Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.
On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?
We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.
In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.
The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.
After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.
Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.
While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.
Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.
Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!
The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.
Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.