Asia, Food, Japan, Korea

Kimbap vs Sushi: Battle of the Tastes

One of the greatest marvels of a large metropolitan area such as Los Angeles is the wealth of food choices that are available.  The subtle, yet distinctive, differences can only be appreciated when foods can be sampled in something of a side-by-side comparison.  

In Asian cuisine, there is a rivalry of sorts. Much like the Eastern US compares its regional barbeque styles, Kimbap and Sushi are similar dishes with regional differences.   

Let’s take that side-by-side comparison and see which one has more to offer.

Origins

Sushi

The origin of the name comes for an ancient dialect that is no longer used. The word means  ‘sour tasting’ and describes the fermentation process that preserved the fish as an important protein source for the Southeast Asian people.

As food preparation methods changed, vinegar was added to the rice mixture to heighten the flavor and also marinate the fish in such a way that fermentation was no longer needed.  Today’s sushi is made fresh and has a greatly increased shelf-life over the original version.

Kimbap

Sometimes called Gimbap, there are two stories about the origin of this Korean dish. The first simply calls it a local variation of sushi.  The second may be more authentic.

The name Gimbap comes from the words Gim (seaweed) and Bap (rice) and speaks to the long Korean tradition of eating rice rolled in a local type of seaweed. Not based solely on raw fish as sushi is, the added ingredients come from the word ‘banchan’ meaning ‘side dishes.  The term - Gimbap - was not used in Korean culture until recently.

Ingredients

Sushi

All variations of sushi begin with a specially prepared rice.  Using short-grain Japanese rice (also known as white rice), it is flavored with vinegar, sugar, and salt.  Once the rice has attained the sticky quality it is known for, additional regionally preferred ingredients are added such as raw fish, tuna, shrimp, tofu and even cooked  eggs. The combination is wrapped in a black seaweed known as ‘nori’ and served raw and chilled.

Kimbap

Kimbap preparation begins with plain cooked rice. While it is often short-grain white rice, it may also be short-grain brown rice, black rice or other grains used as a filling. Other ingredients are just as varied and can include cheese, meats and seafood, vegetables and eggs.  The gim is often toasted and in some cases brushed with sesame oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The fillings (other than the rice ) are stir-fried and layered on top of the gim and rice layers then rolled and cut. Recipes often include vegetarian variations. Seasonings are added and some can be spicy.

Taste

Sushi

As with any food, the type of sushi will play into the overall flavor but for those trying sushi for the first time, it might be surprisingly plain.  Getting over the fear of tasting something foul or fishy might be the biggest difficulty, but if one thinks about it, the main ingredients are not known for strong flavors.  The rice is flavored with vinegar and might have a slight tang to it when first tried. The type of vinegar used does change the flavor of the mix and some recipes call for more sugar or salt than others.  The raw fish will have a light flavor just like when it is cooked but if prepared correctly, it should not taste fishy or spoiled. In most cases, sushi gets much of its flavor from the condiments or sauces in which it is dipped rather than the sushi roll itself.  Soy sauce, wasabii and a Japanese style of mayonnaise are popular.

Kimbap

Describing Kimbap is a bit more difficult. Yes, it begins with rice and yes, it has seaweed but it is there that the similarities between sushi and kimbap end. Kimbap makes use of far more fillings that raw fish.  There are 12 recognizable types of kimbap and likely as many more variations of those twelve. It also uses sesame oil as a flavoring rather than the sharp flavor of rice vinegar. If fish is not desired, there are versions with beef, pork, tuna, crabmeat and ham.  A vegetarian has a couple of great choices including a rice and seaweed only option as well as a mixture of cucumber, radish, perilla leaves, etc. Each option has a different flavor based on what is inside.

Texture

Sushi

At this point, it might be good to remember that sushi is like no other food. Even within Japanese cuisine, sushi is a unique dish. As such it is not the flavor for which one might enjoy sushi but the texture.  Served cold, the rice is, of course, sticky so that is holds its shape and can be served with chopsticks. Pieces are typically bite-sized and not intended to be cut or bitten. The raw fish may seem chewy and the seaweed may resemble the experience of accidentally biting into an edible paper wrapper.  Together, the texture is something not found in many places. Generally, one loves it or hates it - there is little middle ground but it can become an acquired pleasure.

Kimbap

As varied as Kimbap can be, it is even more difficult to explain what texture the dish may have.  Because the fillings are stir-fried, the dish is likely to be at room temperature. The rice being seasoned with sesame oil may not be as sticky.  The seaweed is frequently dried or toasted so that texture varies and the fillings can go from chopped and pickled vegetables to large pieces of meat or slices of vegetables.  In short, the texture of kimbap will vary with the type of dish that is being enjoyed. One version of the dish is even wrapped in a thin egg coating. In today’s American version of the cuisine what is called vegetarian sushi may actually be more in line with traditional Kimbap.

Shape

For the most part both sushi and kimbap are served as slices of a larger roll that is prepared. Before chopsticks came into common use, this both sushi and kimbap were served as balls or triangular shaped pockets of seaweed. These seaweed packed versions were easier to serve to large groups and more easily transported.   

Onigiri is the Japanese dish and uses various types of boiled rice, dried fish, cooked meats, pickled vegetables and seasonings. Wrapping such fillings in nori caused the seaweed to become moist and sticky.  In the 1980s, preparation of this dish became mechanized and it has a plastic barrier that keeps the nori and rice mixture from coming together until the package is opened.

Samgak Kimbap is the Korean version and is sold in convenience stores in South Korea. ‘Samgak’ means triangle and describes the unique shape. Just like the more traditional rolled kimbap, the ingredients can vary greatly. Food chains can specialize in nothing but kimbap and its variations. This version of kimbap is also served as a make-your-own pocket meal for informal gatherings.

Mini Kimbap: it might be addictive

Intended to be a one-bite food, traditional kimbap could present a challenge to a child or if served at as a snack.  Mini kimbap, also known as ggnoma or mayak gimbap, is smaller in size and is a specialty that is often served with a sweet and tangy hot mustard sauce.  Btw, ggnoma means little one while mayak means narcotic or drug. An apt name for the dish that you will find yourself going back for time and time again.

Nutrition and Calories

Intended to be a one-bite food, traditional kimbap could present a challenge to a child or if served at as a snack.  Mini kimbap, also known as ggnoma or mayak gimbap, is smaller in size and is a specialty that is often served with a sweet and tangy hot mustard sauce.  Btw, ggnoma means little one while mayak means narcotic or drug. An apt name for the dish that you will find yourself going back for time and time again.

Going Vegan

Image provided by: FreshNClean.com

As has already been mentioned, kimbap traditionally has a vegan version of its dish. Named ya-chae, its filling is chopped vegetables including cucumber, pickled yellow radish, burdock root, and perilla leaves.  Sushi, while traditionally made with raw fish, has been adapted for the vegan palette by using firm fruits and vegetables such as shitake or oyster mushrooms, avocado, carrot lox, mango and, of course, tofu. Preparation is the same as done for raw fish but many of the recipes tend to have more spice than traditional sushi rolls.  

Preparation: the right tools for the job

Every culture seems to have that one dish that is rolled in order to be served. Each has developed, not only the correct technique, but the right tools to help make the product look as nice as it tastes.  Which tool to use depends on how often and the cook’s skill with the rolling process. Look at these options to

Traditional Preparation

While many will buy a simple bamboo mat, the cook can also use a wet towel or food wrap to assist in the prep. Put the bamboo mat in place, layer the nori, rice and other ingredients, then use the bamboo mat to support the rolling. Remove the mat while rolling and cut the pieces with a sharp, wet knife. Basic mats and directions can be found for less than $10.  A great video for how to use the bamboo mat can be found at (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xp_cheIs9ME)

Roller or Mold Kits

If sushi is a favorite but culinary skill is in short supply, a sushi roller or mold kit could help.  These kits can come with one or two simple molds or a variety of shapes such as tranagular, square and even heart shaped.  They are surprisingly easy to use as can be seen in this YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKNWcDZ6Xxw).  Some kits come with all the utensils (knife, slicing guard, mat, instructions).  Kimbap and sushi can be made using the kits and fillings can be varied in much the same way as the two dishes vary.  

Triangular Molds

Not to be forgotten, molds are available to make the traditional onigiri or samgak dishes.  Molds are used in the same way as for rolls.

And the winner is...KIMBAP!


While sushi is a unique dish in its own right and there are many similarities between the two, the diversity of kimbap is hard to beat. Those who prefer vegan or vegetarian fare have options with kimbap that the sushi eater does not.  Generally seasoned more than sushi, kimbap appeals to those who are prefer a mixture of flavors and not just one or two at a time. All things considered - ingredients, nutrition, preparation time and skill, and appearance, kimbap is a food that both looks and tastes more interesting.

Here we have included a link to a very nice, very traditional tuna kimbap recipe from MyKoreanKitchen.com . Enjoy!

Lead guitarist of the all Asian-American girl rock band, Nylon Pink. Shred head \m/ Collector of llama figurines Professional eater http://www.kikiwongo.com

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