Friday, August 2, 2013

eating bibimbap in jeonju

Jeonju City is an up and coming travel destination in the North Jeolla Province of South Korea, south of the capital Seoul. It's not very well-known yet among international tourists and travelers, but those who've heard about it know that Jeonju = bibimbap. Which is why I couldn't leave without eating it.

Jeonju-style bibimbap, served with clear bean sprout soup and assorted banchan.

We were in Jeonju for a measly 26 hours. The truth is, I can't eat as much and as often as I used to. So for any food trip, I have to plan my meals carefully. I have an eating itinerary, so to speak. My companions were talking about going back to Seoul early to have more time for shopping, but I hadn't eaten my bibimbap yet! Thank gadness we decided to stay for lunch on 17 July 2013.

This was my last meal in Jeonju. Three kinds of bibimbap at Han Kook Kwan on Taejo Road, across the Jeonju Joongang Elementary School.

Stoneware Bibimbap. 11,000 won or US$9.80

Brassware Yukhoe Bibimbap. 13,000 won or US$11.50

Ginseng Bibimbap. 13,000 won or US$11.50

Of course I didn't eat all of that by myself-- eight of us shared four orders. The best part about traveling with a group is being able to taste more dishes.

The banchan at this restaurant was a little unusual, perhaps to go with the bibimbap? The mushrooms and pickled chilis were nice, but everyone raved about the transparent jelly-like noodles topped with cucumber strips.

Top right dish is Hwangpomuk Yukhoe, not part of the banchan. 25,000 won or US$22.25

The pajeon or green onion pancake was easily the best pajeon I've ever tasted anywhere. A little toasted around the edges, chewy-moist in the center, and redolent of an almost-floral chive scent. I should have stashed some in a Ziploc bag, dagnabbit.

Free pajeon, part of the banchan.

My favorite among the three kinds of bibimbap we ordered was the stoneware one with cooked beef. Unfortunately, the bowl was not hot enough for a crusty soccarat to form. Still, it was so much better than what I've been eating previously. The rice was beautifully fragrant, the beef was tender and not stringy, and the vegetables (especially the soybean sprouts, or kongnamul) were very fresh and crisp. I wouldn't have minded some more gochujang, but maybe I'm just used to the spicy red paste disguising the inferior quality of the ingredients at Korean restaurants back home.

A thing of beauty.

My next favorite was the ginseng bibimbap because it was a bit sweet from the barbeque sauce. This would be a great choice for children and picky eaters.

As for the bibimbap in the brass bowl, I didn't like the yukhoe (raw marinated beef) so much. I usually have no problems with uncooked meat, and in fact the yukhoe from the previous day's hanjoengsik meal was fabulous, but somehow eating it with rice didn't do anything for me.

I enjoyed the hwangpomuk yukhoe much more. The description was so exciting-- yellow pear jelly and minced raw beef seasoned with hot pepper paste, Chosun soy sauce, pear and sesame oil-- and the actual dish looked like a jewel on the plate. Not sure if there really was any pear in the dish, but it tasted good. The neutral flavor of the golden mung bean jelly went very well with the yukhoe.

I felt that it was time for some alcohol. Well, OK, it was noon. But as the song says, it was already five o'clock somewhere.

A pitcher of moju. 8,000 won or US$7

The moju was overwhelmingly cinnamony and didn't even give me a buzz. Granted it was cool and refreshing on that hot and humid day, but it didn't give me the hit that I was looking for.

Our meal at Han Kook Kwan was perfectly satisfactory, but it was smack in the middle of the tourist zone. If I could have spent more time in Jeonju, I would have searched for the cheaper, and presumably more authentic, bibimbap restaurants that were recommended here. The ones being patronised by taxi drivers sound particularly appealing.

The dining area of Han Kook Kwan about to fill up with tourists at lunch time.

Han Kook Kwan's one-page menu.

Read about Jeonju bibimbap here.

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