What is kimbap? Why this Korean food favorite is poised to be the next fast casual dining sensation.

It’s cheap and easy to transport. It comes in a wide variety of flavors. It can easily be prepared for vegan, health-conscious, and gluten-free eaters. And, most importantly, it’s damn tasty. Kimbap, a dried-seaweed-wrapped roll filled with rice and various other ingredients, is one of the most popular comfort foods in its country of origin, Korea. Prepared in homes and sold pre-made in thousands of outlets throughout the country, it’s a staple of picnics, school lunchboxes, and on-the-go snacking. Stateside, however, it’s barely made a footprint.

“When we first launched a couple of years ago, we only had a handful of people who knew what kimbap was.” says Sarah H. Lee, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Kimbap Lab. While New York and Los Angeles (home to the largest Korean population outside Asia) are currently experiencing a small but growing wave of kimbap enthusiasm, the roll’s existence remains virtually unknown throughout the vast majority of the country–and that’s baffling.

DIYThe Best Global Food Picks for International CooksKimbap isn’t entirely unfamiliar to American palates, bearing a resemblance to rolled maki sushi. While they both share two main components—which happen to be kimbap’s namesake (“kim” is the Korean word for dried seaweed, and “bap” translates to rice)—and appear fairly similar (the most popular kimbap preparation is a little thicker than maki, about the size of a small burrito before it’s cut into slices), there are significant differences between the two.

The rice for kimbap is enhanced with sesame oil rather than vinegar, which is traditionally used for sushi, providing a distinct contrast of sweet versus sour. The sesame oil is also brushed on kimbap’s dried seaweed exterior, providing an extra hit of flavor and some shimmer.

Then there’s the filling. While sushi is known for the addition of raw fish, kimbap is predominately studded with cooked meat and seafood which is often accompanied with egg or a mix of vegetables such as lettuce, perilla leaf, and pickled radish.

“[Kimbap] is a good way to understand the Korean flavor profile,” says Lee. While popular fillings include Korean standards such as marinated beef bulgogi, kimchi, and spicy pork, they’re not limited to traditional fare. At Kimbap Lab you can find a version with tuna salad and cheddar cheese, which Lee notes is a popular flavor option in Korea. Lee admits that fusing a tuna salad sandwich with rice and seaweed seems “weird” but adds “when you eat it together, it’s surprisingly really good.”

Versatility is one of kimbap’s greatest assets and will likely be the key to tapping into the U.S. market. It can be prepared with an endless variety of filling combinations and in multiple sizes (two-bite mini kimbap has become a popular option in Korea), mirroring the Chipotle model of mix and match accessibility which recently proved successful with the poke phenomenon.

Lee believes it may take some simple tweaks for kimbap to appeal to an American audience, such as offering dipping sauces, which are not a traditional accompaniment to the rolls in Korea. “Our customers are mostly non-Korean and an easy way to introduce kimbap was to add the line of sauces. People like to eat a lot of different foods with condiments.”

Whether it will take a side of gochujang aioli to help spread the kimbap gospel here remains to be seen. It’s not a question of whether kimbap is will find its footing in America, but when.

Related Video: How to Make Korean Cioppino

David is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles by way of New York City. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, CBS Local, Mashable, and Gawker.
See more articles