“One Bowl of Wonders Mixed Altogether”
If you only have time to eat one meal, you should definitely choose Bibimbap.
Steamed white rice, sautéed green and many other colorful vegetables, black mushroom, red chili sauce, and yellow egg on top. The five different color toppings on the rice capture eyes and stimulate appetite. It is like full spring blossoms are gently placed inside golden brassware. Even though neatly arranged toppings seem to make a perfect look of the dish, the highlight of Bibimbap is when all the ingredients are fully mixed together.
Jenonju Bibimbap, famous throughout the nation, is said to be based on a royal court dish of the Joseon Dynasty. An elaborate version requires approximately thirty different ingredients and is topped with hwangpomuk (mung bean starch jellies tinted with yellow gardenia juice). And Jeonju Bibimbap traditionally has yukhoe (raw beef) as one of the mixing ingredients. However, those who are not accustomed to eating uncooked beef can have it replaced by regular cooked beef.
You could feel guilty about “mixing” everything. You might feel like you are somewhat ruining a beautiful flower garden with a shovel. Be tough, and mix everything inside the bowl. At this moment, you don’t have to worry about messing up. The more you mix, the better taste you can enjoy. The name, Bibimbap, literally means “mixed rice.” With a spoonful scoop to your mouth, you can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy all together gently harmonized. Yes, Bibimbap means ‘Harmony.’
The meaning of Bibimbap can be best understood from the historic event held in 2007, when Inter-Korean Summit was held in Pyongyang. The South Korean government hosted a dinner and Jeonju Bibimbap was offered for the special event. Bibimbap, a dish that all kinds of ingredient mix together in a bowl, represented their wish for harmony between North and South Korea, which have been in confrontation for more than 60 years.
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[photo credit: Jeonju city]
Also, having Bibimbap with someone conveys trust and faith in the other person as they share the same tastes. At big festivals in Korea, a Bibimbap ceremony often follows the closing of the events. In a gigantic bowl that could feed hundreds of people, rice and various toppings are mixed together with big spoons. This symbolizes the act of bringing people from various backgrounds into harmony, and the food feeds hundreds of people who are willing to share well-balanced tastes with others.
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[photo credit: Korea Tourism Organization]
As a child, I had a small appetite, so finishing my food took me more time than it did to the rest of my family. I remember that I had to finish my food one mouthful at a time, and my mother would look at me waiting for me to swallow while holding the spoon full of more unwelcome food. Whenever she was tired of waiting, Bibimbap was a hidden card that would never lose. She brought a big bowl and put in left-over rice and other banchan (small vegetables side dishes to accompany the main course). With a scoop of sesame oil and gochujang (red chili sauce), I felt as if I met a savior that could save me from never-ending dinner time. The foods on the table were too boring to me, but when they met together, they became a totally new world.
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A few years ago, Kuroda Kazuhiro, the Seoul bureau chief of the Japanese daily Sankei, criticized Bibimbap saying “mixing actually ruins the aesthetic view of the food.” This comment touched off a rage in Korea. Does mixing really ruin everything? Exploring various foods from different countries, I have learned that mixing is very important to enjoy a dish well. Think about Mexican guacamole. When avocado, sliced tomato, onion, cilantro, and drops of lemon are mixed well together, all those ingredients turn into a totally new taste. Mixing is one of cooking methods that transforms ingredients into a different genre. That is why I am always curious and thrilled about Bibimbap. Inside the bowl of wonder, you will never know how it will turn out after you mix.
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Do you know how to tell Jeonju locals apart? You should watch how they mix Bibimbap! Jeonju locals never mix Bibimbap with spoons. Remember that you have to mix it with chopsticks. This way you will not squash vegetables and can enjoy the crunchy texture.
If you are having a hard time mixing it well, don’t hesitate to ask for help. A server will help you with very skillful techniques. Trust me. Mixing requires a good technique.
Hangookjip (한국집): Rice is cooked in beef bone broth and has great glutinous texture.
(Opening: 09:00, Closing: 21:00, Tel: 063-284-2224, Address: 119, Euojin-gil, Wansan-gu, Jeonju, Price: 13,000 won)