[Jeonju] Gogung Bibimbap (고궁/古宫)

Bibimbap is as quintessentially Korean as say, ramen is Japanese. Or hotpot is Sichuanese. Or nasi padang is Indonesian. I could go on, but you get the picture. Though it originated as an imperial dish back in the Chosun Dynasty, bibimbap as we know it today is food for the masses, readily accessible even to those living a whole continent or two away from Korea.

Mention Jeonju to a Korean and the first thing they’ll tell you about the province is the bibimbap it’s practically synonymous with. Naturally all this hype led us to hop on board a cab for Gogung, arguably the most famous bibimbap establishment in all of Korea, shortly upon our arrival at Jeonju Express Bus Terminal. The butt-numbing 3 hour bus ride from Seoul left us feeling slightly queasy, but nothing gets between me and my lunch.

Accompanying banchan (side dishes).

I’m assuming that most non-Koreans, like myself, dutifully eat their banchan without knowing what they’re actually made of. So I’m going be bossy helpful and list the names of the banchan. Starting clockwise from the top left corner we have: 마늘쫑 새우볶음 (maneuljjong saewoobokkeum or stir-fried garlic scapes with shrimp), 시금치 무침 (ssigeumchi muchim or seasoned spinach), 브로콜리 무침 (broccoli muchim or seasoned broccoli), 도라지무침 (doraji muchim or seasoned bellflower roots), 김자반 무침 (kimjaban muchim or seasoned laver) and 김치 (kimchi). To round it off there’s 가지전 (gajijeon or stir-fried battered eggplant) in the foreground.

No comment on the taste of the side dishes, since its mostly a matter of personal preference. It’s very unlikely that you’ll find me willingly eating the sweet yet pungent garlic scapes even if it had been prepared by, I dunno, Wolfgang Puck or something.

One upside of dining at perenially busy Korean restaurants like Gogung is that you’ll be assured of the freshness of its banchan. Side dishes vary depending on the seasonal veggies available, though it’s a surefire bet that the kimchi ain’t going anywhere.

Jeonju Traditional Bibimbap (전주전통비빔밥), 11,000 won.

What sets Jeonju bibimbap apart from normal bibimbap? To put it simply, it’s the number of ingredients that go into the two dishes. Unlike normal bibimbap, preparing Jeonju bibimbap isn’t nearly as simple as julienning some carrots and cucumbers, then topping the rice with a fried egg. As opposed to the 7 or 8 ingredients commonly found in the bibimbap sold at your local Korean eatery, Jeonju bibimbap comprises as many as 30 different, oft meticulously prepared ingredients.

Nowhere is this attention to detail more obvious than at Gogung, where the bibimbap is, first and foremost, a feast for the eyes. That’s not any old hodgepodge of toppings you see on your bibimbap, but rather a carefully curated selection of ingredients intended to visually symbolise the five elements of tree, fire, earth, water and gold. It’s also meant to stimulate your taste buds by producing five basic tastes: The short-grained rice, having been boiled in beef broth, is sweet; the 춘장 (chunjang or black soybean paste) salty; the 콩나물 (kongnamul or beansprouts) bitter; the 고추장 (gochujang or chilli paste) spicy; with a drizzle of sesame oil supplying the umami in the dish.

Apart from these five basic ingredients, a stereotypical Jeonju bibimbap contains lots of other vegetables, including some you’d have real trouble finding outside of Korea, like 청포묵 (chongpomuk or green lentil jelly), 고사리 (gosari or seasoned bracken) and 쑥갓나물 무침 (sukgatnamul muchim or seasoned crown daisies). Even the kongnamul used in Jeonju bibimbap are of a variety exclusive to the surrounding Jeollabuk-do region, and retain their crispiness much better than common beansprouts.

Post-mixing.

The thing about eating bibimbap is that no two mouthfuls taste or feel exactly the same. At times its the crunch of a seasoned cucumber slice or a strand of crown daisy that provides texture, and other times you find yourself biting into one of the walnut pieces scattered randomly throughout the dish. Mixed thoroughly, the gochujang coats everything in the bowl with a mild and clean-tasting spiciness that’s content to linger in the background, letting the freshness of the ingredients here speak for themselves. Despite the mountain of rice in that dish, the equally insane amount of veggies made me feel like I’d just eaten a light and refreshing meal. Desire some meat? Gogung also offers a bibimbap option with 육회 (yukhwe or steak tartare).

The bibimbap at Gogung, though one of the best bibimbap I’ve tasted, wasn’t quite so delicious as to be memorable. That said, I’ve got a couple of friends who swear by the Gogung outlets in Myeongdong or Insadong in Seoul. I’ve never tried the one in Seoul, but neither have I heard of a franchise serving better food at its branches than at its main outlet.

Online reviews of Gogung range from the NOTHING-ELSE-WILL-DO end of the spectrum, i.e. those praising its bibimbap to the skies; to a particularly scathing one (unfortunately for you, in Korean only) in which the reviewer likens his or her experience at Gogung to eating pedestrian bibimbap at Gwangjang Market.

With its vibrant, appealing colours and foreigner-friendly taste, bibimbap is one of those dishes that the Korean government’s banking on to go global. Should you require further convincing, there’s an annual Bibimbap Festival (slated to be held from 24 to 27 October this year) and, I kid you not, a Bibimbap Research Center. Both located in none other than Jeonju, of course. So if you’re a rice and veggies person, I guess you know where you should be heading to when in Korea.

Gogung (고궁/古宫)
168-9, Dokjin 2-ga
Dokjin-gu, Jeonju-si,
Jeonbuk, South Korea
전북 전주시 덕진구 덕진 2가 168-9

Opening hours: 10.50am – 9.30pm
Tel. No.: (+82) 063-251-3211
Website: http://www.gogung.co.kr

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