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