-shaped;
• 1 RICE SPOON, like the pink one you can see in picture;
• EDIBLE SEAWEED SHEETS;
• COOKED WHITE RICE, portion according to how many gimbaps you plan to make;
• VEGETABLES AND MEAT FILLINGS at your pleasure (in case, refer to the above mentioned);
• 1 TABLESPOON OF SESAME OIL, which has to be spread on the rolled gimbap;
• SESAME SEEDS to sprinkle on the final result.