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
Spicy spring greens salad
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.
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.