On the Verge of Skipping Bi Bim Bab
Traveling from Thailand to Los Angeles with Asiana meant having three meals onboard. The first one was a very late dinner – or was it a very early breakfast? – on the way to the stopover in Seoul. The insipid, shapeless rice and the suspicious meatballs convinced me to skip the following meals during the last leg of the trip; I could no expect the airline to redeem itself with such a short notice. After landing at the Incheon airport I enjoyed several restaurants and prepared myself to a meal-less almost eleven hours long flight.
The second plane was of better quality; it was more modern and included more varied facilities. Among the magazines and brochures provided to the passengers was a menu. I picked it up and studied the dinner and breakfast options, but only after the landscape below had disappeared under a thick layer of clouds. The dinner included two main dishes; the Western style one was "Beef Tenderloin Steak" ("302 kcal" was printed next to it). The Korean style option advertised "Bi Bim Bab" (396 kcal), a name that meant nothing to me; the short description next to it was an excellent example of vagueness.
On the Verge of Skipping Bi Bim Bab
I have learned not to expect too much from Asian prepared Western style steaks and I was not in the mood for yet another rice dish. Planning to concentrate on the fruits and coffee, I watched the reaction of the Korean people near me when the stewardess approached them. All of them were eager to get Bi Bim Bab; "obsessed" may describe better their reaction.
"If I want just the coffee, it doesn’t matter which dish I order," I reasoned while asking for the same. The stewardess seemed very please of my choice, smiled, and passed me a loaded tray. However, on my way to pick up the desired fruits, I noted a small piece of folded paper; its title was "How to enjoy ‘BI-BIM-BAB’." That caught my attention.
How to enjoy ‘BI-BIM-BAB’
Written in English, Japanese and Chinese – and obviously skipping Korean – the colorful paper explained with many errors and inconsistencies (the dish appeared also as bibimbab) what Bi-Bim-Bab is and how to eat/prepare it.
Yes, I was supposed to prepare it by myself.
The approach was remarkable, and soon I found myself mixing the ingredients as per the instructions. A Korean woman sitting next to me was obviously amused by my careful study of the instructions and labels on the packed ingredients.
The largest bowl on the tray included several vegetables (sprouts, cucumbers, sweet pepper, mushrooms and others) and minced meat (it was mentioned that octopus and wild-greens variations of the dish also exist). The first step was to pour over the veggies the smaller bowl with steamed rice; the last was a bit too sticky, but acceptably so for such a dish.
Following, the gochujang (a thick red chili paste popular in the Korean cuisine) and the sesame oil were added. At first I was wary of the chili paste, but later I found it to be relatively mild. Then, the stainless steel fork and spoon were used for mixing up all the ingredients; unlike in other Asian cultures, stainless steel is the standard for Korean cutlery. The clear soup next to the dish was to be enjoyed together with it. Kimchi – the ubiquitous pickles of the Korean cuisine – completed the dish, though in a too small serving.
Other side dishes included two excellent egg rolls, hard-boiled burdock and peanut, and steamed pumpkin. Overall, the result was excellent; the dish was rich and tasty, and displayed a remarkable mixture of textures and shapes. Moreover, it offered a true gate to the local culture; something it is seldom achievable during an in-flight meal.
Last and Least
The coffee and fruits became a secondary feature of the meal, but not an irrelevant one. A nice touch was that the coffee was guaranteed to be produced eco-friendly methods; it was a cup of decent quality for a flight, decent enough for asking a refill.
The fruits served in flight are usually a weak point, which is understandable due to the conditions of a long flight. A peeled wedge of mandarin sitting next to small pieces of a green apple provided the first surprise; the second was a dried prune, which despite not being a fresh fruit added another nice touch to a meal that turned to be a good example that in-flight meals can be imaginative and provide a meaningful experience.