Six or seven summers ago when was on holiday with my father in Biarritz, a French resort town situated on the Bay of Biscay in Southwestern France, I had the pleasure of enjoying one the most novel street foods I had ever tried: the panini.
Every morning during my stay I would watch as several modest vendors set up their food carts on the streets bordering the beach, and every afternoon at lunchtime I would also observe as the hungry mass of the bourgeoisie swarmed around these tiny little businesses to purchase what looked to me like skinny sandwiches.
One early evening, I ventured over to one of these vendors to buy one of their tiny toasted snacks while their adoring fans returned to the beach to work on their topless tans or discuss Satre over cigarettes.
The menu was limited: sandwiches could be filled with either tomato, ham, or ham product similar to prosciutto. As the slightly overweight teen that I was (and continue to be, if only in spirit), selected the salted-cured pork product surprise as I normally did.
I pointed to the salt cured meat and the vendor nodded his head. He took two pieces of French baguette, slathered them down with some type of aioli, and placed one slice of meat and one slice of cheese between the bookends. He placed this creation inside an electric contraption that contained griddles on its both top and bottom, as well as a lever that allowed him to lower the top griddle onto the sandwich in order to flatten it out.
The cooking time lasted only about two or three minutes. At its conclusion, I gave the man the five Euros as requested, and he gave me this grilled, melty, smushy food thing.
However, this ‘thing’ was so much more.
As I took my first bite, I totally got its appeal. First of all, any food that tastes this good and is this cheap in a location this expensive is bound to be a hit. Meat, cheese, bread, toasted, 5 euros, 3 minutes- got it. Second, I immediately realized the economic potential of this ‘thing’ for the American food market. It takes little money, time, or skill to make, would be considered 'fancy' if marketed as Italian, and has no exotic ingredients that might scare mainstream American consumers away.
Moments later, I realized that I was only of high school age and that many banks would not consider me an ideal candidate for a small business loan. So I decided to put my eureka moment on hold for the time being as I wandered back to the topless beach for imperative personal reasons.
One year following this trip, my house had a shiny new panini maker, every trendy wine-bar-sandwich shop and its sister was advertising their fancy new panini offerings, and even Jack in the Box initiated an unsuccessful marketing campaign dedicated to this Mediterranean culinary invention.
Unfortunately, my million-dollar eureka moment was probably experienced by a million other like-minded people before me who had access to millions of more resources than I did, and what I later learned was called a panini was now loved by millions of people in the American food market. Luckily, one type of Korean food has allowed me to experience the same feeling as my ‘panini moment’ on the beaches of France.
And this food definitely kicks panini’s ass (which may or not be hard to do given the delicate nature of the ‘French' panini), especially in terms of heartiness, availability, affordability, and versatility: the 김밥 (kimbab).
Kimbab is the blue-collar, Chevy-toting, redneck cousin of the Japanese sushi roll. In other words, this ain’t your mama’s sushi. Kimbab is straight up, bare-bones fightin’ fare. It ain’t got none of them luxuries of that there Jap-an-eeze crud: no uncooked fish, wasabi may-o-naize, or any of that tem-purr-ah bullshit. Kimbab is a hand-rolled heapin’ helpin’ of cooked egg, ham, fake krab, pickled daikon and kimchi all hunkered down under a pile a rice n’ wrapped in a big ‘ol’ blanket o’ seaweed’ that sure can fill you up right. You listen here now, you have two rolls of Kimbab, and you’ll be ready for the rodeo in no time, pardner.
Kimbab also comes with a variety of fillings to satify the whole family:
김치 김밥 (Kimchi kimbab contains extra kimchi)
참치김밥 (Chamchi kimbab contains tuna instead of ham)
소고기 김밥 (Sogogi kimbab contains bulgogi beef instead of ham)
비빔밥김 (Bibimbab kimbab contains bibimbap filling, to be discussed later in this blog.)
And my personal favorite:
계란말이김밥 (Kyeranmari kimbab is traditional kimbab wrapped in fried egg)
Because the ingredients in Kimbab are always cooked, kimbab is able to be served virtually everywhere in Korea for virtually any meal. Refrigerators in Koren apartments contain most of the essential ingredients, while 24-hour kimbab eat-in-or-take-out shops are rarely more than a mile away from anyone at anytime in any Korea city. Even the convenience stores in Korea sell varieties of kimbab known as 삼각김밥 (triangular kimbab).
Kimbab is outrageous affordable, bordering on dirt cheap. 1,500 won (a little more than a dollar) will but you a traditional roll, where 3,000 won will buy you any specialty roll- not to mention the triangular kimbabs at convenience stores cost a mere 700 won.
Kimbab is also the most versatile of Korean foods, especially for foreigners. Its affordability has already been mentioned, while its simple ingredients allow for even the pickiest of palates to rejoice. It remains a balanced carb and protein ‘chow tube’ providing each consumer with clean calories after a workout or, well, just because.
Additionally, Kimbab is literally the best hangover prevention method I have ever tested. Pop a couple of these bad boy rolls in your stomach before a long night at the bar or club of your choice and I promise you will have will have enough stable energy to dance and drink freely for hours into the morning sans munchie pangs or pesky indigestion.
Needless to say, I think that all of the amazing features of kimbab might make this Korean staple a future super-power in American fast food. That is, unless that shifty Jack steals my million dollar idea- again.