Yesterday I made my third (or fourth, depending on technicalities) voyage outside of the beast that is Seoul. We prepared little, and planned even less. All we knew was that we were getting up before sunrise, getting on a bus, and going south to the “Culinary Home of Korea:” Jeonju (전주).
I obviously was in heaven. I had heard fables of how the legendary bibimbap of Jeonju would ruin any other bibimbap from then on. I heard that the quaint village thrived on food, and that it was a necessary expedition any self-respecting food enthusiast would take. I agree with most of that.
Up at 4:30, on the subway by 6, on the bus by 7, and in a restaurant eating bibimbap by 1030. The fast-paced nature of the trip didn’t stop with our initial arrival either. We went from restaurant to palace to market to coffee shop to market to Korean wine museum to restaurant to a quick hike to an area of town dedicated solely to makgeoli to bar to bus station all in under 12 hours. It was non-stop moving; it was nothing but bliss.
The town of Jeonju itself looked like the result of quick post-WWII development. It was wildly homogenous and built up, rather than sprawling. What was remarkable about this town was the defined presence of tradition marked by the 800+ Hanok, or traditional houses. I’d seen them before throughout Seoul, but the houses I had seen were of museum quality. That is to say, no one lived in them; they were maintained solely for the purpose of showing tourists and Koreans alike the history Korea has to offer. But in Jeonju, people lived in these homes. So did convenience stores, bars, restaurants, and shops. These were the buildings of the southern end of town.
We actually ended up spending most of our time in this Hanok Village. It was there that we put away two meals of bibimbap (in search of that one that was going to destroy any chance of liking it again because it was so delicious), found the wine museum and wandered around a market consisting of fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, ddok (rice cake that’s almost pasta-like).
Did we find the bibimbap that would forever be ingrained in our minds? Not really. Did we eat some delicious meals, and continually consume? You bet your bottom dollar we did. And it was when we least expected it that we stumbled upon the best and most adventurous meal of the day.
After a quick hike up a mound (note: not hill or mountains, just a mound), a couple of compulsory jump-pictures, and me running around the group as if I had pounded ten espresso shots, we all consented that it was time to find out what the beverages of Jeonju were like.
Two members of our travel team – Molly and Lucy – have been in Korea for under a month. So everything they tried was relatively new which made me want to keep showing them new things. Sure we could have gone to a local Hof (Korean-style bar) and had a few draft beers and some snack food, or we could go get some Jeonju makgeoli.
To me, this isn’t a tough decision: I both love adventure and the taste of makgeoli. This drink I talk of is a kind of rice wine. Wikipedia says it’s a mix of fermented rice, wheat, and water. It’s a little weaker than wine, but you’d never be able to guess its strength. Really, it tastes like candy water – which is where problems arise.
Makgeoli is a milky-chalky-sweet-slightly effervescent drink that has no bite, and full flavor. It’s like nothing I’ve had in my travels because it touches on the same tastes as yogurt – which wouldn’t seem to blend well, at all, with alcohol. But listen up, this 20something fully supports it.
With some selling, struggles with the local dialect, and some quick decision making, we found ourselves in makgeoli town with a tea-kettle full of this chalky treat, sitting in front of a full table of free sides.
See in Seoul, and Korea in general, the drinking culture here is coupled with eating. Almost all hofs require that you get some food with your beverage. Maybe this is trying to save the drinkers from themselves (fill up on food instead of alcohol), or maybe it’s just a clever ploy to get people to spend more money. Either way, in Seoul you have to buy both things: food and drink. In Jeonju, we order a tea-kettle full for four people, and out came four bowls (you drink makgeoli, and many other drinks, out of bowls, not cups) a soup, fruit corn, eggs (hard boiled, and a few fried), and about fifteen sides. Service (free). That’s right folks, the dynamic foursome hit up our last and final meal of the day suddenly in a bar, for free.
Amongst this spread, I only recognized one “standard” side: a few varieties of kimchi. The other things: hard boiled eggs, edamame, smoked corn on the cob, clementines, chestnuts, cabbage, roe, bean sprouts, muscles, octopus, snails, and cocoons, were new and welcomed extensively.
Nope, you didn’t read that wrong. There were snails and cocoons on the table. And I ate them. And I’d do it again. The cocoons were a strange texture: almost like stringy fabric that, despite their being sitting in a liquid, sucked the moisture right out of my mouth. It was an exploration in texture food.
The snails were a hit, in general, at our table. Lucy claimed that they were “like chips” insofar as to say that they were easy to eat (simply suck the snail out of shell) and they were salty.
After this debacle of new foods, and a couple tea-kettles of makgeoli, we hit up one more establishment where drinks, cookies, persimmons, peanuts, and whole-dried-anchovies graced our table, and headed for the bus station. On the bus by 8:30, I’d say we were efficient with our Jeonju time. 10 hours, one city, and about 20something meals. Boom goes the dynamite.