Ode to Chinatown: Bibimbap with Mushrooms and Quail Eggs / by Alexa Arnold

One of the best parts about a delicious meal is sharing it with friends. And luckily, there are a lot of wonderful people in my life who love to cook and catch up over a homemade meal and meaningful conversation. As I've worked on recipes for this blog, I've continued to be inspired by those same people, and am excited to find ways to share their stories and recipes here, alongside mine. This week: Chinatown-inspired bibimbap, prepared by a friend who I shared a kitchen with for many years. 

I didn't do a lot of cooking on my own until college, when I moved into a tiny bungalow (with a beautiful exposed-brick, well-lit kitchen that I still miss dearly), with my friend, Zac, an experienced, fearless and adventurous cook. I'd often come home to find Zac whipping up chickpea curry or middle eastern inspired lentils; meals that were imaginative yet recognizable, never constricted by ethnicity. From the perspective of the eater, his dishes are terrifically simple. He has a special gift for making hours of preparation look effortless. But when you step into his kitchen, it's quite clear that there are layers of complexity within every moment of his cooking process. Within our first few months as roommates, he'd easily inspired me to learn more about how to prepare my own food. 

Since our days as roommates in Kentucky, Zac has also relocated to New York with his sweetheart, Jessica, and is currently cooking in a tiny kitchen on Elizabeth Street, right in the heart of Chinatown. This neighborhood is full of culinary inspiration; early in the mornings, big garage doors slide open and fresh greens, fruit and fish are carefully laid out on wooden shelves, which are then pushed onto the sidewalk for customers' browsing ease. Neighborhood groceries are filled to the brim with fresh produce and meats found in traditional Chinese dishes, many of which might be unfamiliar to someone, like me, who was raised with a fairly Americanized diet. But for an adventurous cook, this is precisely what's so incredible about living in Chinatown: the opportunity to try new flavors, textures and techniques, and to pull inspiration from the rich culture that surrounds you. 

Bibimbap is a traditional Korean dish, literally meaning "mixed rice", and best known as sticky rice with an array of sautéed vegetables, grilled meats and an egg. Bibimbap welcomes improvisation, and is often just a way to clear out vegetables in the fridge; anything that stands up to a quick sauté with oil and garlic, and doesn't clash with the flavor of sesame seed oil is fair game. For this iteration, which is by no means traditionally Korean, Zac used vegetables and protein easily found in Chinatown markets: broccoli greens, long beans, mushrooms, lotus root and dried bean curds. 

Both the lotus root and the dried bean curds were new to me. Dried bean curds, or "tofu skin", is essentially just the skin that forms on top of a pot of boiling soy milk at the beginning of the tofu making process. The skin is then dried in long thin sheets, and rehydrated in water before use. Since the skin forms before the coagulant is added, it is technically not considered tofu, though it has a similar rubbery texture and flavor and is rich in protein. Tofu skin is often used to wrap dim sum, though the package we purchased were already in knot form. Lotus root is exactly as it sounds: the root of the lotus flower. Lotus flowers, seeds, stems and roots are all edible, and rootlets are often pickled with rice vinegar, sugar, chili and garlic, or sliced, boiled and sautéed and found in salads or curries. 

Bibimbap with Mushrooms, Broccoli Greens and Quail Eggs

Serves 4.
Ingredients:
> 3 cups short grain rice
> 1 16 oz package shiitake mushrooms, sliced
> 1 16 oz package beech mushrooms, whole with root end removed
> 1 medium yellow onion, sliced
> 1 bunch Chinese broccoli, leaves and stems separated
> 1 bunch Chinese long beans, cut into thirds
> 1 medium lotus root, sliced
> 1 16 oz package dried bean curd knots, soaked submerged in water for at least 20 minutes to rehydrate 
> 8 quail eggs
> 3 tablespoons vegetable oil 
For the sauce:
> 2 cloves garlic, minced
> 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
> 1/3 cups soy sauce
> 1 tablespoon Gochujang chili paste 
> 1 tablespoon sriracha 
> 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
> 1 tablespoon rice vinegar 
> 1 tablespoon honey 
> Pepper, salt and water, as needed 
> Nori Seaweed snacks, for garnish

Preparation:
1. Cook rice according to package directions.  
2. Warm the oven to 170 degrees, or as low as your oven goes.
3. Make the sauce: Add soy sauce, rice vinegar, chili paste, sriracha, honey, garlic, ginger and a drizzle of sesame oil into a small bowl and stir. Set aside.
4. In a large frying pan (we used a cast iron skillet), heat 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil over medium heat. Add shiitake mushrooms and a pinch of salt to the skillet, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until all liquid is drawn out and evaporated and mushrooms become golden brown. Add the beech mushrooms and onion and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring as needed. When the onions are browned, deglaze with a large splash of soy sauce and rice vinegar. Stir until the liquid has cleaned the browned bits from the pan and dissolved into a sauce. Add a little water to reach your desired sauce consistency. Remove from the pan and place in an oven-safe dish. Warm in the oven while you prepare the other ingredients.
5.  Slice the broccoli stems length-wise; leave the broccoli florets whole. Bring a small, non-reactive pot of water to a boil. Add the broccoli stems and long beans to the pot and blanch for 2-3 minutes. Once blanched, strain the vegetables.
6. Chop the remaining broccoli leaves, and add to a large frying pan with 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil and the 
blanched stems and beans. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are browned, about 3-5 minutes. Add half of the sauce to the pan and stir continuously, adding water as needed to reach desired consistency. Cook for 3 minutes, so that the chili, garlic and ginger become sweet, rather than raw. Remove from pan and place in an oven-safe dish. Warm in the oven while you prepare the other ingredients.
7.  While the mushrooms, broccoli and beans are warming in the oven, once again add 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil to a large frying pan, over medium heat. 
In a single layer, add the sliced lotus root. Sprinkle with salt, and cook on each side for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from pan and place in an oven-safe dish. Warm in the oven while you prepare the other ingredients.
8. Add the bean curd knots to the frying pan with 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil. Stir until they're coated with oil, then cook until they're browned evenly on all sides, about 7 minutes. Once the knots have browned, add the remaining sauce, and cook for 2-3 minutes, adjusting the consistency by adding water as needed. 
Remove from pan and place in an oven-safe dish. Warm in the oven while you prepare the other ingredients. 
9. Add oil to a hot pan and fry eggs sunny-side-up. Season with a pinch of salt.  
10. Remove all dishes from the oven and serve family style. Scoop 1 cup of rice into each bowl, and place 1/4 of each dish on top of the rice mound. Garnish with thinly sliced dried nori seaweed snacks, a few drops of sesame oil, and as much sriracha as you can handle.