If one really wants to get to the bones of Korean cooking, a steaming pot gamjatang is the perfect place to start. First of all, a disclaimer. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Korean food vocabulary would erroneously be led to believe that gamjatang is a potato stew, gamja meaning “potato” in modern parlance. But vegetarians beware! While gamjatang will always contain at least one obligatory spud, this unapologetically meaty dish purportedly got its name from the ancient Korean name for the spine of a pig. Maybe the lone potato came after some disappointed starch lover complained that there was, in fact, no “gamja” in the gamjatang. Meaty, spicy, funky, and uncompromising — gamjatang would be a worthy representative for Korea to send to some imaginary United Nations of Food.
When gamjatang arrives at the table, it’s dressed up like a bulldog in a sweater. The precious enoki mushrooms and purple-green sesame leaves mask something uglier underneath. After the stew starts to boil and all of the ingredients are submerged into the broth, the bulky, craggy spine portions begin to emerge from the murky soup. Draped with the now wilted greens, the jutting bones and bubbling red-orange soup create a primordial scene. One half expects a pterodactyl to swoop down over the landscape. Like comfort food for cavemen, gamjatang delivers mounds of fatty protein as well as the daily greens all in a rich, deeply satisfying soup.
For first timers, how to get at some of the more recalcitrant meat can be a problem. A good gamjatang will have quite a bit of flesh that is easily separated from the bones with a simple pull of the chopsticks. However, one always feels there is more to be had in the grooves of those blocky vertebrae. Here, it’s best to embrace one’s most ancient of ancestors and shamelessly utilize your hands to crack open the Lego-like joints of the spine. Chopsticks can then be employed, much like an archaeologist’s tweezers, to scrape or pry out the last succulent remains of pork from the smaller nooks and crannies. A vessel is supplied for one to dispose of the mountain of bones, which looks like something to be used for some kind of divination ritual. Said ritual would surely portend the wisdom of ordering bokkeum bap or fried rice to be made with the dregs of the stew. The end result of such a meal leading to a kind of stupefied food nirvana from being filled to the brim with rich meat, soup, and carbs.
Where can one pursue such enlightenment? Around Seoul or anywhere in Korea where soju glasses are being clinked, gamjatang is ever present. There are chains which will do in a pinch such as Cham-i-mat or Jol-maru and, to be honest, it’s hard to find a disagreeable version of this dish. However, listed here are a few institutions with a special character where gamjatang has been proudly served for decades on end.
Time seems immaterial at Dongwon Jib. At 5 in the early evening, just on the cusp of dinnertime, or into the soju-soaked hours of the night, this tiny place in amongst Euljiro 3-ga’s lighting and bathroom fixture shops is always rammed and rollicking. For nearly 30 years, aeons in Seoul restaurant time, Dongwon Jib has been creating some of the most distinct gamjatang to be found. For one, here it is only served in individual portions, a lifeline to the lonely diner or foodie traveler. Also, it’s curiously dubbed “gamjaguk” so don’t be thrown by the slight name change. At Dongwon Jib, the bones are boiled for around four hours and become almost tender enough to eat. The meat, long having given up hope of holding to the bones, floats freely in the fire red broth and is as tender and compliant as one will ever find it. In some ways, this is the easiest gamjatang you will ever eat. However, be careful not to crunch down on a bone shard hidden amongst the rubble. If with a group, be sure to order a plate of meoli-gogi or pig head parts from the disassembled pig’s head one will likely notice upon entering.
Address: Seoul, Jung-gu, Eulgiro 11-gil 22 1F
Somunan Seongsu Gamjatang
As its name suggests, Somunan Gamjatang is a popular and well-known spot for its titular dish as dinnertime always brings lines of determined diners. Anytime a restaurant has one and only one thing on their menu, it’s a sign of brazen confidence in what they serve. As such, one can rest assured that the one dish will indeed be fantastic. In this case, the quality of their pork spine stew alone has kept Somunan Gamjatang in business for nearly 33 years. In some ways, this is the prototypical gamjatang restaurant. The sizeable dish is meant for sharing amongst two or three moderately hungry eaters. The location, in Seongsu-dong’s traditional shoe-crafting district, is quite spacious compared to Dongwon Jib; yet one still somehow ends up in tight with other diners sharing in the boisterous mood. It’s a common feeling around gamjatang restaurants, a warmth in the atmosphere that emanates from really satisfied, perhaps slightly tipsy patrons. One pro tip to observe from others at Somunan Gamjatang is to shamelessly wear an apron, because it’s much worse to get red splatter from the heartily boiling stew on one’s white shirt. Regardless if this mishap occurs or not, little things like the dry cleaning bill are drowned in a wash of luscious pork.
Address: Seoul, Seongdong-gu, Yeonmujang-gil 45
In amongst the fish sellers and vegetable vendors of Donam Market is the tented original location of Taejo Gamjaguk. Having ladled-out its first gamjatang in 1958, it’s incredible to consider the changes that this establishment must have seen in a country where time moves so impossibly fast. Keeping with the theme of time on fast-forward, once having been ordered, the gamjatang (again, the only thing on the menu) materializes almost instantly. Waiting on the soup to cook down into a more potent concoction, one notices the yellowed newspaper clippings from long-passed features and atop a menu posted on the wall, a square of paper that exhibits the restaurant’s ever-upwardly ticking age. At this point, the paper states the number “60” which was clearly glued on top of the number “50” as the restaurant has trudged headlong into its future. Nevermind the fact that it isn’t yet 2018, this place seems as immovable as a boulder. The gamjatang here (again labeled as guk or “soup”) is less spicy than usual and, one would think, therefore less exciting. But surprisingly the usual red pepper heat is not at all missed. Do not neglect the sujebi, or small petal-shaped pieces of dough, as they are an outstanding vessel for the rich broth. The restaurant has another location, new and shiny, just a few blocks away. On the wall there is a kind of calendar marking when each of the three generations of owners took charge of the business. Currently run by the third generation, there is a marker for when the next son will take over. Whoever gets the honor has nothing to worry about business-wise. This is truly great meat-and-potatoes food that can (and has) lasted the ages.
Address: Seoul, Seongbuk-gu, Dongsomun-ro 18-gil 5