A new restaurant with guts requires courage from dinersTo enter the epicurean world of horumon-yaki, bring a healthy appetite but leave your fears at home.
In Japan, where the dish has flourished for years,
appraising the taste of every organ of an ox, pig or chicken ― collectively known as horumon in Japanese ― is part of the country’s culinary traditions. Which may explain why the Japanese use euphemistic terms to describe their favorite organ so that it does not sound too horrific (please read on) to non-Japanese diners.
The recent opening of Gonjo, Korea’s first pub/restaurant specializing in horumon-yaki, means the dish has now traveled through a full cycle of culinary traditions. The dish originated in Korea, but, paradoxically, horumon-yaki is something very foreign here. Both Japanese and Korean diners enjoy viscera, but preparation in the two countries differs greatly.
In Korea, horumon-yaki is called gopchang-gui, and there are several well-known restaurants in Seoul; hot spots include Yangmiok, Obaltan, Gombawoo, Geobuk Gopchang and Pyeongyangjip. To Koreans, the dish brings back memories of a much poorer time, so most places maintain the gritty interior of post-war diners. And Koreans prefer to pan-fry or boil the visceras in a spicy vegetable stew.
Gonjo is an ambitious project (thus the name Gonjo, which means “strong character” or “guts”) by two Korean partners, Jung Myeong-su and Kang Bong-kwon, who want to enhance the local dining culture by introducing a relatively new food to Korea. Mr. Jung, who has operated a large Japanese pub chain here, has teamed up with Mr. Kang, a master of horumon-yaki from Japan. In Tokyo, Mr. Kang worked at Yamiichi Kurabu, a well-known Kansai-region-based restaurant in Tokyo, known for delicious horumon-yaki.
Mr. Kang says the viscera is a stamina food, with a high protein content. He says it was Korean immigrants in Osaka who invented the dish in the early part of the 20th century. “They were too poor to eat meat, so they began to eat ‘horu-mono,’ literally translated as ‘discarded things’ from butchers,” Mr. Kang said. The Japanese adopted the dish and popularized it.
“Horumon” is an Osaka dialect for “horu-mono.” While the term, horumon generally refers to animal viscera, it also refers to “tetchan,” or large intestine in Japanese.
While horumon dishes have been popular in Japan over the years, in Korea there has been a limited number of organs available for consumption. In horumon-yaki restaurants in Japan, it is normal to find 40 different varieties, but at Gonjo, Mr. Kang has just 18 kinds, with 10 from cows and eight from pigs. Each serving of pig offal costs 7,000 to 8,000 won (about $7); beef is 10,000 to 19,000 won. Except for beef tripe imported from Australia, all other parts are from Korea.
Styled after a Japanese chalet, the restaurant Gonjo is a spacious restaurant in the bustling club district near Hongik University, in the northwest of Seoul. Each of the 30 tables in semi-private booths has a charcoal grill. There will be 25 more tables outside, when a new terrace is completed.
Beginners should start with the most dishes like mino, or beef tripe, followed by horumon (large intestine) and senmai (third stomach). In Korea, senmai or cheonyeop, is a labor-intensive delicacy, usually cooked Korean-style. Here thinly sliced tripe is lightly seasoned with paprika, scallion and ginger, grilled lightly and then dipped in a light, tangy sauce. It’s all about the taste and the texture, which is similar to jelly fish. So for me, who knew what to expect from the dish, this was a good starter with a cup of hot hiresake (7,000 won).
Both horumon and mino arrived as slimy pieces glistening in bright orange sauce. When cooked on the fire, they shriveled and turned into tender little balls. To make rubbery muscle tissue exhibit such high level of tenderness, most chefs use tenderizers, but at Gonjo, it is Mr. Kang’s skill at handling knives to shred muscle tissue. A complimentary side dish of Japanese salads was the perfect palate cleanser between bites.
On my second visit, I stretched my boundaries. Chomping down a rubbery morsel of kobukoro, I tried hard to suppress my fears about which organ I was eating but curiosity got the upper hand. Mr. Kang hesitated a bit when I asked and then said “uterus.” I nodded, picturing a diagram of a pig’s interior. Well, I once ate grilled bull’s penis, a Mongol-Chinese delicacy prepared by an ethnic Korean-Chinese chef. So what’s the big deal?
There were paper-thin slices of nodobotoke, literally “Buddha living in a throat.” It is a round hollow bone with a little meat. It’s got a nice texture, like chicken cartilage. OK, it’s pig’s Adam’s apple, sliced paper-thin. It is one of the most popular dishes in Japan.
Thin slabs of kashira (pork’s cheek) and butatan (pork’s tongue) followed. Tongue had a bizarre texture and after two slices I had to stop. Cheek I found very strange. I needed a cold beer to wash away the taste. Much easier on me was dontoro or nicely marbled pig’s neck. It’s lean, toothsome and meaty, thus the name toro, or fatty tuna meat.
My adventures with animal interiors ended with a large bowl of “stamina” udon, which is another unique fusion of the Osaka and Korean traditions. The brown soup, made from cartilage, is glutinous and spiced with chili. Instead of the usual toppings like mushroom or oden, the noodle soup has slimy morsels of cartilage. For the first time in my life I actually liked it but to try the other 10 dishes on Gonjo’s menu that I have not yet sampled, I may need more guts myself.
by Ines Cho