My mum hates my food blog. Well, she hates that I write a food blog because she blames it for making me fat. I’m pretty sure she’s never read it because scrolling down through photo after photo after photo of all the fatty foombah carb-a-liciousness would just make her sick at all the food her daughter is ingesting and converting into fat cells. I would get an angry phone call after every post I publish.
We’ve had a lot of conversations that go along these lines:
“Heather, I’m worried because your cousin told me that all the photos on your Instagram are of really high-calorie and high-fat foods.”
“Mum, it’s because those kinds of photos get the most likes.”
“But why can’t you just eat more salads?”
“WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LET ME LIVE MY LIFE?!”
But since we live in a different countries and only communicate via messaging and phone, the frequency of her nagging had really died down, leading me to think, oh-so-naively, that maybe she had accepted that I had grown up into my own person and could make my own adult decisions about my body and the food I put in it.
When my parents told me they were visiting in the Spring, I thought it would be nice if we went on a short trip together. Conveniently, I planned a trip down to Jeonju which also happens to be one of the top foodie hot spot in Korea. I’d been wanting to go since I first heard about it. This trip seemed like an amazing idea: I could spend some quality time with my parents, pig out on amazing food, and get some great material for the blog. Little did I know that I was actually signing up for three-day fat camp.
As soon as my mum saw me, she unleashed a tirade of fat-shaming that did not end until I waved goodbye to her as she rode away on the Airport Limousine to catch her flight back to Sydney. Padded with affectionate squeezes of my butt and belly, and assurances of “I’m only saying this because I love you!” her incredible ability to never run out of things to say about my weight gain gave my self-esteem a good ol’ fashioned beat down.
“What happened to you? What did you eat to gain so much weight? Heather . . . are you depressed? If you’re not depressed then why are you eating so much?! Stop ordering delivery! Why are you so lazy? Just make yourself something healthy for dinner! I thought you would actually lose weight because of how skinny girls are here in Korea… don’t you feel bad when you see how thing and pretty all these girls are? How much do you exercise? I thought so. You need to exercise!! Just go for a walk after dinner. Matt’s lost so much weight, so why can’t you? You disgust me.”
(Okay, she didn’t say the last thing, but it was strongly implied.)
Suddenly, a trip where eating would be the main activity didn’t seem like such a good idea. But with accommodation and bus tickets booked, and my will not yet broken by my mum’s incessant harassment, I just went ahead with it. What followed was one of the greatest tests of my emotional and mental fortitude of my life thus far.
Me and my mum.
Jokes, that bear is way skinnier than me.
So mistake #1 was planning a foodie road trip with my fatphobic mum. Mistake #2 was planning a trip to Jeonju on a long weekend.
This is meant to be a quaint “hanok” village made up of traditional Korean houses and cute little shops but because of it’s increasing popularity as a local tourist destination, on weekends and public holidays it is literally swarming with people. Hungry people. Standing in lines. Lots and lots of really really really long lines.
Mandoo lines. Kalguksu lines. Bibimbap lines. Sandwich lines. Gukbap lines.
I’m not one to be afraid of a long line if I know that the food pay-off at the end will be worth it, but I did not want to spend the entire weekend waiting in line with my 60-ish parents who would probably spend the whole time lecturing me about how only fat people wait in line for food. Fortunately, thanks to the fierce competition here and Korean people’s willingness to shamelessly rip of a popular shop’s food and concept, there are plenty of copycat shops that offer pretty much the same food as the more famous places, but without the long wait.
Our first stop was flame-grilled octopus on a stick (문어꼬치)
Big fat chunks of octopus, skewered and grilled, then served with worcestershire-ish sauce and bonito flakes.
Kind of like a naked takoyaki. I’ve never really been a fan of octopus, so this is not something I would usually be attracted to, but Koreans LOVE it. It’s delicious – chewy on the inside and charred on the outside.
We shared one of these between the three of us because, you know … calories.
Then we went right next door for some jumbo cheese chicken skewers (치즈 점보 닭꼬지).
About double the size of a regular chicken gochi, this sexy beast is covered in sauce (you choose how spicy you want it) and a helluva lot of melted cheese.
Here is mum taking a huge bite out of this high-fat high-calorie treat.
“Give it to me, you shouldn’t eat too much of things like this.”
“Yes, mum.” *cries on the inside*
Although the hanok village mainly consists of little permanent shopfronts, everything here is very street-food. Most things are served on long wooden skewers (gochi) – they have their own special rubbish bin.
Because we wouldn’t want these things poking holes in the rubbish bags… or in people. Given the volume of people squished into this place when its busy, there’s gotta be a few gochi related injuries per day here.
There’s a shop here that’s really famous for its hand made mandoo (dumplings) but it had the longest line of ALL the restaurants. Actually it had two lines, and both looked at least 40 minutes long. I love my mandoo, but even I have my limits.
So we went to the place next door that we hoped did a pretty good imitation of the original.
Whole-prawn steamed dumplings. There was five between the three of us, but I only ate one. I didn’t want to get my hand slapped in front of all these people.
These tasted just okay – made me feel a bit sad about missing out on the real thing. But I plan to come back for them someday soon – when it’s less crazy busy and without my fat camp coaches.
Mum got these water cakes (물방울떡) for dessert – there’s a bit of a craze happening around these lately, but I’m not a fan. They taste like nothing. They’re just big blobs of colorless, flavorless jelly.
And that was our lunch. I didn’t get to try as much as I wanted, half because of the lines, half because my mum’s hawk-eyes were watching me, with her claws ready to pounce if I dared get near “over-eating” territory.
We took a short nap in our tiny hanok stay and then headed out to dinner. Before the hanok village food street took over, Jeonju was mainly known for its bibimbap. We asked for a recommendation from the ahjusshi was ran our accommodation and headed over to restaurant called “Hangook jib” (literally: Korean house).
Outside the boundary of the main touristy area, this place was pretty quiet but our guy assured us it was authentic and delicious and kind of famous because a former president had dined there once.
Bibimbap is normally a humble dish, but in Jeonju it gets quite fancy. The Jeonju version is based on a dish that was served in the royal court of the Joseon dynasty. It is presented in a gold metal bowl and includes some very special ingredients that you won’t find in your standard bibimbap: raw beef, yellow mung bean jelly, pine nuts and gingko nuts.
Here is how it looks pre-bibim:
My mum used to tell me off all the time for the “unladylike” way I would mix my bibimbap. Rice and gochujang would go everywhere and I’d end up with more outside the bowl than inside. But I’ve discovered a new technique to elegant bibim – use your chopsticks instead of your fork. It mixes things more evenly more quickly and is much less messy. See – only a few stray rice grains on the side of the bowl!
Unlike the usual bibimbap, all the ingredients of Jeonju bibimbap are cold to preserve the special flavor of the raw beef. The rice is still warm, but not steaming hot. So the resulting taste and mouthfeel is quite different – it’s fresh and the unique flavour and texture of each component is kept distinct. It’s interesting and tastes great, but given the choice, I think I would still choose the standard dolsot (hot stone) bibimbap over fancy Jeonju bibimbap. Dolsot bibimbap is my death row dish.
I’ve clearly inherited my tastes buds from my mum because despite being in Jeonju, she couldn’t resist the hot sizzling call of the dolsot. It came with the exact same ingredients except that the beef on top is already cooked.
The ONE thing I was a bit disappointed with was the absence of a glossy raw egg yolk, which is the golden crown that sits atop the dish in all the photos I’ve seen. According to my dad, historically accurate Jeonju bibimbap doesn’t include the raw egg, which is a more modern addition. I still felt gypped. If I had to choose between authenticity and egg, I choose egg.
Even without the egg, its about as high-class as bibimbap gets. I loved it – but I made sure to leave at least a spoonful of rice in my bowl to create the illusion of self-controlled eating. But it didn’t really matter anyway – my parents were too busy lecturing me about my foolish reluctance to resume my legal career to even notice how much I was eating.
After dinner, we walked back to the Hanok village to grab some slushie beer which we had been coveting all day. Everyone we walked by seemed to have one in hand, but we had to wait until after dinner to get ourselves one to avoid being red-faced and drowsy in the daylight (all Chois have a very severe case of Asian Flush.)
The concept of a beer slushie is pure genius. It combines the most loved beverage of our childhood (slushies) with the most loved beverage of our adulthood (beer) into the perfect summer refreshment. I don’t understand why it isn’t EVERYWHERE. It’s amazing!
They mix cold beer on tap with the syrup of your choice (we got grapefruit) then top it off the cloudy white beer slush.
Mrs Choi approves.
A few sips of slushie beer got my mum in a good mood, so I convinced her that we also needed to try some deep-fried whole squid on a stick (통오징어튀김).
Mrs Kang smiles tipsily and has no idea how many grams of fat she will soon be consuming.
Of all the [blank]-on-a-stick things I’ve eaten in Korea, this one WINS. It’s a whole squid lightly battered and deep-fried, and then seasoned with whatever flavor your heart desires. It comes to you hot, fresh, salty, crispy and chewy and is even better when washed down with a sip of slushie beer. It was so good that mum completely forgot to give me her favorite smackdown about the perils of eating fried foods late in the evening.
It was an emotionally taxing day, but I managed to get through it without bursting into tears, causing a scene, or stabbing someone with a wooden skewer. And I still got to eat some yummy food… just conditioned on the promise that I would exercise regularly and eat more salads back in Seoul. A promise I had no intention of keeping, but in wartime, you just gotta do whatever it takes to survive.
To be continued . . .