There are two phrases to learn if you visit Jeonju, a 650,000-person city – and a paradise for Korean food-lovers — three hours by bus south of Seoul.
First is “Hyundai-ok odi innayo?” — “Where is Hyundai-ok?” – a reference to a tiny restaurant famed for its kongnamul guk, or bean sprout soup, but nearly impossible to find in the labyrinthine bowels of Nambu Market.
The second is “Kamsa hamnida,” or “thank you,” the inevitable response to whichever generous soul drops what he’s doing and leads you to Hyundai-ok, past stalls of frozen fish and fresh fungi and down narrow passageways stacked with empty boxes and piles of dirty dishes.
My guide was a fish salesman, who deposited me at the restaurant, where I took the last of just 10 plastic stools. I was seated right in front of a woman in a pink apron slicing jalapeños, dicing chives and smashing garlic; other cooks filled big clay bowls with rice and the bean-sprout-laced broth or prepared banchan, the free and refillable miniature side dishes that accompany just about every Korean restaurant meal.
The soup is a famed hangover helper, but I had not been drinking, I had been freezing – Jeonju can be frigid in early February – and it transformed me from hungry and icy to satisfied and steamy for just 5,000 won (about $4.75 at 1050 won to the dollar).
There are now other Hyundai-ok franchises in Jeonju and elsewhere in Korea, but the original version is unique and representative of the city’s rich heritage. Jeonju is seen as a sort of guardian of Korean cultural, historical and, most of all, culinary traditions; last year it served as Unesco’s City of Gastronomy. It’s the place Koreans warn you not to go if you love Korean food, because you’ll never love it quite so much anywhere else again — or pay so little for it.
I spend my life looking for places like Jeonju, a city barely known to Western travelers that barely seems to care: many museums, restaurants and…