Culinary Journeys – Jeonju, South Korea

A multi-part series exploring definitions of culture and cuisine, for inspiration from the new and respect for the old.

Exploring cuisines from around the globe helps to inform our understanding of Great Lakes cuisine and create further inspiration. Travel excites the mind with possibilities and also reminds us of what we have in common. A series of posts will explore recent journeys to Jeonju, Seoul and the countryside of South Korea, to the food mecca that is Montreal, Canada, and to the energetic food scene of New Orleans, USA. From each we take inspiration on new ways to use local products, to infuse new flavors, and to present dishes innovatively. We also recognize the similarities in pre-modern food traditions as well as the power of cultures coming together. Let’s begin here.

The food on the flight in to South Korea provides a bit of foreshadowing – that mosaic of fresh, pickled, and prepared vegetables, the rice, the soybean soup. Mostly familiar – the zucchini slices, the mushrooms, the bean sprouts. But what is this set of pickle-like things, up here, in the left corner? Salty, spicy, pickle texture, but much deeper flavors, oh, and did I say spicy? Yes, a lingering heat. Welcome to the world of kimchi, the ubiquitous side dish which appears at every meal.

Kimchi is an ancient staple of the Korean diet, far more than the cabbage based condiment we often see in the US. It is a preservation method used for hundreds and hundreds of years submerging nearly every vegetable in a salty brine. Same general principle as preserved lemons, or our local favorite, sauerkraut. That heat appears to have been a later addition, thanks to trading with the Portuguese in the 1600s. Red peppers were indigenous to New World, and then spread through out the globe by the Spanish and Portuguese. The first reference to red peppers in a kimchi recipe is 1765, but the Koreans wasted no time in making the most of their new discovery. This is a recurring theme in Korean cuisine: a ancient tradition readily adopting an outside influence and making it quintessentially Korean.

Upon arrival we had to take a bus, driving past the endless quilt of twilight-colored rice fields of the Honam Plain. Our initial destination was Jeonju, named a Creative City for Gastronomy by UNESCO, and the recognized birthplace of bibimbap. Our late arrival limited options, but a restaurant across from our hotel agreed to stay open for us.

After a long flight and bus ride, this spicy rice dish was truly a comfort. But note that beer? Yes, Miller Genuine Draft. This was the second time I had travelled all day into a remote region of the world and ended up drinking a beer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The first was in a grass shack bar in a remote forest corner of Costa Rica, but that, is of course, another story. Our current story is going to involve bibimbap and drunk cowboys with Jack Daniels.

Jeonju claims the origination story of bibimbap and a number of restaurants in town offer their version. Travelling with a Korean friend, she directed us to the place she finds most authentic for our lunch the next day.

This is a highly participatory meal, a major feature of much of the traditional dishes of Korea. In your own bowl of rice, pile the soft poached eggs on top and then layer in all these incredible pickled vegetables. Reaching here, asking for a bit of that over there, talking and experiencing together, but making it uniquely your own. Oh, and hand me the gochujang hot sauce. The gochujang is a chili paste fermented with sweet rice and is worth searching out if you want a taste of South Korea. We sat on the floor at a low table, low enough that I sat on the end to allow my legs to stick out the side. Immediately to my right was a table of two Korean gentlemen, each in a flannel shirt, wearing blue jeans, and topping their outfits off with bedazzled cowboy hats.

“American?”

“Yes.”

And then out comes a full bottle of Jack Daniels. No, not full. Just half full, but clearly it had been full to start their lunch and they insisted good-naturedly in sharing. Straight, in a small tin cup, then “Geonbae!” Cheers, or literally “empty glass”. Nothing like getting a good base of rice, eggs, and hot sauce in the belly before drinking straight Tennessee whiskey for lunch. Know what I mean?

Another day we enjoyed the build-your-own adventure of bulgogi, table side barbeque of tenderized beef, served with more pickled and fresh vegetables with lettuce leaves as the delivery vehicle for all this flavor.

Here I finally drank a Korean beer, Hite, and as you might suspect from the picture above, it is refreshing and very light. They call it a pale lager, and it is made with rice, so the flavor profile is similar to Budweiser, but even a bit less hops.

Beer is popular, but the real star of the alcoholic beverage pantheon in South Korea is soju, an inexpensive, vodka-like beverage. It can range anywhere from 10 to 50 proof, and like the tradition of gin, it involves a number of additives to cover the pure alcohol burn, but unlike the pine and herbaceous notes in gin, soju tends toward to fruit and sweet notes. Chilled ice cold, it drinks like a crisp white wine and gets you drunk like tequila, so beware. A nice salty snack is the perfect complement, and tiny corner markets cater to just such a taste.

As we approach, we catch a glimpse of the makeshift kitchen, really just storage crates blocking out the breeze so the tiny charcoal stove can heat the snacks. It isn’t entirely clear what they are at this point. Also, why is there an industrial press in the front entry way?

All is revealed after we sit down on our plastic chairs at folding tables. A round of drinks, mostly soju, but more Hite lager for me, and then our snack.

Now the industrial press makes sense. This is pollack, salt-dried, and pounded. It is cracker-dry and pulls apart into stringy clumps, the toasted saltiness with a fish aftertaste. The dipping sauce is sesame seed, green onion, a sweet soy based sauce and a dollop of mayonnaise. Why mayonnaise? I don’t know. South Koreans have a love of all sorts of French inspired dishes, most notably French-style pastries. The mayo/soy combination also shows up later in our trip on a Korean version of Takoyaki, the Japanese street food made with octopus.

Here it is fried and topped with bonito flakes and then mayonnaise and another sweet soy-based sauce. Very tasty as the bonito flakes give a depth and saltiness that is truly addictive. And I’m left to wonder why we don’t do more dry preserving of fish in the Great Lakes region. We pickle our pike and still hold on to the pickled herring. Yet no dried, shredded fish so popular in Asian traditions.

As compelling as the street foods and comfort foods were, another evening we were simply overwhelmed by the traditional royal dinner. The Jeonju Hanok village contains over 800 traditional homes, restaurants, stores, and tea houses. Tucked into this village is a restaurant which serves the traditional meal served to the royalty of Korea.

Note the shoes on the steps outside the building, with everyone inside sitting on mats on the floor. A pleasant May evening so the panels are left open allowing flower scented breezes to flow through. Off to my left there was this:

Heavy, hand-made clay pots. Each filled with fermenting vegetables of one type or another. A clay disk on top of each allowing for gas to escape but no critters to get in. All set in the earth, surrounded by herbs. This is perhaps one of my most cherished images of Jeonju, though perhaps my recollection is biased based on the meal that was to come.

We sat at a long wooden table in a private room due to the size of our party, and dishes began to emerge. Soft shell crab in an umami broth, pickled vegetables, creamed mushrooms.

Tofu with a blazingly spicy dipping sauce, traditional cabbage kimchi, eggplant kimchi, a set of unrecognizable sautéed greens.

And then more dishes – vegetables dipped and fried similar to tempura, bulgogi, whole filets of fish, more cabbage dishes. And they quickly and carefully balanced them on one another, a sensory overload of flavors. And then there was this:

Known as hongeo samhap, his was a notable dish for many reasons. That is pork belly on the right, preserved skate wing on the left, and spicy preserved cabbage at the base. The “condiment” is tiny shrimp. The texture of the fish is reminiscent of lutefisk, but rather than lye-fermenting as the Scandinavians and the Minnesotans like to do with their whitefish, the skate naturally exude uric acid which preserves the flesh. To say it is pungent is an understatement. It reeks of ammonia. We’ve already detailed the spicy beauty of the Korean version of sauerkraut. And now comes the spiced, boiled pork. All on one plate. With tiny shrimp. This requires a re-orienting of your expectations and your taste buds. So much is similar here to our Great Lakes traditions – we do preserved fish, we do spiced pork belly, we do fermented cabbage. And yet nothing here is familiar – from the smells, to the textures, to the combination in one dish.

This was truly one of the most immersive meals I have ever experienced. The setting, the company, the smells, the flavors, all swirling and blending and wonderful. We should all eat this way more often, what we in the Great Lakes region like to call family-style. With tables overflowing with culinary creations and our conversations overflowing with human connection. In these few days, a half of a world away, we are reminded of so much that make the Great Lakes region our home. We are reminded of the joy in traditions and the power of sharing them.

Our next destination in South Korea takes us further south and into an entirely different experience, where the solemn quiet surround us, the simplicity of good food energizes us, and the warmth of the tea ceremony embraces us.

3 thoughts on “Culinary Journeys – Jeonju, South Korea

  1. so many plates, it is incredble the variety the korean food has!! thaks for sharing Robert and enjoy your food journeys around the world, it was a pleasure to discover your blog 🙂 cheers from Lisbon, PedroL

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