Where commoners can savor a king’s soupIt was tough being a Joseon king.
Not only did you have to lord it over a nation of unruly subjects; not only did you have to keep your feuding family in check; not only did you have to keep a wary eye out for plots, poisonings and assassinations; not only did you have to keep those dreaded foreigners at arm’s length ― but you were also obligated to perform the Confucian court rituals.
Ah, the court rituals. As any modern tourist who has viewed them knows, they are ― despite their color and pageantry ― fearsomely, interminably, mind-numbingly dull. Leged has it that one of Korea’s very first telephone lines was connected by King Gojeong to his wife’s tomb so that he did not have to attend some of these rites in person, but could do his wailing over the phone.
Now, while one understands why a royal would want to avoid these bothersome ceremonials, one area where they were said to be performed ― Seolleong ― had a special charm. This area was supposedly known for its meat soup, and after a long day of genuflecting, a bowl of this stuff could put a smile on the face of even the most fed-up monarch.
Today, most Korean courtly dishes have moved onto the menus of hanjongsik restaurants ― expensive establishments serving elaborate table d'hote. Seolleongtang is different. It has percolated down the social scale, and can today be eaten at any number of humble neighborhood restaurants that specialize in the dish.
Case in point: the Mapo district’s Yangji Seolleongtang. Established 27 years ago in this neighborhood, famed for meat restaurants, the place recently moved from its worn, shabby old home to bright, spanking-new premises a couple of minutes’ walk from Gongdeok Rotary. Inside, it is a typical modern Korean restaurant: Square angles, spotless, floor and table seating, a bit of calligraphy on the wall. All O.K. ― if slightly lacking in character. But the character is in the food.
The specialties of the house are seolleongtang, at 6,000 won ($5.20), teuk seolleongtang (“special” seolleongtang, which offers more meat: 9,000 won) and doganitang (ox-knee soup: 10,000 won). We order the latter two.
The teuk seolleongtang is an opaque, milky-colored soup generously loaded with strips of lean, braised beef. The doganitang is similar, but with cartilage in place of meat. Along with the soups come a plethora of side dishes. Huge bowls of kimchi, spring onion kimchi and giant cubes of radish kimchi. A platter of fresh green peppers, garlic and fermented soybean paste. A bowl of diced spring onions to add to the soups (recommendation: Pour it in by the handful). And a sauce of soy, hot mustard and chopped onions to dip the meat into.
After salting your soup to taste, dive in. These soups are, unlike many Korean stews, unspiced. Instead, they are simple and clean-tasting, allowing you to relish the flavors of the meat. The meat is virtually fat-free, while the cartilage (which tends to be more suited to the Asian taste) is soft and gelatinous. The soups include thin noodles, and come with bowls of rice. I should add that the radish kimchi is crunchy and tangy, and the spring onion kimchi, while well-spiced, still offers the natural flavor of the vegetable. All in all, it is a hearty, tasty repast.
To drink, there are the usual beers, soju, etc. Service is cheerful and child-friendly.
Verdict: The many testimonials from newspapers and TV stations framed on the wall demonstrate just how famous this ordinary-looking restaurant is. And for good reason: It serves some of the finest soup I have ever sampled. It is also consistent; I have been coming here regularly for several years. Oh, and when you eat: Sit up straight! Shoulders back! Show some respect! This is a dish with an ancestry.
English: None spoken.
English menu: None.
Location: Mapo district.
Directions: From Gongdeok Station, lines 5 and 6, take exit 1 and walk ahead about 20 meters to the road on the left. Yangji Seolleongtang is across this road, next to the Mini-stop convenience store.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Telephone: (02) 716-8616.
Dress: Come as you are.
by Andrew Salmon