Anyone who’s into their Korean food, or knows about Jeonju, will know that Jeonju city is famous for its bibimbap. But what is it that makes Jeonju bibimbap so different from other bibimbaps around South Korea?
Jeonju as a city has its own philosophies of cooperation, coexistence and harmony. Jeonju bibimbap follows these tenets, and every ingredient and process in making the bibimbap in this city is carefully thought out to match these unifying ideas. Jeonju’s bibimbap is also renowned for its healthy ingredients and preparation, and many people eat it because of its nutritional value as well as its great taste. It’s this care and attention put into each ingredient, along with underlying philosophical ideas, that really sets Jeonju bibimbap apart from the rest.
As we were part of the KOCIS tour, we were lucky enough to be able to pay a visit to one of Jeonju’s leading and very first bibimbap restaurants, Gajokhwoigwan/가족회관, or in English, ‘Family Hall.’ This restaurant is a legendary place for bibimbap, and after experience there, it’s no surprise why it’s amounted to such a high status! During our dining experience we were also given a personal talk from a local lecturer at Jeonju University, who explained all about the story of Jeonju bibimbap and its evolution over the ages. Being able to have him join and talk to us was a truly amazing experience. We learnt things such as how important the use of different colours was, how the varying seasons play a part in the different ingredients used, and we were taught about another different aspect of Jeonju bibimbap, which was using brassware to serve the dish in, and not hot stone bowls. He also spent a good deal of time explaining all the massive amount of delicious side dishes which came with the meal in amazing detail, even explaining about the fermentation process in kimchi making!
After our quick lecture on Jeonju bibimbap, it was time for us to finally taste the famous Jeonju bibimbap. One piece of handy advice we found out was that before mixing bibimbap, if your rice was cooked using sagol soup, then you should mix with a spoon so not to mash the rice up, but any other time, use your chopsticks. With this advice in mind, we got mixing! The taste of Jeonju bibimbap is immediately different to ones we have tried in London or anywhere else. There is a really earthy flavour as lots of different vegetables are used, and the texture is a lot denser and crunchier than you might have tasted before. As you eat, you can really see why this food is known for its nutritious properties as it’s so fresh and light.
This bibimbap would have been a substantial enough meal by itself, but we also had a MASSIVE array of side dishes to try as well, many of which were unique to Jeonju, such as special types of kimchi that had been especially prepared in this restaurant. We were particular fans of the steamed egg dish, which was just divine. So creamy and delicious, we could have eaten bowls of this. Another favourite was the side dish of crispy anchovies. This is coming from an anchovy hater, so loving this dish was a bit of a surprise! Being able to experience such a wide array of unusual side dishes was really special, we don’t think we’ll get the chance to experience such a diverse and tasty amount of such side dishes again any time soon in the UK.
Another really interesting thing about this restaurant was being able to see the staff at work. Seeing how many different types of side dishes there were, and the amount of customers that were served, you could see how experienced and professional all the staff were. Everything was run so smoothly and efficiently, it looked like every single customer was happy and contented with their amazing bibimbap. The manager of this restaurant, Kim Nyeon-Im, who is a Jeonju bibimbap expert, has also been appointed as “the first noted person of Jeonju”, so you know this restaurant is THE destination to head to!
Getting to not only eat at this restaurant, but have a bibimbap expert talk us through the meal, was fantastic. Learning about the history and reasons why certain things are done in the preparation of the dish really gives you a greater appreciation for all the work and thought that went into each dish. If you’re ever heading to Jeonju, be sure to stop by Gajokhwoigwan for some top class bibimbap in a fantastically run restaurant; it is also the first and original one according to our expert! Gajokhwoigwan can be found at Jungang-dong, Wansan-gu.