Colorful and Happy: A Look into the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival

By Tran Trieu

Have you ever heard about the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival? As the name suggests, this is a festival honoring one of Korea's signature dishes: Bibimbap (비빔밥)! Jeonju (전주) is said to be bibimbap's home, but not all bibimbap is the same. Depending on the region, or even seasonal ingredients, bibimbap varies from place to place. The festival offers visitors a great opportunity to learn about this dish and discover more of Jeonju's food culture.

What is bibimbap, you ask? Literally translated, bibimbap means "mixed rice." It refers to a rice dish mixed with meat, seafood or egg, and vegetables. It's served with a bibimbap sauce (gochujang based!) that can be added according to preference. Typical toppings include different types of nuts, spinach, carrots, mushrooms, seaweed, and bracken. It sounds like a simple dish, but a lot of thought goes into preparing and arranging it. A bowl of bibimbap should contain the five cardinal colors (called Obangsaek (오방색), meaning five-orientation-color) and combine five flavors in a harmonious way. The colors include green, red, yellow, white, and black; while the five flavors are sweet, salty, savory, spicy, and astringent. 

(Astringent is a taste that makes your mouth feel kind of numb and fuzzy. It's the type of feeling you'd get when eating unripened berries, but don't worry, the astringent foods that are used for bibimbap don't have such a strong effect!)

Jeonju bibimbap is considered one of the best foods in Korea, and also one of the best variety of bibimbap there is. What makes the Jeonju version so unique? 

Let’s start with the rice that is not cooked with plain water, but beef (bone) broth to give it a light, savory flavor. This also prevents the rice from sticking to each other too much. Many toppings can go into bibimbap⁠, and Jeonju's version has bean sprouts in it, but the bean sprouts themselves are special as well. They add a layer of crunch to the whole dish despite being cooked, and that is what makes them so unique! This variety is one that is grown in Imsil and used explicitly for Jeonju bibimbap. When bibimbap is served in Jeonju, you usually also receive a side of kongnamulguk (콩나물국, bean sprout soup). Even the bean sprouts in the soup are crispy!

Other toppings include:

  • Hwangpomuk (황포묵), which is a jelly made from mung beans. The jelly gets its yellow color from being dyed with the fruits of gardenia plants. It is usually mixed with soy sauce and vinegar as it doesn't have much flavor on its own.
  • Yukhoe (육회) is a Korean raw beef tartare that consists of thin slices of tender beef and seasoned according to preference.
  • Usually, a fried is added on top of the dish, but Jeonju's version adds a single raw egg yolk instead. A fried egg is often still added to the meal in the form of an omelet that has been cut up into thin strips.

Jeonju itself is a city that has a long, long history. It used to be the capital of the Hubaekje Kingdom (now the North Jeolla Province) which was founded back in 900! Today, Jeonju is most famous for its rich food culture and its hanok village in which there are nearly 800 well-preserved hanok buildings. Some of the hanok houses are reserved for tourists who are interested in experiencing the traditional Korean life and enjoy traditional foods.

Back in 2010 and 2012, Jeonju was recognized as a "Slow City" by Cittaslow and a Creative City of Gastronomy by the UNESCO. You might ask yourself, what does this mean? Jeonju has shown high engagement in teaching and promoting its "culinary heritage" through local gastronomy and also food festivals, and culture by passing on its traditions and the maintenance of the hanok village as it holds great historical significance. For that effort, it has been awarded, resulting in a steady increase in visitors who want to learn more about the city and its traditions. 

The festival takes place from October 9-12, 2019 at Jeonju's hanok village. One of the main attractions and highlights at the festival is the mixing of a huge (and we mean, HUGE) bibimbap that has about 1000 servings that are then distributed among the visitors. You'd rather cook bibimbap yourself than watching people mix it? There is also a bibimbap cooking competition in which teams compete against each other to see who has created the most delicious, creative, and unique version of bibimbap! The winner and runner-ups can win gift vouchers for the festival.

For those who are in it for all the delicious foods offered and want to eat until they drop dead, don't forget to check out the multicultural food zone! Many different nations will sell and present their signature foods and beverages. This year's participants include Germany, Russia, Nepal, and the USA. If you're more interested in Jeonju's signature dishes, the Jeonju Street of Taste will be your best bet! Jeonju bibimbap, makgeolli (Korean rice wine), and omogaritang (spicy fish stew) are some of the dishes that will be sold. Prefer little snacks for in between? Visit the Taste Handmade Flea Market! From sweet to savory snacks, this market offers everything your heart could desire. Some of the snacks you'll find there include tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes), sikhye (Korean sweet rice drink), and homemade jellies.

The festival isn't short of performances either! At the beginning and at the end of the festival, there will be a hanok village parade with a few bands.  And throughout all days of the festival, there will be street performances that you can enjoy while having a little break!

Have you ever tried bibimbap or attended the Jeonju Bibimbap Festival? Let us know!

If you're a big fan of festivals, you might be interested in these:

Written by Tran Trieu

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