People are not joking when they tell you that South Koreans love festivals. Every season boasts an array of celebrations taking place all over the country. Omija, medicinal herbs, body painting, makjeoli, azaelas…the list goes on. I will start by stating that not every festival is created equal, and that in general I would not recommend driving 3+ hours just to check one out(we were pretty underwhelmed by Daegu’s Suseong Lake Festival, beautiful scenery aside…) But in the case of the Bibimbap Festival in Jeonju Hanok Village– you might just want to make the trek. What is so great about a bowl of rice and vegetables, you might ask? Well, we are about to find out!
The morning mist hung low, and was slow to dissipate as we made our way west. The already hilly terrain of South Korea made way for a steeper, rockier variety as we passed the southern edge of Gayasan National Park and through villages that seemed lost in time. Houses sat almost on top of one another, and from my window I spotted an old woman in full skirts, bent over with scythe in hand slowly cutting swathes through terraced rice fields. Finally the road widened, and we were able to increase our speed…closing in on Jeonju, bellies rumbling with anticipation.
Twin hills jutted up in the distance and loomed like guardians over the landscape near the town of Jinan. Making use of a well-placed rest stop we veered off the highway for a quick minute to soak in the scene from a colourful and well placed gazebo, then it was back on the road…
At the gates of the hanok village was a river of humans that stretched far as my eye could see: thousands of people had made the pilgrimage to the birthplace of bibimbap- one of the most iconic dishes of South Korea. Jeonju bibimbap was royal cuisine, considered one of the three best dishes of the Joseon Dynasty, and the bibimbap from which all others are derived. What sets this dish apart from other versions found around the country? The ingriedients. Harvested from the geography of the area (mountains to the east, the Honam rice plains, the West Sea…) and selected seasonally, more than 30 items can potentially go into composing Jeonju bibimbap- but there are 4 specific ingredients that are a definite must: bean sprouts, yellow mung bean jelly (hwangpomuk), rice infused with beef bone broth and yukhoe (raw ground beef).
So, here we were, in the middle of Jeonju Hanok Village -traditional style roofs and cobble stone streets all around, a cooking demonstration to the left- and before us a long line of white hats electrified with anxious excitement as chefs prepared works of edible art for the judges. At least 15 groups toiled meticulously over giant bowls of rice, carefully placing colourful vegetables in ornate patterns, as a much too catchy tune saturated the air (‘bi bim bap, bi bim bi bap bap…’ oh how it haunts me…)
The complexity of this dish goes beyond the flavours. There is symbolism behind the aesthetics of the ingredients: the green of vegetables like cucumber and spinach represent the east and the liver. Rice, radish, bean sprouts- white items- represent the west and lungs. The dark colours of shiitake mushroom and braken fern represent the north and the kidneys. Red/orange chilies, carrots and jujube for the south and the heart; and the yellow of the egg represents the center, the stomach.
We took a spin around the rest of the festival and saw cafes, gift shops, and art galleries tucked into the pretty hanok, with the standard street fair amenities crowded into the remainder of open spaces.
비빔밥 is pretty easy to spot on a menu, even in a sea of unfamiliar language, but I was glad that the ones in front of us had an english translation- not only did it offer a little bit of insight into the dish and restaurant, but also a nice description of the 4 styles of bibimbap served. There was Jeonju’s signtaure dish: brassware yukhoe bibimbap heated to 65°C, the brassware bulgogi bibimbap (topped with cooked beef also heated to 65°C), ginseng bibimbap served at a cool 25°C (for those who do not like hot bibimbap), and the stoneware bibimbap invented in 1968, which came heated to a blistering 150°C. We both ordered the stoneware (돌그릇 비빔밥) bibimbap (also known as dolsot(stone pot) bibimbap 돌솥 비빔밥 ) and 2 cups of moju to go along with it. Minutes later our waiter appeared with a cartful of banchan and two audibly sizzling bowls. I munched on slices of yellow mung bean jelly and sipped the cinnamon and ginger infused rice wine drink. It tasted like a lightly alcoholic cold chai tea. Mmm, moju! Be warned, it goes down very easily. Once the sizzling had subsided, I took my long handled spoon and mixed up the contents of my bowl with obvious zeal.
With the first bite I was hooked. The savory seasoned beef blended with rich egg yolk and the crisp-chewy rice that that been stuck against the sides of the hot stone (possibly my favorite aspect of the dish) all made for a perfect bite. The mountain vegetables were bright and fresh and there was even a ginko nut to savour. So delicious. It had exceeded all of the expectations that had been building up in my head during the long ride. Yes, definitely a dish that calls for celebration!
So…if you find yourself near Jeonju in October consider taking lunch at the birthplace of bibimbap during the hubbub of the festival. I would even go out on a limb and suggest that a visit to the pretty hanok village for a taste would be worth a drive on any day of the year (Jeonju was selected as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, after all…)
The pin is dropped near the entrance to Jeonju Hanok Village…To get to Hankookkwan, walk down the main road through the village and it will be on your right not too far from where the cobblestones begin…
Our drive from Waegwan to Jeonju took about 3.5 hours. (Route 1 toward Daegu, to 451, 12, 35, 20, 26) If you are taking the train, you can hop on bus 79 or 199 from Jeonju Station- hop off at Jeondong Cathedral, and you will be steps away from the hanok village.