Bountiful as a Bibimbap
A spoonful of bibimbap can transport you to Korea, the rich and distinctive taste encapsulating the Asian country. The iconic mixed-rice dish has become of one of the most recognizable and popular foods around the world. Its fame is further bolstered as Korean culture, including its culinary heritage, and enthrals many parts of the world. This is true in the Philippines, which is smitten by hallyu or Korean wave and consequently by its cuisine, evidenced by the growing number of Korean restaurants especially in urban centers.
Although the samgyeopsal or Korean barbecue is most popular, there a number that offers bibimbap, adapted to the local taste and uses ingredients that are more convenient to procure. I think that is partly the philosophy behind and the nature of the bibimbap—its adaptability to different situations and places. Thus, there are numerous versions in Korea itself.
In mid-October of 2019, I found myself in South Korea, breathing in the bracingly nippy air of the autumn season, particularly in a city widely considered as the birthplace of bibimbap, Jeonju. While attending the World Forum for Intangible Cultural Heritage and the Festival of Korean Intangible Cultural Heritage at the impressive National Intangible Heritage Center, I could espy the colorful buntings, lanterns and tents of the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival, which was held from October 9 to 12, 2019, and whose the main area of celebration was just near the cultural complex, across the Jeonju River and at the edge of the Hanok Village, around Hyanggyo.
Jeonju City, in the province of North Jeolla in the western part of the Korean Peninsula, about 190 kilometers south of the Korean capital city of Seoul, is a charming city steeped in history and heritage. It attracts about 10 million tourists a year, said its mayor Seung-Su Kim. Aside from the Hanok Village, a lovely cluster of houses of traditional Korean architecture, Jeonju is known for its traditional cuisine, especially the makgeolli, a traditional unfiltered rice wine, and the bibimbap. Its rich and vibrant culinary culture has earned for itself the designation of Creative City for Gastronomy from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in May 2012, part of the international organization’s Creative Cities Network.
One of the favored dishes of the Joseon Dynasty, the bibimbap is a bowl of rice topped with different vegetables, meat (usually beef), chilli paste and an egg, and then mixed together. The variety unique to Jeonju is the kongnamul-bibimbap (rice with soybean sprouts), known for having 30 ingredients including ginkgo nut, pine nut, chestnut, walnut, jeopjang or fermented soy sauce, and a local delicacy, the hwangpomook or mung bean sprout jelly. The ingredients were selected according to the five elements, five directions and five colors, and the dish is said to be a harmony of the five flavors.
You can get to know more about and savor bibimbap at the festival, which started in 2007 as Centuries’ Festival of Flavors in Jeonju that became the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival in 2010. Now, it is deliciously laden with features, events and experiential and immersive activities such as performances, games and contests, exhibits, talks and demos, and booths offering food and crafts. A highlight is the mixing together of a humongous bowl of bibimbap, which can feed hundreds people.
I dropped by in time for and was able to take part in the ceremonial big bibimbap mixing led by city officials and special guests. The ingredients were carefully arranged in a big octagonal bowl, their colors bright under the afternoon sun. With wooden paddles, we mixed together the ingredients into a tasty red mush, which were then served to all attendees.
On the first day of the festival, local chefs and cooks from all the 35 districts of Jeonju gathered on Jeonjucheonseo-ro to prepare their own versions of the bibimbap. Each district is said to have its own version. The 3355 Our Village Bibimbap presented different kinds of bibimbaps for everyone to taste.
Stories on the origins of bibimbap were presented at the “Bibim Legend” at the Hyanggyo Cultural Center, which presented three theories. One tells that the bibimbap came about because of a busy farming season, during which farmers had no time to prepare lunch, including the side dishes. Thus, they put the side dishes together on top of rice inside their lunch boxes. The second theory says that the bibimbap came about during the Donghak Peasant Revolution (1894 to 1895), while the third says that it was part of the royal lunch.
At the Jeonju Food Master and Reputable Family Special Exhibition at the Jeonju Korean Traditional Culture Center, visitors had the chance to meet the city’s culinary masters and families, which included the Yangmi family and Park Byung-hak, known for their Jeonju bibimbap; Yu Soon-deok for pan-fried zucchini; Kim Myung-ok for daikon kimchi; An Myung-ja for lettuce kimchi; Yu In-ja for duteop rice cake; and Yu Hong-rim and Shin Bok-ja for sweet rice puff.
Exhibitions, competitions and demonstrations abound such as exhibits on Jeonju tableware and delicacies; traditional food demonstrations by chefs from the other UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy including San Antonio, United States; Shunde, China; Ensenada, Mexico; and Ostersund, Sweden; recreations of Jeolla Provincial Office governor’s meal, said to be the root of today’s Jeonju cuisine, and meals described in a diary written by a foreigner who visited Jeolla; bakery exhibition contest; food styling photo exhibition contest; rice cake, Korean Hangwa and wedding food exhibition; traditional liquor and tea exhibition contest; Korean food with more than five side dishes exhibition contest. One could also witness the making of local rice cakes, breads, wines and tea and taste them.
The Hanok Village Parade featured participants in traditional hanbok and in bibimbap costumes, and bands Chwita, Nanta Team and Pungmul. Busking performances of contemporary and traditional musicians and singers as well as magicians were scattered throughout the venue. There were also the Bibimbap Flash Mob and a bibimbap ingredient costume play and shows by a Korean gypsy troupe and a puppet mask troupe. Under the Omok Bridge, the Find Bibimbap game was held, consisting of a series of folk games. A contestant had to complete the ingredients of the bibimbap.
Hungry attendees went straight to the food booths. The Jeonju Gourmet Street by the river featured booths by the city’s best restaurants and dishes including the Jeonju bibimbap from Gapgi Hall; omogari-tang from Namyang House, Hwasun House and Hanbyuk House; ujoktang from Kimpansoi Jeonju Ujoktang; gamac from Gyeongwon Sanghoe; makgeolli from Yechon Makgeolli; a Korean buffet from Hamsi Restaurant; and the Jeonju pizza from Cheating Day.
The food street featured an international zone where booths offered xiao long bao, shrimp dim sums and moon cakes from China; urama from Uzbekistan; rice noodles and coconut coffee from Vietnam; kebab and ice cream from Turkey; dumplings and tea from Nepal; shashlik from Russia; lamb skewers, fried dumplings and beef skewers from Mongolia; home-made sausage from Germany; lumpia and banana cue from the Philippines; okonomiyaki from Japan; and twist potato and New York cheese hotdog from the United States. There was also a market for traditional food, ingredients and crafts.
Jeonju Bibimbap Festival was a filling experience, providing you a glimpse of the richness and the eminence of food, primarily of bibimbap, in Korean culture. My trip was aptly capped by a visit to the fascinating Korean Culinary Culture Exhibition Hall at the third floor of K-Style Hub on Cheonggyecheon-ro in Jung-gu, Seoul, where I got this bibimbap recipe:
- 450g (2 1/2 cups) rice
- 300g young pumpkin
- 200g bellflower root
- 120g beef (top round)
- 200g soaked bracken
- 2 pcs eggs
- 2 tbsp oil
- fried red pepper paste
For seasoning sauce:
- 18g (1 tbsp) soy sauce
- 6g (1/2 tbsp) sugar
- 9g (2 tsp) minced green onion
- 5.5g (1 tsp) minced garlic
- 0.3g (1/8 tsp) ground black pepper
- 4g (1 tsp) sesame oil
- Wash and soak rice in water for 30 minutes.
- Julienne young pumpkin into 5 to 6-centimeter slices. Julienne bellflower roots into 5 to 6-centimeter slices. Add a pinch of salt and toss with hands. Wash them with water and dry with cloth.
- Clean beef with cotton cloth, wiping out the blood. Cut into 6-centimeter slices. Wash the bracken and cut into 5-centimeter slices. Season beef and bracken with seasoning sauce.
- Panfry egg fro egg garnish. Julienne into 5-centimeter slices.
- Put rice and water in a pot and cook for 4 minutes in high heat. When it boils, wait for 4 more minutes then lower the heat to medium. Cook for 3 more minutes. When rice becomes soft, simmer in low heat for 10 minutes.
- Stir-fry pumpkin in preheated pan on high heat for 30 seconds and let it cool.
- Stir-fry bellflower roots in preheated pan on medium heat for 5 minutes.
- Stir-fry beef and bracken in preheated pan on medium heat for 3 minutes.
- Put minced beef, green onion, garlic and half of the sesame oil in a pot and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add water. Stir-fry for another 3 minutes with fried red pepper paste.
- Serve steamed rice with other ingredients and fried red pepper paste on top.