Car Cigarette Lighter

That is about the heat level inside a bowl of dolsot-bibimbap. You know when you go to a fancy restaurant and they say “please be careful, as the plate is extreeeeeemly hot”… It usually ain’t even that hot.

But then you go to a Korean restaurant and they put down basically a smoldering rock from the inner depths of the earth’s core made out of the lava that singes trees into dust and they carry that over crying infants and place in front of you with out even a warning. You got hot charcoal spewing in the middle of the table for your BBQ and fire rings of stone at your elbows and not a cloth napkin in sight to guard against the heat.

The whole time, no matter how long it takes you to eat it, the fucking thing is about a million degrees.
You burn your roof and tongue, your spoon glows like the tip of a blacksmith, and every time you reach for panchan with your chopsticks a small piece of your elbow always seems to brush the hot bowl leaving bibimbap hickies on your arms.

There’s not much I can order anymore at Korean restaurants since I stopped eating meat and fish. Even the things that look vegetarian are made with fish sauce or shrimp paste. But bibimbap is something that can always come through in the clutch.

But did you know that bibimbap in it’s true form is actually not vegetarian? Bibimbap comes from the town of Jeonju in the northern region of the southwest section of the peninsula. The rice is cooked in beef stock to give it it’s rich umami flavor. The origins of this bowl of mixed craziness in Korea, some say, goes back to a mixture of all the ingredients after a ceremony. I can see how that happened.

Koreans celebrate birthdays, dead spirits, and holidays with a table full of small panchan and namul. Look these words up. Hundreds of plates sit on the table as ghosts eat them in our mind and at the end, we flesh living humans mix it all up and grub.

The reason why Jeonju is the home to bibimbap is not what you may think. It’s not because of the rice or the kochujang or the stone or any of the things that seem apparent at first glance.

It’s because of the bean sprout.

There is a specific bean sprout that grows in the area of Cholla Buk Do that has a structure that doesn’t break down when cooked and has a flavor so distinct that there is nothing like it. It’s this tiny sprout that the bowl rests upon.

I went to Jeonju once. A quiet town that sits low amongst foothills and green trees and farms. My grandparents are buried near there. Everywhere I looked there was bibimbap. Like ramen in Fukuoka or hot dogs at a baseball game. I must have eaten like 10 different ones in 10 different places. And it really was like eating prosciutto in Parma.

Nothing like it.

Each spoonful opened new worlds and I could feel the land. You eat a lot when you are in Jeonju. It’s a farmer’s appetite type town. Spoonfuls the size of a cupcake. Sweat dripping down your temples. Elbows again with hickies. Infants crying. Hot lava all around. And you couldn’t be happier.

That damn bean sprout.

Yes, it’s extremely hot.

4 thoughts on “Car Cigarette Lighter

  1. Sounds fantastic, and I think Jelleonam-do’s reputation as having the best food in Korea is deserved. On the subject of exceptional bean sprouts, the best breakfast I ever had was a bowl of bean sprout soup with rice (kkongnamul guk bap) and rice beer with spices (moju), almost like mulled cider.

    Love those bean sprouts!

  2. I have never gotten my dolsot bowls as hot as in a Korean restaurant…they are awesome for French onion soup btw. How about hhotteok? If they served that in the U.S. it would have to come with a waiver.

  3. That bibimbap sounds delicious…hope to check it out on my next visit to Korea.
    But yes, it’s definitely a challenge finding truly vegetarian food in Korean restaurants. My mom’s a vegetarian and it’s always amazing how difficult it can be to find a decent vegetarian or pescetarian dish on a menu, if any. Everyone always says how Korean food is very vegetarian friendly but apparently that doesn’t apply to restaurants.

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