Like all forms of fried rice, kimchi bokkeumbap is straight-up home cooking: cozy, unfussy sustenance that’s rooted in the spirit of making do with what you have. At its core is leftover cooked rice stir‑fried with the ruddy, gently spicy fermented napa cabbage that most Korean cooks keep on hand. But from there it can—and usually does—get personal, since that rib-sticking, umami‑charged base is just the thing to capture all sorts of odds and ends. In any given kitchen, you’ll find the rice bulked up with ham, Spam, sausage, or seafood (fresh, tinned, or smoked); seasoned with gochujang, plum extract, or oyster sauce; dolloped with mayonnaise; topped with crumbled gim (dried seaweed); bundled in a gauzy omelet; cradling a runny fried egg; or teeming with gooey cheese.
“Every family has their own twist,” said Sun-Jung Yum. The daughter of South Korean immigrants, she grew up eating kimchi bokkeumbap with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yum’s family personalizes their kimchi fried rice with bacon, sausage, and pieces of tteokbokki (chewy Korean rice cakes). “This is how my family has grown to love it,” said Yum.
Its unscripted nature says a lot about why kimchi bokkeumbap is so widely cooked among Koreans. But there’s an even simpler explanation that goes back to the common framework running through every batch: Rice and kimchi are fixtures of Korean cuisine, and they form a perfect merger. The chew of the stubby grains; the crunch of the hot-and-sour cabbage; and the way that each bite glows in your mouth, insisting that you take another bite and another, becomes a powerful learned craving.
From Cabbage to Kimchi
There are hundreds of styles of kimchi and as many variations as cooks who make it. But preparing iconic tongbaechu-kimchi, the mildly spicy kind made with napa cabbage, goes something like this: Salt the leaves to remove excess water; coat them with a mixture of aromatics (garlic, ginger, onion/scallion), shredded radishes and/or carrots, lots of gochugaru, maybe seafood seasonings such as fish sauce and/or saeujeot (fermented salted shrimp), and sometimes a paste of glutinous rice and water that binds it all together and encourages fermentation; tightly pack the coated cabbage into a sealed container; and leave it to ferment until it sours and softens a bit.
This is when the magic happens: The kimchi’s flavor undergoes a long and complex series of transformations, becoming more sharply sour at first, as sugar is converted to lactic acid, and gradually shifting into a funkier, more intense—but balanced—pickle as other flavor components evolve. At the same time, the cabbage’s cell walls break down and the once-crunchy leaves soften.
All those changes vary widely depending on the ambient climate during fermentation and how far into its life cycle—days, weeks, or months—you eat it. When it’s prepared according to traditional kimjang customs, fresh kimchi is packed into an earthenware crock called an onggi and buried in the ground.
“It will ferment all winter long,” explained Jeisook Thayer, who makes and sells kimchi on Martha’s Vineyard. She notes that burying the onggi prevents the contents from freezing. “You take out a little at a time, if you need to have it for that day or that meal.”
Nowadays, many Korean households are outfitted with a kimchi naengjanggo, a dedicated kimchi refrigerator with multiple zones that allows cooks to regulate the climate and produce batches with different levels of fermentation.
STAGES OF FERMENTATION
The following are commonly recognized (but not industry-regulated) stages of kimchi fermentation. Most stores don’t label the products as such (though some might indicate when the kimchi was made), and telling them apart is a matter of smelling or tasting them.
Geotjeori: fresh, unfermented, relatively crunchy kimchi that’s sweet and salad-like, with bright white cabbage
Kimchi: well-fermented, everyday kimchi
Shin Kimchi: overfermented and more acidic kimchi; often used in cooked dishes that incorporate kimchi, like kimchi bokkeumbap and kimchi guk
Mugeunji: fermented at a low temperature for at least six months so that it’s very pungent
Craving is a sentiment that comes up a lot when talking about kimchi bokkeumbap and its two main components. Regarding kimchi, Yum refused to go to sleepaway camp because she couldn’t go a day without it. For Jeisook Thayer, who makes and sells kimchi on Martha’s Vineyard under the label MV Kimchi, the craving begins at breakfast.
“It’s better than having cold cereal in the morning,” Thayer said. “A hot bowl of rice with a little bit of smoked fish and kimchi, and you’re good to go.”
Thayer started making kimchi shortly after she emigrated from Seoul. “I missed my food,” she said, recalling that few people knew what kimchi was when she moved to the United States in 1964. She relied on memory and improvisation at first: “I cooked remembering how it should taste: a little salty, a little spicy . . . with its own umami from the fermentation.”
In well-fermented kimchi, “you no longer bite into a piece of garlic and say, ‘I just got a piece of garlic’ or ‘Oh, I got ginger,’” Thayer explained. “All those flavors blend, and it creates its own umami . . . There’s nothing like it” (see “From Cabbage to Kimchi”).
The Role of Rice
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of rice in the Korean diet. For example, in an essay on Food52, writer Eric Kim describes how his dad would routinely dip a spoon into the rice cooker after returning home from a steakhouse dinner, as if needing a rice fix to feel “fully satiated.”
Yum added: “There are rare occasions where someone opens the rice cooker and there’s no rice left—and everyone is just kind of at a loss.”
That sentiment is documented in the Korean language, since “bap,” the Korean word for cooked rice and other grains, is also the word for “food.” And the importance of rice persisted against great odds, since for most of the 20th century, rice was out of reach for most Koreans. During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910–1945), the Japanese government exported Korean‑grown rice to Japan, forcing locals to subsist on other grains. Rice scarcity lasted long after Japanese occupation ended, prompting the South Korean government to implement initiatives such as “No Rice Days” and to exhort its citizens to mix rice with legumes and alternative grains.
“My mother mixed barley and sometimes even beans with rice every time,” said Kyung-Jin Rhee, Yum’s mother, who emigrated from Seoul in 1992 and recalls the rice shortages from her childhood in Korea. “I went to elementary school in 1976 and clearly remember teachers checking our homemade lunches everyday,” she said, alluding to the government-mandated searches for rice-based foods.
Eventually food supplies and the economy stabilized and rice regained its role as a linchpin of the Korean diet. Now, in her Cambridge household, Rhee makes a point of keeping cooked rice on hand.
“The moment we run out, we just make another batch.”
A Perfect Merger
When there is leftover rice, kimchi bokkeumbap is one of the best ways to use it. The starch molecules in stale rice have crystallized, or retrograded, so the rice grains are hard and dry—able to be stir-fried without turning mushy. That firm texture is especially valuable in a dish such as kimchi bokkeumbap, where the rice soaks up a good bit of the kimchi’s pungent liquid. In fact, kimchi makes this dish come together easily because it does most of the flavor work.
“Kimchi bokkeumbap is really tasty and easy to make, which makes it such a staple for lots of Koreans,” said Rhee. “That’s why recipes for kimchi bokkeumbap never have anything (besides kimchi and rice) that is necessary to the dish—everything can be substituted with what you have on hand.”
In other words, think of that framework as a well‑seasoned blank slate. Andrew Janjigian’s formula starts with stir-fried onion and scallions and smoky, springy chopped ham, which pair well with the dish’s crunch and tang. Then he adds lots of chopped cabbage kimchi along with some of its pungent juice and, depending on the texture of the cabbage, a little water (if your kimchi is relatively crunchy, add it; if not, omit it). To amp up the umami and heat, he works in soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and gochujang. Then he simmers the kimchi so that the leaves soften a bit; stirs in the rice; cooks until the liquid is absorbed; and tops it with strips of gim, toasted sesame seeds, and scallion greens.
Joe McPherson, founder of the Korean food blog and tour company, ZenKimchi, provided background information for this article.