Jeonju, South Korea

A day in Jeonju (전주시) — Korea’s culinary heart

In late December 2017, I backpacked around South Korea in the freezing dead of winter. The trip started off with four days in Seoul, where I had an absolutely amazing time. But due to a combination of endless soju shots, greasy Korean barbecue dishes, and (most regrettably) prolonged exposure to the snowy weather, I caught a nasty cold by the end of my stay in the capital. Sneezing, coughing, shivering… I had it all. I was not even halfway into my Korea trip and already as sick as a mutt.

This made Jeonju, my next destination, a tricky one to tackle. Jeonju is famous for its culinary arts! It’s a foodie pilgrimage site! Hell, UNESCO named it a “City of Gastronomy” for its high-quality traditional dishes. As a Korean food lover, it was a must visit. But alas, without functioning tastebuds from my cold, I was going to have trouble making the most of my visit.

I arrived in Jeonju at night, after a three-hour bus ride from Seoul. As with much of South Korea, Jeonju is connected by an affordable and efficient nation-wide bus network. It was certainly a relief to leave the snows of Seoul for a city further south with crisp and clear (albeit still chilly) weather.

Pungnam Gate at night. This is the south gate of the old city wall that used to encircle Jeonju during the Joseon Dynasty.

Jeonju (which means, aspirationally enough, “Perfect Region” in Korean) is a small city in the southeast of South Korea and is the provincial capital of the North Jeolla Province with a population of over 650,000 people. The region is known for its fertile agricultural lands, which is partly the reason why Jeonju has prided itself as having such a rich food culture.

After checking into my hostel, my next mission was simple: eat something. The most obvious dish was, of course, the bibimbap, a famous Korean rice dish consisting of an assortment of meats and vegetables. Jeonju is well-known for its local bibimbap variant, with its rice cooked in beef broth and local bean sprouts as a key ingredient. Jeonju goes as far as to claim that it’s the very birthplace of bibimbap itself (a historically dubious claim) and holds an annual Bibimbap Festival every October.

Anyway, I found a well-reviewed local restaurant and ordered my bibimbap. And. It. Was. Amazing. Just look at that wholesome bibimbap topped with a raw egg! And it comes with a beautiful spread of small side dishes (or “banchan”), including kimchi — everyone’s favourite spicy fermented vegetable dish.

I’m hungry just looking at this photo.

Now, I’m certainly no sociologist, but I thought I’d flag this interesting cultural tidbit: due to the country’s collectivist culture, dining alone is seen as a bit of a taboo. Well, “taboo” is probably not the right way to put it. To the best of my outsider’s understanding, eating is a deeply social activity in Korea and would-be solo diners are often afraid of being seen by themselves in public as loners and outcasts. Many restaurants, or so I’ve been told, do not even cater to lone patrons.

This feeling helps explain a quirky Korean internet phenomenon known as “mukbang” where people live-stream themselves “performance eating” often very large and elaborate meals to thousands of viewers. In return for being watched, these webcam food performers receive messages and, most importantly, monetary tips from their viewers. At least part of the appeal of mukbang is that it supposedly taps into that ingrained cultural desire for eating to be a social occasion.

The staff stop working to tune into their favourite Korean drama.

The next day, I explored the main tourist area of Jeonju, which starts from Pungnam Gate and spreads east towards the Jeonju Hanok Village, a very touristy cultural village known for its traditional Korean houses.

One landmark near Pungnam Gate is the Jeondong Catholic Cathedral. While it’s not an exceptional cathedral aesthetically speaking, Jeondong Cathedral is significant for historical and religious reasons. It’s built on the site of where many Korean Christians were executed at the turn of the 19th century for being seen as a threat to the state by the Confucian Joseon Dynasty.

These days, South Korea has no dominant religion, with Catholics, Buddhists, and Protestants making up only a minority of the population. The majority either have no religious affiliation or follow Korean shamanism, a polytheistic and animistic folk religion.

Directly across the road from the cathedral is the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, a well-known historical site originally built in 1410. The shrine holds the portrait of King Taejo, the founder and first ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, as well as the mortuary tablets of him and his wife. While he didn’t reign for long (only six years), he kicked off a dynastic kingdom that lasted approximately five centuries, from 1392 till 1897. Not a bad run, I reckon.

Overall, I found the shrine to be a flat, prosaic place, especially in the middle of winter with the bare trees and the bleak grounds. On the plus side, the shrine seemed to be visited entirely by domestic Korean tourists, which made for a nice change from the more globally popular sites in Seoul.

Afterwards, I made my way to the Jeonju Hanok Village, which has over 800 traditional Korean houses. I’m quite a fan of hanoks — I find them elegant and understated, with their low-lying profile and curving tiles roofs. While I think I preferred the Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul (it was a graceful contrast from the frenetic, cosmopolitan pace of the rest of the city), the one in Jeonju makes for a pleasant visit. There are a large number of restaurants, guesthouses, workshops, gift shops, and teahouses to explore in this village.

On a hill overlooking the hanoks is an even quirkier place — the Jeonju Jaman Village. Once a poor hillside shantytown, it has since become the canvas of local artists who have filled it with colourful, eccentric, child-like street murals. It’s bright, wacky, and completely apart from the traditional, old-world aesthetics that Jeonju is more famous for.

But sadly, my health wasn’t up for anymore exploring. I retreated back to my hostel for the rest of the day and sat in my dorm room tucked in a blanket and enjoying the heated floors. Yes, that’s right — Korea has an ingenious underfloor heating system known as “Ondol” that is ubiquitous across the country. Traditionally, wood smoke was used to heat up stones underneath wooden floorboards, while these days hot water pipes are used to keep houses nice and toasty.

To make things (slightly) better, I had bought a box of choco-pies on the way back. While they were originally an American invention, they are very popular across East Asia and Jeonju is known for its handmade choco-pies. As it turns out, when you’re disgustingly sick, there’s nothing better than scarfing down these sickly snack cakes in your hostel.

The following day (after a long, sniffly sleep-in), I sought out another Jeonju specialty: Kongnamul Gukbap, a soybean sprout soup with rice that is used as a traditional Korean breakfast hangover remedy. And while I definitely did not have a hangover, my thinking was that it would hopefully help with my similar unpleasant ailments. While I can’t attest to its medicinal properties, it was a wonderfully hot and hearty breakfast to have on a cold morning.

I’d also like to make a shoutout to another Korean product that helped me with my illness recovery called Pan Cold A. It is a fairly cheap, over-the-counter medicine that consists of three little bottles of mysterious (non-English labelled) liquids per box and seems to be available in most 24-hour convenience stores in the country.

A quick Google revealed that Pan Cold A is made from a kitchen sink of ingredients, including a painkiller, a nasal decongestant, caffeine, an expectorant, and a cough suppressant. That’s right — an expectorant and a suppressant. Don’t know whether to cough up phlegm or stop the cough? Why not just embrace the contradiction and take both at the same time?

South Korea, like many East Asian countries, has a notorious workaholic culture where workers feel discouraged from taking sick leave. Hence, the market has stepped in and produced cheap, quick-fire medical elixirs like Pan Cold A in every corner store. That’s my theory, at least. Point is, after downing a whole pack of Pan Cold A each day for three days straight, I was definitely feeling like I was on the mend.

It’s frustrating to be sick while on your holiday travels. Believe me, it’s happened to me many times. And while I don’t have much in the way of good general advice, I can certainly say that what I did in Jeonju didn’t hurt. You simply have to keep your chin up, take it slow, eat very well, and drink untranslated Korean medicines.

Next stop: Gyeongju.

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