Ready...Set...Bibimbap!

Destination: Bibimbap

Ready...Set...Bibimbap!

Ready…Set…Bibimbap!

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…

Rolling into Jeonju it was obvious that this festival was big business. We were stopped dead in traffic a couple of miles away from the action, and the reality of finding a parking space was looking rather grim. Determined to consume bibimbap, we made a few turns around the block, slid the car into an open spot and before long we were following with the crowds to the heart of the event.

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.

The crowd was five deep around the competitors, and we struggled to watch events unfold, peering through cracks as people shifted to get a better view of the judge’s reactions. Every bowl looked beautiful…and delicious.

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.

Not really sure how to go about choosing the restaurant where we would finally get the chance to consume the famous Jeonju bibimbap, we perused our options. Every place had a line that twisted out onto the sidewalk, and it was decided that given our current location we probably could not go wrong- so, into Hankookkwan we went.

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.

partially mixed bowl of delicious

partially mixed bowl of delicious

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…)

Click here for a map.

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.

23 thoughts on “Destination: Bibimbap

  1. Meg Wray

    Alright… If I wasn’t hungry before, I certainly am now. What a unique festival. I wish I’d known about it beforehand so I could’ve attended! I am obsessed with bibimbap. Gorgeous photos. What an interesting history lesson. 🙂 I love when food has a significance.

    Reply
    1. Lara Post author

      Yeah, I was pretty excited when I learned that bibimbap was more than just amazingly delicious! Food history and symbolism is one of those subjects that really interests me, so I always kind of nerd out over new info…

      Reply
  2. Elle

    Wow! I’ve never read such a detailed description about bibimbap before. I also never knew so much about it. Who knew all of the colors meant something in correlation to the body? I’ve heard nothing but good thing about Jeonju’s bibimbap. I would love to taste it someday! Great post~

    Reply
    1. Lara Post author

      I hope you get the chance to make it to Jeonju! The hanok village is so pretty, and there were a lot of little artsy shops all around that we didn’t really get the opportunity to explore during the festival because the crowds were just too insane. Worth a trip for sure…

      Reply
      1. Sakarya

        There are several dhngistuisiings characteristics of 전주빕빔밥 . . . one is the inclusion of 황포묵 (also called 노랑목), a yellow jelly made from mung beans and colored with gardenia blossoms. Some people associate it with using 육회 (raw beef), although this is more specific to 진주 빕빔밥, or cooking the rice in beef broth. Others point to the use of local (usually 임실) bean sprouts, and having bean sprout soup as accompanyment, or say that the local style is traceable to court foods and has royal antecedants. In any case, 전주 비빔밥 has come to be the dominant style served nationwide.

        Reply
        1. Lara Post author

          Yellow mung bean jelly and the beef broth infused rice are two of my favourite features of 전주빕빔밥….yum! Thanks for sharing!

          Reply
  3. Laura

    I love bibimbap – so simple, but sooo good. My boyfriend and I try to make our own about once a week. I had no idea the symbolism behind the ingredients though, very cool to learn about. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Lara Post author

      That is so cool that you guys make your own bibimbap at home! My husband and I have talked about needing to pick up a set of dolsot, but have yet to do it…will need to make that happen soon!

      Reply
    2. Nerach

      Mate, it’s the second bieggst film festival in Korea and the second best available reason to go to Jeonju, assuming you like bibimbap. If not, it’s number 1. Seriously, get down/up/across to it, you won’t regret it.

      Reply
      1. Lara Post author

        I would love to make it back to Jeonju for this year’s Film Fest! It is right around the bend…are you going?

        Reply
  4. Rafiqua Israel

    I found this post a bit funny because I can relate to it, as I did my EPIK orientation in Jeonju. Jeonju is super well known for its bibimbap. Its quite easy to make as well, so I can’t imagine why an entire city would want to have a festival about making it…unless its well, Jeonju lol. I like your photos, they really show the hanock and traditional side of Korea.

    Reply
  5. Duke Stewart

    Love me some bibimbap! My favorite variety was in Jinju with some raw beef, though the only Jeonju kind I’ve had was in a train station near Seoul, lol. I really love these festivals and am happy that they keep coming around each year. Thank you for sharing this. I’ll hopefully have a chance to visit this next year if in this country then. Great post!

    Reply
    1. Lara Post author

      Wow…you had the yukhoe variety?! Awesome! I am not a fan of raw fish or tartare, so I couldn’t bring myself to order the traditional Jeonju bibimbap. Hoping to conquer my squeamishness over raw things at some point during my time in Korea, as I am kind of obsessed with trying sannakiji. Have you had it?

      Reply
  6. Karen

    Oh how I wish I could taste this special food! The color of the foods are spectaculous! I loved the history regarding what the colors of the dish represented. I bet the fragrance wafting thru the air was awsome!

    Reply
  7. Kirsten

    Holy crap that looks amazing! I’ve been in Korea for 2 years and when I first came here, all I ate was gimbap and bibimbap. I got completely sick of gimbap but still love me a good bowl of bibimbap 🙂 You’ve definitely made me want to make the trek out there to try some!

    Reply
  8. Katie

    So cool! I really like your writing…you created a scene in my mind with your descriptions of the scenery and food. I only know that bi bim bap is delicious and I eat it all the time! I had no clue all of the history or the meaning behind making it. Every week I read all of these posts and just add more things I want to do in Korea!

    Reply
  9. Taylor

    i also was unaware of the history and meaning of bipbimbap! it seems there are so many things in korea made easier with a car. i’ve also never had moju, it sounds delightful!

    Reply
  10. Meagan | LifeOutsideOfTexas.com

    I’d really like to spend more time in Jeonju. The bibimbap festival looks like a really good time. My boyfriend and I both ate way too much bibimbap when we first came to Korea so we only really eat it when we have to now, but I’d still love to go to this festival. The presentation of those giant things of bibimbap is gorgeous!

    Reply

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