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 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.
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!
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.
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.