Jeonju eating trip
One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and demystify Korean food for foreigners, and recommend great places that I had found (or been taken to) for traditional Korean dishes. In the year or so since I started, though, I have more often ended up demystifying foreign food for my Korean friends; I get frequent texts these days asking me for directions to Linus or Braai Republic, or asking the best place in Itaewon to get a taco.
While that’s great – there is nothing I love better than playing tour guide in our newly-hip part of town – I’ve had a hankering recently to get back to those initial ambitions. There’s a world of amazing Korean food out there waiting to be discovered, and it distresses me when my foreign friends and co-workers walk past a great galbijjim place to eat a mediocre pizza instead. So, when I get hold of some awesome local food, I want to share it as widely as possible – and, since I’m still learning about Korean food, I have a lot of discovering still to do.
This is a bit different though, because when I had a couple of days off this week I decided to hop on a bus to Jeonju with an equally hungry friend. Jeonju, down in the southwestern province of Jeolla-do, is widely reputed as the culinary capital of the country, the home of the famous Jeonju bibimbap but also more generally just the best place in Korea to eat. Food here is better, fresher and tastier than Seoul, and comes with more side dishes than usual, each prepared with care and attention to detail. Or so I was told. On a rainy Sunday night, I hopped on to a bus and south into the dark night I went.
Our first stop – literally straight from the bus station, bags on the shoulder – was Seoshin-dong, to visit the long-established Yetchon Makgeolli (옛촌 막걸리), which is about as traditional a drinking den as you could wish for – brimful of ajossis and young guys knocking back the dangerous, milky brew. The deal here is that you buy a set – ours was 30,000 won – which includes a HUGE kettle of makgeolli and 8 – count ’em, 8 – dishes, several of which would have made a meal in their own right. Chicken soup, kimchijeon, fish, mussels, oysters, jokbal – the hits kept coming.
At one stage in the evening, I made a daft makgeolli-fuelled comment about how, well, Korean the food was, but in that stupidity lay a nugget of truth; never mind making concessions to the foreign palate, this place’s cooking made no concessions to the Seoul palate. A large plate of kimchijjim – pork with tofu and braised kimchi – came out next. The kimchi was a sweet-and-sour masterpiece, or monstrosity, depending on your point of view. It was all too much for me, the flavour almost overwhelming.
Next morning, we were in search of a little restoration. So we headed to the mighty Veteran Kalguksu (베테랑 칼국수), which I was assured would serve me up a bowl of noodle soup for the soul, and after walking through a rabbit-warren of kitchens and dining areas, finally found a spot right at the back of the maze-like restaurant.
Dear God, this place was good. Like the famous bibimbap of this city, the soup comes “unmixed” and you swirl the ingredients together with a little bit of gochugaru (red pepper powder) to taste.
It really was nothing like other versions of kalguksu I’ve had. The broth was so good; thick and flavourful. It was like a religious experience; I’m not sure the word “soup” can really do it justice.
I was reminded of the old line about how Alexander the Great, on seeing the breadth of his domain, sat down and wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer. How can you open a can of Campbell’s chicken soup after this?
Whatever. On! Jeonju’s hanok village is a riot of traditional houses and tourist tat. Selfie sticks lurk round every corner, ready to poke your eyes out. We ate some fabulous shrimp dumplings that were more like large prawn cakes, and the famous octopus skewers which, frankly, I passed on.
This guy seemed to have captured the chest-bursting monster from Alien and deep fried it with extreme prejudice. “Extreme Fritters” indeed.
We queued up for fresh-baked hotteok at this funky little store, which allegedly makes only 200 a day. I’m not a fan of sweet things, but this was exceptionally nice.
There was precious little space in our stomachs, but there was one more dish that we had to try. Of course, it’s the famous Jeonju bibimbap. Now, when it comes to bibimbap, I can take it or leave it; I’ll never fully shake off my conviction that rice is an accompaniment to a meal, not a meal in itself (almost the polar opposite of the Korean point of view), and as for vegetables, well, don’t get me started.
This was something else, though. At Seong Mi Dang (성미당), the bibimbap comes out with a plethora of banchan. I read somewhere recently that restaurants always serve odd numbers of side dishes, for luck. I have no idea if it’s true, but let’s go with “yes”. Anyway, I counted thirteen here. Thirteen!
This place has been serving up bowls of bibimbap for 50 years, which in Korean terms is an eternity. I had the raw beef bibimbap (육회 비빔밥), and if anything can convert me into a lover of Korea’s national dish, it is this place. This is one of those rare photos, I think, which captures just how special this dish was.
So there you have it, Jeonju food. It’s just two hours from Seoul by KTX, but the bus is less than half the price and only took about two and a half hours from Express Bus Terminal in Seoul. Whichever way you get there, you should definitely go. On this evidence, Jeonju’s reputation as the epicentre of good Korean food is well-deserved.
- Review: Veteran Kalguksu at Express Bus Terminal | soju sunrise - […] couple of months ago, as documented in this post, I spent a day or so in Jeonju, the culinary…