Where to stay
N Bridge Hotel Located just across the river from Hanok Village, this recent opening is all marble and minimalism. If you don’t fancy a dip in Jeonju’s Spa LaQua oncheon (hot springs), then the baths – big enough to fit a whole football team – are ideal after a day tramping the city’s winding streets. Doubles from £60. 81 Jeonjuchunseoro, Inhu-dong, Wansan-go, 00 82 63 232 6000, nbridge.kr
Ramada by Wyndham Jeonju The city’s only Western hotel brand provides all your home-from-home comforts, and its position at the north side of Hanok Village, where the city proper begins, is unbeatable if you want to explore Jeonju’s more modern side. Doubles from £75. 94 Jeonjugaeksa 5-gil, Gosa-dong, 00 82 24 161 204, wyndhamhotels.com
Roni Tourist Hotel Located close
to Cinema Street, the Roni offers
a choice of Western or traditional rooms, the latter of which come with Korean yo (floor beds). Whichever you plump for, the bedrooms are enormous, with floors almost as shiny as that of the bowling alley you’ll find on the hotel’s first floor. Doubles from £70. 74-50 Jeonjugaeksa 4-gil, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 281 1000, jjgung.co.kr
Yangsajae Korean visitors tend to stay at guesthouses, which offer traditional hospitality in the heart of Hanok Village. Tucked on its eastern edge, the 150-year-old Yangsajae is a former annexe of the local Confucian school and, while low on frills, is rich in authenticity. Rooms from £36. 40 Omokdae-gil, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 282 4959, ysj4949.modoo.at
Jeonju is the capital of South Korea’s southwestern Jeolla Province. Flights from the UK to Seoul take around 11 hours, and Jeonju is a two-hour train ride away from there. Time is 9 hours ahead of GMT. Currency is the South Korean won (KRW). In May the average high temperature is 24C and the average low temperature is 12C.
Korea Tourism Organisation is the official tourist board and its website is packed with information and suggested itineraries to help you plan and get the most out of your trip. gokorea.co.uk
No Flower Blooms Without Wavering by Do Jong-Hwan (Seoul Selection, £20.50) is an English rendition of an award-winning collection of poems by one of South Korea’s most beloved poets. Renowned for its glorious cadences and enduring images, Jong-Hwan was inspired by the beauty found in his natural surroundings.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Jeonju, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 2.4 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £18.23.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for a meal without drinks, unless otherwise stated
Damun Specialises in hanjeongsik – a few meat and fish centrepieces
surrounded by enough sides to make you question if the table will hold.
Don’t miss the sublime tteokgalbi, a short rib patty grilled in citrus and
sesame oil. From £15. 82 Gyo-dong, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 288 8607
Gil Sonne In the Seventies and Eighties, when South Korea was ruled by
a succession of military dictators, the streets outside Chonbuk National
University thronged with student protestors. After demonstrations they’d
decamp here, to wash away the tear gas and refuel on makgeolli and
dak-bokkeum-tang, a stew of gooey chicken, potatoes and gochujang.
The area’s more peaceful now, but the spicy broth is still worth rioting for.
From £10. 231 Gwansamdeuk-ro, Deokjin-gu, 00 82 63 271 6453
Hanguk-jip Since 1952, this family-run restaurant has made Jeonju’s – and arguably the world’s – best bibimbap. A dish so deceptively simple lives and dies by its ingredients, and the ones they use here are extraordinary, including a six-month fermented gochujang, locally grown wild greens and pine nuts, bellflower root, and the restaurant’s signature hwangpo-muk (jellied mung beans doused in soy sauce and gardenia seeds). From £7. 119 Eojin-gil, Wansan-gul, 00 82 63 284 2224
Jeonil Gabo If you can’t find it by the sign, keep an eye out – and a
nose – for a tiny woman grilling salted pollack on an ancient, wood-fired
grill. Inside, you’ll find her gamaek (literally ‘corner store beer’), where you
can wash your fish down with chilled lager, which you grab as needed
from the fridge. Keep the bottle caps handy and pay at the end. From £3.
16 Hyeonmu 2-gil, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 284 0793
Jeonju Waengi Jib Makgeolli hangovers are notorious. Fortunately, the cure is delicious – kongnamul gukbap, a soup made from soybean
sprouts. This poky canteen serves its version with a raw egg: when you’ve
nearly finished, spoon in some broth, swirl to mix, then slurp it down.
From £4. 88 Dongmun-gil, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 287 6979
Veteran Kalguksu There’s only ever been three things on the menu
here: kalguksu, a hearty noodle broth, jjolmyeon, in which you mix up
cold noodles with shredded veg and gochujang, and mandu, pork and
leek dumplings with homemade hot sauce. Expect to queue on weekends.
From £4. 135 Gyeonggijeon-gil, Wansan-gu, 00 82 63 285 9898
Yetchon Makgeolli You order makgeolli rice wine by the copper kettle here, and get a meal for free. Fluffy kimchi pancakes are accompanied by duck served pink on enoki mushrooms, fermented crab meat and kimchi aged for eight months in a secret seafood sauce. Makgeolli kettle from £15pp. 843-16 Seosin-dong, Wansan-gu, 00 82 063 272 9992
- A collection of small sharing dishes at the heart of Korean tradition
- The nation’s signature dish. While highly regional, Jeonju’s version is the most representative: rice packed with mixed vegetables, beef and egg
- Savoury pancake often filled with kimchi
- A very popular Korean barbecue dish, in which thin slices of beef are marinated in a sweet and savoury sauce made from soy sauce, sugar and Korean pear juice
- A rich stew of chicken, potatoes and gochujang
- Sweet red bean porridge
- Fermented soybean paste with a deep flavour that lendsitself to barbecued dishes and stews
- Shorthand for ‘corner store beer’, these spots were made famous in Jeonju. Pull up a chair outside the convenience store, order a cheap beer and get some tasty nibbles on the side
- Savoury, spicy fermented condiment made from chili. The addition of glutinous rice in its production lends a sweetness to the kick
- A type of battered croquette. The most popular varieties are stuffed with pork or kimchi, and some come with leftover bibimbap
- Fermented skate
- ‘Chewy noodles’ with shredded vegetables and gochujang
- Salted, fermented cabbage in chilli paste found in many variations
- Cold noodles in a refreshing soy-milk broth that is traditionally eaten during the hot summer months
- Kongnamul gukbap
- Soybean sprout soup with rice: ideal for combatting a hangover after a night on the makgeolli
- Local rice wine with a slight effervescence, it’s served in copper kettles alongside food. Pine wine and moju (a soft and mild version of makgeolli with a hit of cinnamon and ginger, often considered medicinal) are other popular local drinks
- Traditional dumplings (steamed, boiled, pan-fried or deep-fried)
- Octopus skewers, a street-food favourite
- Translates as ‘three tastes’ in tribute to the number of ingredients: grilled pork belly, kimchi and hongeo-hoe
- Stir-fried rice cakes. Chewy and slightly spiced with gochujang, they’re often served with boiled egg, cheese or spring onions
- Marinated beef-rib meatballs served grilled or barbecued
- Rice-cake soup
- Yache Twigim
- Tempura-fried vegetables served by vendors as a snack
- Korean fried chicken (KFC), double-fried until crispy, then tossed in a sticky, sweet and spicy sauce
Food and Travel Review
The soy sauce eaten daily by the residents of Jeonju bears little resemblance to the contents of the bottle you have in your cupboard. To create soy sauce this good – with a depth and complexity to rival that of red wine – requires patience. And even more than the bounty of vegetables and rice that surrounds it, patience is a resource in which this particular South Korean city is extremely rich. Just ask the large glass snail, which sits outside the mayor’s office in recognition of Jeonju’s status as a ‘slow city’, where craft is proudly honoured and tradition is protected. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in its cuisine, which, not coincidentally, is heralded as the finest on the peninsula. So much so, in fact, that in 2012, Unesco certified it as the world’s fourth City of Gastronomy.
Nestled where the mountains meet the plains in the peninsula’s south-west, Jeonju’s signature foods all share one key ingredient: time. That soy sauce, tar-like both in its viscosity and its propensity to linger in your mouth, encapsulates the mentality of a city in which
most of the best restaurants have made the same handful of dishes for decades. There is a practised perfection to the cooking here.
The food in Jeonju is life-changing, and not always in a good way, as the locals will warn you: after you’ve eaten Korean food here you won’t be able to enjoy it anywhere else. Taste the gochujang (a tangy fermented chilli paste) or one of the unending varieties of kimchi (Korea’s signature fermented spiced cabbage) and every other version will have the unmistakable tang of disappointment.
Quite what gives the city its culinary mystique is much debated, but you can find some clues at Ham’s Table, run by Jeonghee Ham, on the edge of the city’s historic Hanok Village (a cluster of traditional houses). Originally an importer of Korea’s foundational ingredient, the soybean, she quit the game two decades ago after learning that around 90 per cent of the beans are genetically modified. Instead, she dove deep into organic, becoming a lodestar for the unadulterated food movement in South Korea.
Arrayed buffet-like in seemingly endless clay bowls and huge, bubbling tureens, Ham’s food is about as comprehensive an argument as you can get that great ingredients don’t need any messing about with. ‘GMO food is worse than nuclear power,’ she says. ‘Instead I work with local farmers, and pay them the right price, to make sure that I get the highest quality produce.’
Taste her kongguksu, a dish of cold noodles in a soybean milk broth, and you’ll find it hard to argue. Simultaneously sweet and earthy, it’s strangely refreshing, like an iced latte on a midsummer’s day. Dig into the array of fermented bites, particularly the kimchi – here available in four varieties: the watery nabak-kimchi, barely fermented yeolmu-kimchi, raw saeng-kimchi and three-year-old, lip-puckering mugeunji – or that astonishing soy sauce, and you’ll find yourself wanting to sign up for an anti-Monsanto march.
The secret to great soy sauce – great fermented anything – is air. Which is why, throughout Jeonju, you’ll spot huge jars full of various soybean-related goodness, including doenjang (the funky goo left over when the soy sauce is drained, which is used as an all-purpose flavour enhancer in everything from barbecue to stews). These jars are made from onggi, an unglazed Korean pottery riddled with microscopic holes that let air in and carbon dioxide out. This ancient technology, coupled with the abundance of soybeans and a climate perfect for microbes to do their delicious thing, has made fermentation the core of Korean cuisine for at least 2,000 years. A trend this is not.
This is most apparent in the tradition of banchan. Korean meals are all about sharing, which means everything comes out of the kitchen as soon as it’s ready and there’s no grumbling about whose chopsticks end up in which bowl. Depending on how formal things are, this tends to mean rice, a soup (beansprout is the speciality), and then a main, perhaps barbecued pork or a chicken stew, surrounded by various smaller dishes under the banchan banner, where fermentation plays a starring role.
The Jeolla Province, of which Jeonju is the capital, is famous for its expansive approach to banchan. For a crash course, nowhere beats Damun, which specialises in hanjeongsik, a more-is-more banquet originally served in royal palaces. Its owner, So Chunsoo, has spent 27 years creating a version that encapsulates everything that makes Jeonju’s food so good. ‘Different regions have different versions, but Jeolla hanjeongsik is special,’ he says. ‘There’s lots of raw produce from the local fields and we ferment everything – fish, vegetables, everything.’ Most distinctive is the supposedly celebratory dish of hongeo-hoe, or fermented skate. When live, the fish expels uric acid through its skin, which, once dead, preserves it (handy in the days before refrigeration). It also gives it a distinctive whiff of ammonia. After 15 days, the smell can be nauseating to Western noses. Add kimchi and grilled pork belly and it becomes the rather more palatable samhap (Korean for ‘one, two, three’, in tribute to the number of ingredients).
Layer the ingredients on top of each other, and don’t skimp on ‘two’ and ‘three’. They offer a delectable blend of fatty meat and sour cabbage that dulls the skate’s ammonia-heavy scent, which will otherwise thud into your nostrils and spark streams of tears, much to your host’s amusement. I can’t claim it’s an acquired taste, but the relish with which our host demolished his serving, and then mine, certainly offers a case for it.
The samhap, like almost everything on the table, is sourced at Nambu Market, a warren of food stalls, restaurants and kitchenware, tucked on the edge of Hanok Village. If it’s edible, you’ll find it somewhere among the 800 shops and stalls, from local delicacies like beondegi (silkworm pupae, originally eaten out of necessity during the Korean War but now considered a sweet, nutty delicacy) to danpatjuk, a red bean porridge that supposedly wards off demons, and certainly does the job on hunger.
The sheer variety at Nambu highlights Jeonju’s luck of geography. It’s blessed with fertile mountains to the east, which abound in cultivated vegetables and wild greens, and the historic rice fields of the Honam Plain to the west. After some 30km you reach the Yellow Sea, which gives its cuisine a decidedly piscine bent. Its kimchi is distinguished by glugs of fish sauce, imbuing it with a pungent aroma and a tang that lingers long after you’ve left the table, while Jeonju’s banchan benefits from the inclusion of fermented anchovies, freshwater crabs fried whole in gochujang, and gim (seaweed), which can be served pickled or sometimes sprinkled onto bibimbap for a smack of umami.
Ah yes, bibimbap. If Korea’s signature dish wasn’t invented in Jeonju – the dish’s age has made its history hazy – then it was arguably perfected here. On the face of it, that seems a tough ask; bibimbap is so simple that, to an outsider, it’s hard to see where you could possibly innovate. There’s a dolsot – a stone bowl – heated on a stove. You add rice, (which sizzles in a way that kick-starts your salivary glands), then a rainbow of vegetables, from wild bracken fern and ginkgo nuts to fried mushrooms and carrot, which circle a raw egg and, sometimes, raw beef. Douse with as much gochujang as you can stand, then mix it all up with chopsticks, so the bowl cooks everything through.
What such simplicity actually means is you can’t hide behind technique. If the ingredients aren’t perfect, the dish falls over (having now sampled the original, the versions back home taste about as authentic as supermarket sushi). Jeonju’s bibimbap boasts up to 30 ingredients, including mung bean jelly, five-year-old soy sauce, and rice cooked in beef broth. It also uses brass bowls, handmade according to a millennia-old technique by master craftsman Jongdeok Lee, which creates a crispy layer where the rice meets hot metal. Most importantly, there’s that fertile soil surrounding Jeonju, growing produce of astonishing flavour and freshness.
Provenance is not just a passing trend in Korea. Food and medicine have always been intertwined here: Koreans believe that the second only becomes necessary when the first fails. That’s why culinary interventions tended to emphasise the character of the raw ingredients. Frying, especially, was rare before the Western diet arrived. Today, not so much.
Wander through Hanok Village and you’ll be surrounded by people nibbling something greasy. There’s fried squid on sticks, goroke (battered croquettes), cones of KFC (the ‘K’ doesn’t stand for Kentucky in these parts) slathered in fiery sauce, which the Koreans know as yangnyeom-chikin. The village itself, which consists of over 800 authentic hanok houses with tiled roofs and wooden beams, is among the country’s most visited attractions. But its popularity has inspired a proliferation of these snack joints, as well as tat shops and places to hire motorised scooters and historic outfits, called hanbok. They’re especially popular with teenagers, which creates the strange disjunction of seeing hordes of kids in traditional dress bombing around on Segways.
But then, Korea is a nation of contrasts, in which history and modernity seem to be in constant tension. Hanok Village itself is ringed by concrete buildings and it seems that every hanok not selling something delicious is full of souvenirs, from snow globes to phone cases. It’s easy to forget that, for almost all of the 20th century, the country was either under occupation by the Japanese, at war with the north, or ruled by a military dictatorship. South Korea didn’t have its first free election until 1987 and its astonishing growth came at the expense of social and political freedom.
Perhaps that’s why the best places to eat feel like they’re entirely out of time. Gyodong Dawon, a teahouse in a low-slung wooden building tucked down a narrow alleyway, was the first business to open in Hanok Village. It specialises in hwangcha, a yellow tea that’s, of course, fermented. Its master, Gi Jung Hwang, studied tea in the Himalayas for more than 40 years before settling in Jeonju. ‘It was the first hanok with a sign,’ he says. ‘The rest of the village grew up around us.’
He also planted the first tea plantation in Jeolla, in the mountains surrounding his house and his dedicated tea study building, through which his cats prowl around hunting dragonflies with the patience that Jeonju is renowned for. ‘Korea is losing its tea culture,’ he says, gesturing towards a bush of deep green leaves on which white and yellow flowers bloom. ‘I want to preserve it and spread its value and importance.’ He boils water pulled from the stream that runs between the two buildings and the tea, steeped for barely a minute before being poured into tiny cups, is light and floral, with none of the bitterness of its green cousin.
He’s right, though. Korea is falling out of love with tea. Coffee is a national obsession – the country has the world’s fourth highest per- capita density of Starbucks – although the transition from convenience to quality is still fairly recent. As with everything in South Korea, though, the change is happening swiftly. On Coffee Street, part of a youth-oriented enclave of bars, fashion stores and, of course, coffee, the gourmet java revolution is evident in a glut of shops modelled on Western coffee houses – think wooden counters, terrazzo tiles, bare bulbs and latte art. Bar the fact they like their roast a touch darker, it’s not a localised spin – menus are big on flat whites and pour-overs. What’s more unique is the array of sweet stuff on offer. Korean meals don’t tend to include dessert, so in the evening couples will decamp here for a postprandial something sweet – think green tea ice cream or rice cakes – before heading home.
For those who prefer to end the day on something stronger, this is also the part of town where you’ll find beers beyond the ubiquitous Hite, a lager that lacks even the complexity of Budweiser, on which it was modelled. For something you can actually taste, an array of Korean breweries – including the innovative Magpie, based on the island of Jeju, and Seoul’s Satellite – showcase the skill already present in the country’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
The more traditional way to get buzzed, however, is on makgeolli. Korea’s national drink is an unfiltered, unpasteurised rice wine, about half the strength of saké and with a slight effervescence – the result of its in-bottle fermentation. It’s a drink designed for sharing, not least because it’s generally served with food, particularly the popular fluffy kimchi pancakes known as buchimgae.
On rainy days, tradition dictates that the locals stay inside and drink makgeolli while watching the weather. ‘People who run the bars pray for rain,’ says Choi Indeok, owner of Yetchon Makgeolli, a restaurant that inverts the idea the drink should be the centrepiece. Its popularity seems utterly unrelated to anything meteorological, however, which is unsurprising considering what’s on offer. This is a place for groups, and each time you order a copper kettle of makgeolli, it’s accompanied by an array of ostensibly free food, starting with kimchi and braised pork belly and, as you accrue more kettles, chicken stews (such as dak-bokkeum-tang), ark clams smeared with wasabi and gochujang, and pig knuckles, boiled in soy sauce then sliced. Order enough makgeolli and eventually you’ll be brought that fermented skate. It’s only a matter of time, after all.
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