A trip to the historic city of Jeonju, home of the bibimbap

My visit to Korea in October 2012 was planned to attend the Jeonju International Fermented Food Expo. Well, when I arrived from Seoul, actually it was more like a busy city market day, with some fermented salted fish stalls and a local food exhibition. I felt slightly let down. But I had not visited this historical city before, so my two sisters and I decided to tour the city and then taste the famous Jeonju Bibimbab.

Jeolla-do, in Korea’s southwest region, is well-known for its farming and its good rice paddies, and is a rich source of vegetables, fish and seafood. Of course, Jeonju Bibimbab is its most famous dish. The story goes, 29 ingredients are needed for a genuine Jeonju Bibimbab, but this might be for the Royal court in the olden days.

Jeonju Bibimbap restaurant
A modern Jeonju bibimbap – slightly fewer than 29 ingredients

Jeonju is the birthplace Yi Seonggye, founder of the Yi / Joseon dynasty, and later known as King Taejo: you can still visit his house there. Another tourist attraction, a Joseon dynasty hanok village, is very charming and you can stay in a hanok with a family who lives there, experiencing a Joseon dynasty lifestyle — it must be quite something. But unfortunately I could not get a room: it was all fully booked with Jeonju Festival guests.

But the food was what we were here for. A food show from Jeonju catering college was very impressive. Young, enthusiastic students were trying to make their marks here. The food they had prepared had a quirky, modern twist, and was displayed beautifully. Talking to these wannabe young chefs, I was sure that the future of Korean food was safe in their hands, and will develop as a well-regarded international cuisine. It was very comforting to know.

A lady monk at the temple food stall
A lady monk at the temple food stall

I moved on to the temple food section. Korean temple food is totally organic, vegetarian food. Temple food is a phenomenon in Korea as the most healthy food. The dishes look fantastically photogenic and appetising, but also have a certain still, Zen-like quality. This temple food exhibition inspired me to develop some new recipes. I discovered a new dish, another Jeonju speciality: cabbage pancake, so simple and delicious. Slightly salted cabbage (Chinese cabbage, Baechu) leaves, dipped in pancake batter and shallow fried is a surprisingly tasty snack. I bought a few jars of salted seafood (jeotgal) with spicy sauce, oysters, scallops, and sea squirts (meonggae), which is my second favourite seafood after oyster and has very special sea-muddy flavour. Jeotgal is delicious with hot steamy rice, but sadly I could not take any home to England!

A squash kimchi at the temple food stall
A squash kimchi at the temple food stall

We, my two sisters and I took taxi to see the Hanok village and visit the famous Jeonju Bibimbab restaurant (recommended by KTO). We loved the Hanok village, conveniently situated in the city centre. And a few minutes’ walk away was the restaurant where we ordered the bibimbap set menu. They brought ten different banchan (side dishes) and a clear soy beansprout soup plus some sauce. Well!! It all looked fit for a King! According to our taxi driver, Jeonju bibimbab needs 29 ingredients to make properly, but the modern bibimbab in our restaurant had 9 – 10 ingredients. I do not know if I could be able to taste all 10 ingredients let alone 29. But it was delicious. I loved the different wild mountain vegetables, and it went very well with the clear soup.

The bibimbap set menu with all the side dishes
The bibimbap set menu with all the side dishes

I had a chat with an American and a French tourist. They seemed very impressed by the food and the city itself. My initial disappointment had vanished by the end of our visit. I loved the experience of local food and culture, which gave me inspiration for a few new recipes I am going to create at home! I should travel to Korea, more often, and experience different regions and cities but distance and travel costs prohibit. I either need to find myself a sponsor or win the lottery.

Travel to Jeonju: take the train or Express Bus from Gangnam Express Bus Terminal. It takes only 3 hours and is cheap: it can be done as a day trip. I am so glad I visited.

This article originally appeared on Kiejo’s blog, and is reproduced here with permission.

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