spoonful of bibimbap can transport you to Korea, the Asian country encapsulated in the rich and distinctive taste of the iconic mixed-rice dish that has become one of the most recognizable and popular foods around the world. Its fame is further bolstered as part of Korean culture, especially its culinary heritage which enthralls people from various 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 are a number that offer bibimbap, adapted to the local taste and using ingredients that are more convenient to procure. This could partly be the philosophy behind the dish. The nature of the bibimbap is its adaptability to different situations and places. Thus, there are numerous versions in Korea itself.
In mid-October of 2019, I found myself in Korea, breathing in the bracing and 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 being held from 9 to 12 October 2019 and where 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 gingko 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. So, they put the side dishes together on top of rice inside their lunch boxes.
The second theory says that the bibimbap originated from 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 the 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;. 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 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 [see boxed item.]
450 grams (2 ½ cups) rice
300 grams young pumpkin
200 grams bellflower root
120 grams beef (top round)
200 grams soaked bracken
2 tablespoons of oil
Fried red pepper paste
For seasoning sauce:
18 grams (1 tablespoon) soy sauce
6 grams (½ tablespoon) sugar
9 grams (2 teaspoons) minced green onion
5. 5 grams (1 teaspoon) minced garlic
0.3 gram (1/8 teaspoon) ground black pepper
4 grams (1 teaspoon) sesame oil
1. Wash and soak rice in water for thirty minutes.
2. Julienne young pumpkin into five to six-centimeter slices. Julienne bellflower roots into five to six-centimeter slices. Add a pinch of salt and toss with hands. Wash them with water and dry with cloth.
3. Clean beef with cotton cloth, wiping out the blood. Cut into six-centimeter slices. Wash the bracken and cut into five-centimeter slices. Season beef and bracken with seasoning sauce.
4. Panfry egg fro egg garnish. Julienne into five-centimeter slices.
1. Put rice and water in a pot and cook for four minutes in high heat. When it boils, wait for four more minutes then lower the heat to medium. Cook for three more minutes. When rice becomes soft, simmer in low heat for ten minutes.
2. Stir-fry pumpkin in preheated pan on high heat for thirty seconds and let it cool.
3. Stir-fry bellflower roots in preheated pan on medium heat for five minutes.
4. Stir-fry beef and bracken in preheated pan on medium heat for three minutes.
5. Put minced beef, green onion, garlic and half of the sesame oil in a pot and stir-fry for five minutes. Add water. Stir-fry for another three minutes with fried red pepper paste.
6. Serve steamed rice with other ingredients and fried red pepper paste on top.