I’d heard of a Korean city that is famous for its food. I didn’t think much of it. Pretty much every city, suburb and street in Korea is “famous” (usually for something food-related). After settling into my new home in the Korean countryside it was a while before I learned that this particular city, Jeonju, is only 20 minutes away… and as it happens, Jeonju actually is famous.
High on the list of Korea’s most popular domestic tourist destinations, visitors flock to one of the best-maintained traditional hanok villages, many to rent traditional hanbok clothing and take a few thousand photos of themselves.
I also hadn’t known that Jeonju is famous for its food, having been designated UNESCO‘s fourth global City of Gastronomy, in 2012. Adjacent to some of Korea’s best farmland Jeonju prides itself on sourcing the finest produce, and its claim as the birthplace of modern bibimbap, a much-loved national comfort food.
I’m no die-hard foodie, but authenticity is always a treat (the one possible exception being Chinese; actual Chinese food in China is a lottery at best). By these standards though, it’s fair to argue that Jeonju is home to the world’s best Korean food… and Korean food is awesome. Luckily and old mate of mine knows the place well, and happened to be in town for a few days. So, off we went.
…and I’ve been going back ever since, just to wander around with friends, and eat.
There are other places to grab a bite in Korea though of course… a scarcely believable 644,000 restaurants licensed to serve alcohol, nationwide. That’s a licensed restaurant for every 77 people. The 83,000 restaurants within Seoul proper equate to 137/km² (355 licensed restaurants per square mile).
How is this possible?
With a restaurant culture rivaled only by Japan (no other nation comes close), much of this is cultural. Koreans eat communally, and in numbers. Until very recently it was considered somewhat shameful to be seen eating alone. Also, Koreans don’t typically socialise at home. Home is for family. You can have a group of friends for years in Korea, and never learn exactly where they live. Hence the insane number of restaurants… serving, it seems, around the clock. This is a culture of working, eating, drinking and chronic sleep deprivation.
I live in a small provincial university city, which means plenty of good food and drink at student-friendly prices. If we try a different restaurant daily it’ll take a couple of years to work our way through the neighbourhood, by which time half of them will have been replaced by other restaurants.
If I feel like a quick bite, there are options just a minute-walk from my office. My favourite is the pork soup place… not only because it’s tasty, cheap and just outside my door, but as a quick bite (literally), the soup lands on the table, nuclear-hot, two minutes after ordering. This family-operated joint is open 84-hours a week.
It’s great getting out and trying new random places. Most recently a few of us wandered into a barbeque joint after work and ordered the special. It was a decent cut of meat, and well worth the price. What we didn’t realise until attempting to pay the bill, was that the 10,000 won “special” wasn’t actually the price per person… we decided to go back there soon and order some drinks with dinner, because surely that place can’t be clearing a profit otherwise. This dinner cost us each $2.80.
To the uninitiated, Korean meals come with side dishes. Basically, you pay only for the meat (and the first bowl of rice)… everything else is complimentary and all-you-can-eat.
…which brings us to…
The Makgeolli Bar
Makgeolli, generally translated as ‘traditional Korean rice wine’ retains properties more resembling those of beer. It’s still largely considered a drink for the old people. The slightly carbonated drink is sold everywhere, from a dollar, and up, and… anywhere near, or at the top of a mountain. Hiking is a ubiquitous national pastime for the older generations and it is humbling, if not embarrassing, when first learning that many a Korean octogenarian can effortlessly outpace you, and just as easily out-drink you.
The makgeolli bar is something of an anomaly, as they do not serve food… at least, that’s what they’ll tell you.
My mate Jon and I stumbled across a makgeolli bar at the foot of a local hill climb. The owner was quick to say there were no meals available – just the side dishes to go with our drinks (Korean culture dictates that one never drinks without eating, at least just a little). We ordered a kettle of makgeolli…
Our host then proceeded to deliver, bit by bit, the most ludicrous display of “no food” that I’ve witnessed yet. We ordered another kettle.
As far as I understand, the reason these places are so adamant about not serving meals is because, legally speaking, it is apparently easier in Korea to sell alcohol than food. Drinking is a hugely important part of Korean culture, and the statistics on this are, if anything, even more unbelievable than those concerning the nation’s restaurant culture.
And so, we got pleasantly drunk on about five liters of makgeolli, and couldn’t finish our 14 courtesy side dishes. Dinner that evening was cancelled.
The same happened at the local produce market a while back, after an elderly lady welcomed three of us into what was less a bar than a tiny table in the corner of her lounge room (which also serves as most of her other rooms). She happily brought us several bottles, and apologised that there was no food… except for the random, mysterious arrival of pork, kimchi, pajeon (korean pancake), boiled eggs, fresh strawberries… after begging her to stop bringing more of this food she didn’t have, we each paid $3.40… and dinner was cancelled.
Down the street a bit there’s a nice little sushi joint, where we go to get yelled at, in true sushi-joint style.
For a light lunch, the fusion joint across the street is a go-to. You select and pay, Japanese style at a machine by the door, and 150 seconds later…
Sometimes it might just be fried chicken and beer, a combination so ubiquitous that Koreans tend to assume they invented the concept.
…and sometimes it’s just pitchers of beer, that keep coming until food has been forgotten, which isn’t a problem because… street food! A hearty serving of random deep-fried bits is just the thing at 4am, if you’ve still got two bucks and change.
Sometimes it might just be a quick sandwich.
…or our favourite raw beef place, where the 75-year old matriarch sits with us and helps us drink our beers in fine style.
It’s true that I never cook, and partly because I don’t have a kitchen… but in a country where the nearest restaurant is wherever you happen to be standing, and the price of a quick meal is somehow less than the cost of the ingredients in it… there doesn’t seem much point.
*Prices in American dollars were correct at time of writing… exchange rates vary.