Many of the restaurants in my little city lie empty. I wonder if anyone knows how many restaurants there are. Presumably some governmental figure of department knows. I could eat in a different restaurant every night of the week. Actually make that lunch and dinner, each in different restaurants, every day for a year and still I will not encounter them all but when I first arrived in Suncheon I felt there was an air of drabness due to the emptiness. That was until I went for a walk at 10pm at night. It was summer and the park was full of families, the empty coffee shop tables had sprouted coffee cups and in restaurants, BBQ grills sizzled and steam rose from big bowls of soup. Once, I went past the restaurant on the corner near my bus stop at 7.30am on a Saturday morning and it was full of pensioners having breakfast. If I was really curious I would check to see if this is a regular occurrence.
However, generally speaking, most of Suncheon’s very many restaurants and coffee shops are never full. So when in Jeonju facing a queue to a restaurant, my instinct was to say fuck that. Angie however, was instinctively right. A queue to a restaurant in a country where people are passionate about their food is surely a good sign so we waited. As we shuffled forwards I wondered if the bare trees in front of the slopes and earthly wooden beams of the hanok village were cherry trees. This place will be stunning if they are. Angie thought probably not. I also wasn’t sure if Jeonju bibimbap was going to live up to its name and after pondering the trees I considered the menu pictures posted on the outside wall with the addition of some helpful English, gingko nuts, raw mince beef and bracken?
Jeonju boasts the accolade, City for Gastronomy as part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. As with many of South Korea’s boasts, I thought this was made up but I really good live in a city of gastronomy. The food of fame is bibimbap. Found in restaurants up and down the country, it is a staple and a favourite. Basically, it is a dish of rice and vegetables, the all important chili pepper paste and the addition of egg and sometimes beef, although I have had one with tuna. Except it is not basic. Different vegetables will appear. Sometimes sesame seeds to enhance the sesame oil. Sometimes an extra dressing making extra flavour complexity in your mouth. Sometimes something unknown but always you get to create a food mess.
A beautiful picture in a bowl came and sat in front of me. I picked up my spoon and with a childish fervour I MIXED. You mix and mix until you have a big food mess and then you dive in. Mess isn’t restricted to the bowl. On the table next to us a little girl was being scolded by her mother for letting her beansprouts hang just as a heron holds a fish in its beak.
I was so close, so close to choosing the raw beef option but at the last minute I chickened (or beefed?) out, not being sure if my stomach could handle the digestion of raw meat and bracken. I opted for the dolsot version, the hot stone bowl crisps up the rice sitting on the outside. Quickly doing the mix up lets the raw egg cook and I let the hot food cool as I tucked into the array of side dishes. Order one dish and get a load more. I love it. Especially when you haven’t a clue what they all are. A cup of sickly sweet with a hint of christmas, moju finished us of.
All I can say is that if you are looking to find a place with good food. This is it.