Saturday, March 5, 2011

Gimbap: not "Korean sushi"

When I had to explain to my friends what gimbap is, I used to say, "It's Korean sushi." True, gimbap is like a type of sushi. It is very similar to the makizushi (rolls); specifically futomaki ("thick rolls"). The Japanese futomaki is rice rolled into a cylinder with dried seaweed, with two or three fillings. Futomaki is about 1.5 inches in diameter, and one order of futomaki usually consists of six or eight pieces. The fillings are usually vegetarian, but sometimes have non-vegetables such as fish or fish roe. Gimbap is similar to futomaki in that they are both rice rolls wrapped with seaweed and stuffed with various fillings. But it does not do justice to gimbap to say it is "Korean sushi;" gimbap has its own unique qualities and characteristics that distinguish it from the better known sushi.

Gimbap is a very popular picnic food. In Western cultures, people take sandwiches--Koreans make gimbap. I remember my Korean childhood, when I would go to field trips and class picnics toting my lunchbox packed with gimbap. My friends and I would sit in a circle at lunchtime, comparing what fillings others have in their gimbaps, sharing and tasting each one. Gimbap has no restrictions on their fillings. Depending on preference, gimbap can have meat, fish, and vegetables. Gimbap also usually has many more fillings than futomaki does; a standard gimbap may have egg, picked radish, some kind(s) of meat (most popular choices are ham, beef, or tuna), crab sticks, and one or two more kinds of vegetables. Due to this harmony of various flavours in one roll, there is no need for additional sides of soy sauce or pastes (such as wasabi). The seaweed for gimbap itself is already seasoned with a light coat of sesame sauce and a drizzle of sesame seeds.

Gimbap is incredibly popular in Korea for its convenience. It is bite-sized, sliced into more pieces and has a smaller diameter than futomaki. Also, it is great for those who don't have time to sit down at a restaurant or those who cannot carry around a lunchbox. Franchise gimbap stores usually sell gimbap in its original cylindrical form (except sliced), wrapped with cooking foil. However, Koreans do enjoy their gimbap with the company of hot soup, kimchi, or pickled radish.

Gimbap definitely has its own merits that are too good to be in the shadow of sushi. Next time anyone asks, I will make sure they understand what sets gimbap apart from sushi. But it would be best for people to find out themselves by tasting one. It is much more satisfying to experience a hidden gem than hear about it.


  1. Hey! That's a very interesting post. I was also wondering - are there any differences in the rice and seaweed used, compared to Japanese sushi?

  2. Hi Zhana! Traditionally, sushi rice contains a mix of vinegar, salt, and sugar. Gimbap rice may or may not have the said ingredients, but usually has at least one of them to add flavour. On the other hand, gimbap seaweed is usually adorned with sesame seeds and sesame oil, while sushi seaweed is pretty much plain seaweed.



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