Five years since I’ve had the best food in the world.
The restaurant looks the same: the same line of 50 people waiting to get in. I get in line, the smells bringing me back: appetite and nostalgia winding a tight braid inside me.
“The special, please,” I say as a waitress comes up the line, taking advance orders. No time for looking at a menu.
I wonder how many have eaten here in the last five years. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?
I spot the owner as I reach the door. She looks up. “Where have you been?”
This is actually a true story. When we were in Korea, we lived in the city of Jeonju. In the old market, there is a restaurant called Nammun Pisundae (남문피순대). It is famous all over Korea and has been in business for decades. There is seriously a line outside of at least 50-100 people at every single meal time and it is always busy. They really only serve one thing: a spicy soup of blood sausage and pig organs. You might not think that sounds great but that’s because you haven’t tried it. It is seriously my favorite food in the world, specifically from that restaurant.
I got a chance to go back to Korea in 2019 and made a point to go to Jeonju to see old friends and to eat at this restaurant. Even after all that time, the owner recognized me right away and asked where I’d been. I explained I’d moved to the US 5 years before. To be fair, there probably aren’t many non-Koreans who were regulars there.
(You might wonder about the title: what an Oran Man is or who Ida is. This is a transliteration of the Korean expression meaning “long time, no see”).
Jeonju’s Nambu Market, in the southwest of Korea, is the largest traditional market in the city. Across the main road is Hanok Village, where all the tourists go, but Nambu Market is mostly for the locals.
It is located in the south of the city, in a series of covered streets. They sell a lot of things there. For instance:
wooden wares and kitchen supplies. These include these things:
These are called jipshin, or literally, straw shoes. They were used by farmers and apparently still are, since you can buy them at the market.
There is also a lot of food at the market. Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables from local farms, but also:
Dried fish heads. I’m not sure how you eat them, or if they’re just fertilizer, but you can buy them by the bagful. The sign says they come from Russia.
Live octopus. You’re allowed to cook them before you eat them though.
Blocks of fresh tofu. The brown blocks to the left are acorn jelly and the round things behind are fermented soy bean paste.
These are bags of dried hot peppers. Koreans love their hot peppers.
This shop sells a bunch of everything. The signs advertise dried persimmons, buckwheat, deer antler, green tea, etc.
One of the main reasons I go to the market is to go to a famous restaurant there, called Nammun Pisundae (which means South Gate Blood Sausage). It only serves one thing, which is blood sausage, either in soup or by itself. It’s really good and there is always a huge line out the door around meal times (although it’s open 24 hours). They cook the food by the door, so you can see them making it as you walk in.
Not everything in the market is food though. It is also a famous area for hanbok, which is the traditional Korean dress. There are many hanbok shops in the area. All of the dresses are custom-made. You see a lot of women wearing them at special events like weddings or on major holidays.
I don’t know if you’ll ever come to Jeonju, but if you do, go to Nambu Market. It’s a great place to wander around in and see a lot of new, interesting things.
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