Archive for the ‘Jeonju’ Category

Jeonju values

November 16, 2009

Photo by Diane Choo

Korea is a country of regions, provinces, and towns.  People feel strongly about where they come from and where you come from, too.  Each region has its own reputation and its own way of doing things, but the differences aren’t always visible ones.  South Korea has had too much destroyed, by war and by overenthusiastic modernization, to show the diversity of its regions in something as obvious as architecture.

But it’s hard to destroy food and food memories.  Seoul, a city full of people who came from somewhere else, is overflowing with restaurants named Suwon Galbi, Mahsan Ahgu-jjim, and Chungmu Kimbap, each name consisting of the name of the town and the dish it made famous.  Korea is a small country, North and South together the size of Minnesota, but regional pride drives food culture as much as its drives politics and society.

Which is how we ended up, seven of us in a mini-van, like the beginning of a screwball comedy, driving around Jeolla-do, the southwest part of South Korea. In February, Diane and I had eaten our way around most of the other major regions, but we had only spent one night in Jeolla-do, the culinary center of Korea.  In our last meal there, the owner of the restaurant had said, when pressed to explain what made Jeolla-do food different, “The food here has gamchil-maht.”

But what did that mean, gamchil-maht?  Different people we talked to had different theories of what made Jeolla-do food special, but it was never anything simple and pat, like, “They have the most refined, royal palace-style food,” or “They have a way with bean sprouts,” or “They use more fish sauce than anyone else.”  I looked up gamchil-maht in a dictionary and found “savoriness, deliciousness,” which didn’t help me understand what actually made Jeolla-do food savory and delicious.

Talking to our parents, we came to understand gamchil-maht meant a particular kind of deliciousness.  Flavor that’s sharper, brighter, subtler and yet more intense at the same time.  Flavor that even if you’re full, draws you to eat one more bite and maybe another after that.  Flavor that creates hunger even where there is none.

So we had to return to Jeolla-do and to Jeolla-do alone.  And appropriately enough, on our first night in Jeonju, we ate two dinners.

Jeonju is one of the larger cities of North Jeolla Province, only a couple of hours from Seoul.  As you approach it, it looks like another Seoul suburb with high-rise apartments of no distinction.  It does have a pretty little historic district, though, of old-style houses with curving slate-tile roofs and sliding doors covered in rice paper.  The hanok village actually looks a little too good to be old.  Although the village houses a working paper factory, several craft centers, restaurants, and a guesthouse or two, it doesn’t feel very functional.  But I can imagine in 10, maybe 20 years, the paint will have faded a bit, the tiles won’t be so shiny, and the village will feel more authentic.

Since we were in Jeonju, we felt like we had to try the dish that bears its name, Jeonju bibibimap, even if Diane and I had already tried it at the most famous restaurant serving this dish, 가족회관, Gajokhoegwan, in February and met the owner.  This time, though, we decided to go elsewhere, and we ended up at 성미당, Seong Mi Dang.  We thought it might be the native favorite, the way New Haveners in the know prefer Modern Apizza to the more famous Sally’s and Pepe’s.

The restaurant seemed nice enough and cozy with warm, wooden pillars.  We started with a slightly boozy drink called 모주, moju, which smelled like cinnamon and tasted as grapey as Manischewitz.  In classic Korean fashion, we were told it was good for you.

We ordered a round of bibimbap, one with raw beef or yukhae for me and regular cooked beef for everyone else.  Our friends Randall and Carolyn, who hadn’t had Jeonju bibimbap before, dug in happily enough.  Diane, her mother, and I, though, looked at each other, a little afraid to admit what was in our minds.  Finally, someone broke the silence, “It’s not the same, is it?”  We agreed, it wasn’t.  We slowly started to drive Randall and Carolyn crazy, as we sighed, one after the other, “Oh, the other place is so much better!”  “Oh, I’m so sorry you didn’t get to try the Jeonju bibimbap there!”

The bibimbap we were eating wasn’t bad.  It was definitely too spicy, so that the red pepper paste overwhelmed the other flavors, but the ingredients were fresh and various and the colors bright.  It was more or less as good as any bibimbap I’ve had on 32nd St. in New York.  We almost started to wonder if it was all in our heads, if the Jeonju bibimbap at Gajokhoegwan was no different, if we had just imbued it with mystery and wonder because of the surreal experience we’d had there.

There was only one thing to do.  We had to go eat at Gajokhoegwan.  It didn’t matter that we were so full, that we’d had a big lunch on the road to Jeonju, or that we had days of eating ahead of us.

Luckily, Gajokhoegwan was just down the street.  We didn’t order another 6 bowls of bibimbap, but we did order two to share with a face-saving excuse about jet lag and loss of appetite.  And as soon as the bowls were brought out, we knew we had done the right thing.

Photo by Diane Choo

The ingredients gleamed.  There were one or two ingredients that had changed, perhaps being out of season, but you could see that Mrs. Kim ran her restaurant with the precision of a sergeant.  Each ingredient was in the same place it had been last time.  Here, the gochujang wasn’t overpowering.  The brass bowl was in perfect balance, each bite revealing a new flavor and texture.

Photo by Diane Choo

On our way out of town the next morning, we stopped at the café with no name, one that we had found in February.  It still didn’t have a name but it wasn’t hard to find again—it’s just a few blocks into the hanok village from the water wheel.  The building has a roof and frame that mimics the hanok houses, but the ground floor café is surrounded in glass, and from the street, you see a place with Korean antiques so beautiful they’re timeless, vivid modern art by the owner, and a very un-Korean looking chow chow guarding the door.

They serve coffee, espresso, macchiato, all those words that thrill my Western morning heart when I’m traveling, but they also serve beautiful, delicate Korean teas.  They have crowd pleasers, like green tea and yuzu-jam tea (yuja-cha), but they also have teas with names like ginger flower tea (saenggang-kkot) and April flower tea (sahli-kkot).  The ginger flowers are yellow with a flavor I can’t quite place, but the April flowers are white and smell so clearly of honey.

The teapots, the café, the bibimbap—they were all beautiful and careful at the same time.  We had three more days left to figure out what it means that Jeolla-do food has gamchil-maht, but already in Jeonju, one thing was clear.  Gamchil-maht doesn’t happen by accident.

Photo by Diane Choo

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Perfect bibimbap

February 25, 2009

(This should have been posted days ago, since we ate this meal on Sunday.  Oops.)

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It’s always a treat to talk to someone wearing pink rhinestoned glasses.  It’s even more of a treat when that someone is the owner of the best-known Jeonju bibimbap restaurant in Jeonju, Korea.

가족회관, Gajokhoegwan, or the Family Meeting Place, has the dish of Jeonju bibimbap down to the point that Mrs. Kim, the owner, has a patent on the name.  If you ever want to affix “Jeonju bibimbap” to anything you sell, you have to pay a licensing fee.  Normally, I’d find that crazy, but having met her and tasted her food, I have so much respect for her kind of crazy, I can’t quite begrudge her the “jeonjubibimbap” domain name.

In general, bibimbap, which means “mixed rice,” has no fixed ingredient list.  You take some rice and add whatever vegetables you want, whatever meat you want, a dollop of spicy red pepper sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and there you are.  Mixed rice.  The concept is unpatentable.  It would be like patenting the act of buttering your bread.  When we asked Mrs. Kim about the origins of bibimbap, she agreed:

Nobody knows.  Some people say that when people celebrated ancestral rites [with a lot of food on the altar table] together, they would want to take the leftovers home and so would mix them all together in one bowl.  Or that the people who worked in the fields found it easier to have their lunch brought to them in one bowl.  Or that the king during a troubled time had to flee suddenly, and all the food on his table had to be mixed together.

In any case, Koreans love mixing their food together, whether it’s in a lettuce wrap or in a cold seafood salad, so I’m sure it took no great genius to come up with the concept of bibimbap.

It did take something, though, to come up with the Jeonju bibimbap served at Gajokhoegwan.  You go in, and they ask you, “What do you want?” but it’s a rhetorical question.  It’s the only dish the restaurant serves, in beautiful, heavy brass bowls.  The ingredients are presented in the royal palace style, each one distinct and carefully laid next to ingredients of different colors for the most colorful effect. Mrs. Kim said there were over 30 ingredients.  I managed to come up with 30, but I have no doubt there may be more.

Here’s my guess: carrots, squash, cucumber, bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, meat sautéed in red pepper paste, green sprouts, enoki mushrooms, eggs separated and cooked separately and shredded, acorn jelly, bellflower root, wild parsley, fiddlehead ferns, spinach, roasted and salted seaweed, pickled radish, rice, beef bones and meat for the stock to cook the rice, 1 egg yolk, 1 walnut, a sprinkle of pine nuts, 2 gingko nuts, sesame seeds, and one slice of raw chestnut.  Plus soy sauce, a thinner red pepper paste, salt, sesame oil, perilla seed oil, and garlic.

Each ingredient was perfectly slivered, julienned, or shredded.  Each ingredient had been cooked separately to a perfect tenderness.  The amount of each ingredient was perfectly restrained—the one slice of raw chestnut was surprising but so good I wanted more, until I realized it was better just to have that crunch once.  The same was true of the single walnut. Did I mention how perfect everything was?

Even the rice, the simplest seeming ingredient, had been cooked in a beef stock, which is very unusual in Korean cooking.  Mrs. Kim said that it helps the rice grains stay intact, rather than falling apart when you mix it up with everything else.  It wasn’t any beef stock either.  When I asked her how she made it, she gave me a look that said, “You think you can do the same?”  The answer: “We simmer it for over 48 hours!”

Mrs. Kim is 74 years old.  She’s been running the restaurant for over 30 years.  She is still at the restaurant everyday, not just floating around as the benevolent owner, but with her arms covered in rubber sleeves so she can plunge her hands into anything and make sure everything is just right.  They make the same perfect dish for 500-1000 people everyday.

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And if that weren’t enough, they put out at least 15 different banchan, small dishes plated with equal care, from the pickled perilla leaves adorned with slivered chestnuts, red pepper threads, and one carefully carved slice of garlic to…

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the thin slice of date placed on top of the 김장아찌, gimjangajji, a pickled seaweed with the dark, sweet intensity of red chiles, very much like chipotles in adobo.  (Just so you know, this isn’t an expensive restaurant.  You get all this with one bowl of bibimbap that costs 10,000 won, about US$6.60.)

Mrs. Kim thought we were crazy to think we could just go around the country, taste something once, and write a cookbook.  And she’s right, if we were going to try to replicate her cooking by tasting it once, we would be crazy.  It was hard to explain to her that what we’re really trying to do is have the best food in Korea inspire and inform us as we record delicious but more feasible recipes.  But how could someone like Mrs. Kim imagine aiming for anything less than bibimbap nirvana?

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P.S.  We had a simpler dinner, less awesome but maybe more comforting, at 전주왱이 콩나물국밥, Jeonju Whengi Kongnamulgukbap.  Not surprisingly, it serves one and only one dish, kongnamulgukbap, or rice served in a soup of anchovy broth with bean sprouts.  One of my favorites, and definitely something to go in the cookbook as an easy, warm dish for a cool, quiet night.

Four people, one table, 30 dishes

February 23, 2009

전라회간 한정식

From the top, left to right:

Spicy pickled garlic, pickled oysters, spicy pickled codfish gills

Burdock roots in red pepper sauce; mung bean jelly with beef and vegetables; shrimp with scallions; wild sesame, rice, and root porridge; water radish kimchi; squid and fish pancakes; sauteed mushrooms with carrots and squash

Spicy octopus and onions; fish roe stew; crepes with nine delicacies; braised short ribs; cold beef, bamboo shoots, and vegetables in a persimmon dressing; shrimp stew

Pickled cap mushrooms; doenjang or soybean paste stew; shrimp and jellyfish salad in a mustard dressing; sautéed fiddleheads, bellflower roots, and crown daisies; beef glazed with soy sauce

Pickled onions, kimchi, and pickled maesil plums

Clam-seaweed soup for everyone, and rice, of course.

And then the dishes that wouldn’t fit on the table:

Braised mountain trout

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Spicy spring greens salad

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And then also raw skate fish, broiled croaker fish, and steamed pork with aged kimchi.

At the end, we shared a plate of crisp Asian pear with cups of cinnamon-ginger-persimmon punch.

But the most impressive part of our 한정식, hanjeongsik, a traditional Korean prix-fixe, wasn’t the quantity of the food.

Look closely at this mung bean jelly salad, or 탕평채, tangpyeongchae.

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The primary ingredient is 묵, muk, a jelly that’s made of acorns, mung beans, and even buckwheat.  It’s a little slippery, but firmer than Jello.  It has a flavor as sure but as faint as tofu, so it’s almost always cut in cubes or in strips and mixed with something salty and flavorful.

Here, the muk is made out of mung beans.  In the city we were in, unlike the rest of Korea, they add coloring made from gardenia seed pods that turns the muk a bright yellow.  It’s sitting in a dressing of soy sauce and vinegar, bright and tangy.

On top of the muk is more: wild parsley, bean sprouts with the heads and tails removed (which is a pain in the ass, let me tell you), beef, and slivered cucumbers. On top of that are eggs that have been separated, cooked, and then shredded; a sprinkle of what looks like ground pine nuts; slivered red chiles; slivered scallions, a smaller sprinkle of sesame seeds; and then just a dab of slivered raw chestnuts, which added a subtle but very real crunch.

This is the food of Jeolla-do.  More than any other region of Korea, this area is known for its hanjeongsik, beautiful, complex, and painstaking food.  There are other, simpler dishes that are also famous in this region, which we also tried.  But here, at 전라회관, Jeolla Hoegwan, restaurant in Jeonju, the capital of North Jeolla Province, we got to see why the people of Jeolla-do are always a little disappointed in the food outside their region.

Each dish was composed deliberately.  The restaurant had thought about color, about texture, about how the shapes of the different ingredients should play together.  A great deal of time had gone into everything, not just in slivering all those chestnuts, but in the aging of the ingredients, from the homemade doenjang with its super-strong soy sauce flavor to the plums that had been pickled for 100 days.  Every dish had multiple ingredients, but the taste of each ingredient was sharp and distinct.  At the same time, there was a very conscious depth and balance to everything we ate.

I was incredibly impressed.  I was even a little moved.  But even though there were so many dishes I’d never tried before, I realized as I ate that there was nothing that was foreign to me.  The flavors, textures, colors were what I’d grown up eating, just much, much better.  I’d always thought of hanjeongsik as palace food, fancy food for aristocrats that always looks better than it tastes.  But this meal made me realize that at its best, hanjeongsik can be the fullest and best expression of what Koreans value in their food.