Seoul’s best gamjatang spices up your nights
For good ol’ friends in Korea who don’t mind sweating and eating like a pig in a grungy restaurant, there is only one bone-sucking treat to share that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Just say “gamjatang” and you might add another couple hours to a drunken outing.
The spicy pork bone stew with potatoes represents the warm taste of the country’s deep and old south. Unlike its namesake, though, the dish’s main ingredient, interestingly, is not potatoes (“gamja” in Korean) ― they are just a sidekick. The hearty, complex taste of the rich broth is made from boiled pork backbone, assorted greens such as cabbage, Japanese parsley, green onions and bean sprouts, and heavily seasoned with garlic, red chili peppers and roasted perilla seeds.
Like many traditional dishes, gamjatang has its origin in Korea’s impoverished past. The dish originated in Jeolla province, famous for pig farms. The tradition of boiling pig bones began in the Naju region as early as the third century during the Three Kingdom Period. For generations, cows were revered as an important means of farming, and beef was reserved for the rich and privileged. In poor farming homes, the pork bone stew, which offered a good source of protein and iron, was served to the elderly, children or patients with weak bones. Gamjatang was also one of the renowned “stamina” foods in the south.
Toward the end of the 19th century when the port city of Incheon opened, southerners moved north, bringing their food traditions including gamjatang. When the Seoul-Incheon railway was built around 1899, gamjatang started to make a name for itself as the food of Incheon among migrants and laborers. Gamjatang is still one of Incheon’s favorite dishes; sighting a gamjatang restaurant in the western port city is common to this day.
In Seoul, every restaurant specializing in gamjatang insists it was the very first, or wonjo in Korean, to introduce the dish to Seoulites. All gamjatang dishes are similar in appearance, but the taste varies from one restaurant to another.
Over the years, gourmands have acknowledged that a small street, known as Gamjatang Golmok, in northwestern Seoul is where Seoul’s first gamjatang began over 25 years ago. So we at the IHT-JoongAng Daily went to check it out. Finding the place by taxi was no problem, as most Seoul drivers know it.
The street turned out to be, disappointingly, a small block of only six restaurants in a local open-air market called the Daelim Sijang in Eungam-dong. The restaurants haven’t changed much over the past decades. However, the shabby, unkempt but nostalgic look of the area known for the capital’s best gamjatang draws both local gamjatang lovers and curious tourists from Japan and China.
It is said that the street saw its heyday when the former Korean president Roh Tae-woo enforced a curfew on the service industry in an effort to crack down on nighttime crime. Between 1990 and 1998, restaurant owners on Gamjatang Street stubbornly kept their businesses open into the wee hours behind closed doors. Their defiance resulted in fines and penalties for violating the law, but it certainly drew more customers. The reigning era of the politically resistant Gamjatang Street saw a gradual decline toward the late 1990s, coinciding with the national economic crisis. Also facing stiff competition from other areas, the number of Gamjatang restaurants has diminished from over 20 to just six.
In the early days, all the ingredients ― potatoes, pork bones, and vegetables ― were thrown into an iron pot over a glowing coal briquette, and the soup was then served in traditional Korean earthenware called ttukbaegi, instead of the steel pots used today. Over two decades, the price of the stew went from 1500 won ($1.25) to 25,000 won on average for a large pot.
We compared two of the better known gamjatang restaurants in the area: Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk and Janggun Gamjaguk. The former is the only gamjatang restaurant in Seoul named “taejo”, which means “progenitor” or “first king of a dynasty.” Janggun Gamjaguk claims to be the second oldest in the neighborhood.
Back to back feasting: Founding General vs. The First Emperor
According to Bae Ik-hun, the owner of Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk, “Most Korean stews are made with meat or bones, but this stew has potatoes, that’s why.”
In our search for the best of the best spicy pork stew in Seoul, we dined at two leading gamjatang restaurants in Eunpyeong-gu’s Daelim Market, including Mr. Bae’s.
He noted that restaurants on his street have adhered to the dish’s former moniker, gamjaguk, which means “potato soup,” not “potato stew.”
“We all lived a simple life before. In Korean, guk is a simpler term. The honorific term for guk is ‘tang.’ We want to stick to our old tradition and call it guk to this day,” he said.
But, simple is what Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk is all about. A large grimy pot on an old-style gas burner is piled high with scrumptiously fresh ssuk (mugwort leaves) and cabbage; they are a brilliant green against the blood-red soup underneath.
So, where are the bones and potatoes?
“You’ve never been here, haven’t you?” Mr. Bae said smiling. He helped us turn the dish, to expose what’s hidden: a mountain of brown-red bones and, yes, some whole potatoes.
The bones were surprisingly meaty with a lot of slimy marrow in-between, and the meat was extremely tender without giving away its nice meaty texture. The unique flavor of ddeulkkae, or perilla seeds, was subtle rather than overpowering like in most gamjatang places. The broth was moderately spicy, just as Korea’s top-quality red peppers give a deliciously sweet aftertaste following the warm rounds of shock in the mouth. The broth actually had a complex yet well-rounded depth matching its spice.
We were thoroughly impressed with the taste. The messy interior, which probably dates back to 1980, was a sign of the restaurant’s proud tradition.
The option of fried rice at the end of the meal made all of us madly scrape the pot clean.
Mr. Bae, the second-generation owner, told us that Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk has been around for 28 years, adding the secret of the restaurant’s success the meat they use from Chungcheong province. “You can adjust seasoning, but not the quality of the meat. No one can beat our meat and bone!”
Janggun Gamjaguk across the street has a newer and cleaner appearance. The stew also looks amazing with fresh vegetables with a more generous portion of perilla seeds and bean sprouts.
The meal started with freshly pan-fried leek patties, which everyone liked very much The side dishes of kimchi and pickled garlic were far better than the side dishes at Taejo Gamjaguk. The fried rice at the end of the meal was tasty too.
The Janggun stew had much larger bones with a lot more meat and marrow. The sauce was redder and much spicier, but the large, tender pieces of meat didn’t have a flavor of lasting depth or complexity.
Well, in the world of gamjatang, “big” doesn’t necessarily mean “delicious,” we learned.
On our taxi ride back to work, we made our driver drool as we went on and on about how much we preferred the taste of the finer and younger pork bones of Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk over any other gamjatang we had ever eaten in Seoul.
Wonjo Janggun Gamjaguk
(Founding General Potato Soup)
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel: (02) 309-7035.
Location: The fourth restaurant on the left from the market entrance.
Hours: 24 hours, 365 days a year.
Parking: Available nearby.
Dress code: Come as you are.
Credit cards: Accepted.
Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk
(First Emperor Daelim Potato Soup)
English: Not on the menu, not spoken.
Tel.: (02) 306-6535.
Location: On the right-hand side of the Daelim Market entrance.
Hours: 7 a.m.-5 a.m. (next day) daily.
Parking: Valet parking.
Dress code: Come as you are.
Credit cards: All major cards accepted.
Most gamjatang meals, including one at Taejo Daelim Gamjaguk, end with fried rice, below, made with the remaining broth.
by Ines Cho