A couple of months ago, as documented in this post, I spent a day or so in Jeonju, the culinary capital of Korea, eating and drinking my way round some of the signature foods of the region. There were lots of good things packed into that 24 hours or so, not least a really nice bibimbap on our way back to the bus station, but the undoubted highlight for me was – wait for it – a bowl of soup. No ordinary soup, this was the kalguksu (noodle soup) at the mighty Veteran in central Jeonju. A thick, hearty, lifechanging bowl of soup, a soup that brought me closer to Jesus and all His saints, a soup to make a man smash out all his teeth just to have an excuse never to eat solid food again. I supped on the broth in my dreams, and woke up sweating.
In case I’m being unclear, I really liked the soup.
So when my friend Sky casually dropped into conversation a couple of weeks back that there was a branch of Veteran in Seoul, I felt like strangling her with a knife-cut noodle. Why didn’t you tell me, I shouted, almost weeping with the injustice of it all. Why have you allowed this soup to be absent from my life for even a moment longer than necessary? There was not a moment to waste. I buried her body in an unmarked plot near the river and made a beeline for Express Bus Terminal, where this soupy nirvana was promised to me.
All buses were leading to Express Bus Terminal! It was a sign from Jebus, or perhaps the Flying Noodle Monster – He (or She) wanted me to be one with everything, but particularly with the soup. I jumped off the bus while it was still moving, I strode through the doors on a mission. Commuters parted before me, probably assuming I was late for a bus, or perhaps running for a tearful reunion with a loved one, which in a sense I was. And suddenly, there was the sign.
I hadn’t been this excited since Uma Thurman wore a leather catsuit in The Avengers back in 1998. There were a couple of other items on the menu, but my focus was laser-like. Within a couple of minutes, out came the soup. It looked the same. It smelled the same. Was it the same?
Atop the soup, all present and correct, are the Holy Trinity of savoury flavourings that elevates this bowl of noodles past the ordinary: gochugaru (red pepper flakes), roasted seaweed flakes, and ground perilla seeds.
It’s this last that makes Veteran’s kalguksu, if not exactly unique, at least different. I only discovered yesterday that the deulkkae seeds, (들깨 in Korean) also known as wild sesame, are the seeds of the perilla leaf, or gaennip (깻잎), which is one of my favourite parts of any Korean BBQ meal, so much more interesting than flavour-killing lettuce. So the perilla plant is now my favourite plant, albeit in a less than crowded field. In its seedier form, the perilla gives an edge to the broth that I can’t quite describe – a bit nutty, and indeed a little like roasted sesame seeds. Or maybe coriander seeds. Whatever. I like the seeds.
Veteran’s kalguksu also boasts a broth far richer and cloudier than the norm, thickened with egg and, no doubt, all sorts of other goodness. I take a tentative sip: so far, so good. Just look at that f*cking broth.
But now comes the ultimate test; the noodles. Are they the same as the original? I grab the slippery strands with the chopsticks and bite.
There’s no doubt that Veteran, sited as it is in the middle of the busiest bus terminal in the country, lacks the atmosphere and majesty of the Jeonju headquarters, and it suffers a little from the holiday wine syndrome – that bottle of cheap vino blanco that tasted like heaven at a little table on the beach with freshly-caught white fish somehow loses its charm when you uncork it on a wet Wednesday night in Huddersfield.
But, having been back a couple of times now, I’m convinced that the soup itself remains of the very highest quality. It’s bursting with flavour, feels healthy even if I’m sure it’s not, and endlessly warming and filling – this would be great in winter, I think. It doesn’t seem to get much love from users on Naver, which puzzles me. Maybe there’s something about the herbiness of the soup that doesn’t make everyone happy. Well, if that gets me a seat at lunchtime, so much the better.
Can I honestly recommend that you travel halfway across the city just to try it? Well, if you do, half of you will fall in love and the other half will be wondering why the hell I was raving about it. If you’re not the sort of person who thinks they could fall in love with a bowl of soup, then you should probably look elsewhere for your lunch tomorrow. But I do think everyone owes it to themselves to try it, and find out if you hear the angels singing to you as I did.
Judging by the popularity of this place at lunchtime – I walked in at ten past two on a Friday and it was full – it’s only a matter of time until other branches open around the city, if they haven’t already. Until then, all roads lead to Veteran.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Please don’t ask silly questions.
- Subway: Express Bus Terminal exit 8, follow the signs for Central City and/or the Honam Line.
- Directions: Veteran is on the left as you enter the building from the main city bus dropoff point / subway exit 8. It’s a bit of a maze in there, so good luck.
- Hours: No idea. Sorry!
Jokbal (족발) is one of those divisive Korean foods that people tend to either love or hate. Even if you haven’t eaten it, you’ve probably seen it in the market; those huge piles of whole pig’s trotter are kinda hard to miss. It took me a while to pluck up the courage to eat it, and I regret that, because jokbal isn’t anything like as disgusting as it might look to the intrepid foreign visitor to Korea. Seasoned Seoul hands probably won’t find anything in this blog post they don’t already know, but if you’re new to the country, or want to branch out a bit from Vatos and Linus BBQ, read on.
What is jokbal? Simply put, it’s pig’s foot (or leg) seasoned, boiled and deboned. It’s beyond the scope of this post to explain how it’s cooked, since I am now 40 and my bucket list emphatically does not include standing in my kitchen boiling raw pig’s trotters in my spare time, but suffice to say that the feet are boiled up for a few hours (recipes vary) with a mixture of scallion or leek, garlic, soy sauce (간장), rice wine (청주), sugar and whatnot until they are as bronzed as a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sliced and served up on a large plate with the usual accompaniments of lettuce leaves and shrimp seasoning (새우젓), it almost looks respectable. The meat is quite greasy and somewhat gamey, but if you enjoy pork then it shouldn’t really be very challenging. Dip in the shrimp for some seasoning, add some ssamjang and garlic, wrap it up in a leaf and go for it. The meat from the front leg has more flavour, but can be unpleasantly chewy for the first-timer; the meat from the back leg is said to be meatier and more tender. Your call.
In fact, jokbal’s one of the most distinctive dishes you can get here, and it’s worth trying at least once. I now find myself caught right in the middle, on the fine line between love and hate. I didn’t care for it at first, but when you go to a good, down-to-earth jokbal restaurant and have the real thing, it grows on you.
Many jokbal places give you bits and pieces of pork goodness as free accompaniments. At Mapo King Jokbal (마포왕족발) in Gongdeok Market, near to Sinchon, they bring a bubbling bowl of sundaeguk (순대국), which is a soup made with Korean blood sausage, and a plate of sundae with some other odd pieces of pig. If this is all a bit too adventurous for you (I am not a fan of sundae, I must confess), then just wait for the main event.
Needless to say, this being Korea, jokbal is held to have health-giving properties; good for the skin, due to the collagen in the trotters, it’ll have your wrinkles gone in no time, or so they say. It’s also said to be good for hangovers, which seems counter-intuitive given that everyone in the joint is usually pounding back soju like it’s going out of fashion – but hey, when in Rome. I’m not quite Korean enough to eat jokbal for breakfast to find out, so I’ll take their word for it. After all, it’s not like Korea ever makes bullshit health claims for its delicacies, right? What? Oh.
Where should you go for jokbal? I’m firmly of the view that this is a food for eating in a grimy back-alley eaterie that’s been churning out the same dish for half a century. The two best places in Seoul to get it are at the afore-mentioned Gongdeok Market (공덕시장), which is at exit 5 of Gongdeok station on line 6, halfway between Itaewon and Sinchon – take the first left out of the exit and wander the stalls of jokbal, fried snacks and binddaedeok (mung bean pancakes, which are also much nicer than they sound) – or at Jangchung’s “Jokbal alley” (장충 족발 골목), where some of the places have been in business since before the Korean War, such as 뚱뚱이할머니집 (which I think translates as “Fat Grandma’s House”) and which supposedly started life in Pyongyang before moving down south in the 50’s. Go to Dogguk University subway (동대입구역) and head out of exit 3, following the road round to the right for a couple of minutes until you hit the good stuff.
Of course you can get jokbal everywhere – in Busan they serve it up as naengchae jokbal (냉채족발), below, with mustard sauce and cold jellyfish salad – yes, you’re reading that right. I could probably live out the rest of my years without eating that again.
I must admit that, even without sliced-up jellyfish on the plate with it, I will never love jokbal the way that I love bossam, samgyeopsal or Kim Tae-Hee. But good jokbal is something worth seeking out, even if only for the Facebook pictures that your friends back home will goggle at, and who knows – you may end up loving it.
At lunchtime today I headed up the steep, steep Haebangchon hill to The 100, a brand new hole-in-the-wall burger and sandwich joint in a backstreet near the o-gori at the top of the hill. Also known as 더백푸드트럭, it’s a nice little spot, albeit a bit out of the way of the main HBC / Gyeongnidan action, although as the Korean name suggests there is a food truck of the same name which hopefully will be popping up closer to sea level for those of us who need a bus to get up the road at the best of times.
This is only a “bite-size” review, as I had a burger and nothing else on the menu, and was in and out in twenty minutes. But I’ll certainly be back to try the other items on offer.
The menu (all in Korean) comprises nachos, a Cubano sandwich, a couple of different burgers and one or two other bits and pieces, as well as juices and beers. I had the 100 Burger – always best to try the signature dish, I think. The 200g patty was handmade in front of me, and it came out with some mixed greens, tomato, swiss (I think) cheese, sauteed onions and a little bit of a sauce with some wholegrain mustard – yum.
There was also a nice and tangy coleslaw – I’m not generally a fan but I had a few forkfuls and was surprisingly happy to be eating it. Despite what the photo above might suggest, it wasn’t overloaded with mayo.
Verdict? It was very tasty. Hard to eat, even with the ubiquitous wooden skewer holding it together, it nearly fell apart on me a couple of times, and I found myself scarfing it down quickly just to make sure I didn’t lose any on the ground. That quibble aside, it was a nice burger at a very reasonable price – 7,000 won. The leaves were not your standard-in-Korea massive lettuce overkill, but complemented the nicely seasoned meat well. I stood outside eating in the sunshine and it fortified me nicely for an afternoon of work.
Despite three burger joints in a row on the HBC main drag – the divisive Jacoby’s, the somewhat meh Burgermine and the execrable Bombs Burger, which I’ve never forgiven for replacing Two Hands Burger – this is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood, and I’ll be back.
- Category: Burger
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: The 100 Burger
- Subway: not really
- Directions: From HBC o-gori (do yourself a favour and get the bus), walk along the street with the convenience store on the lefthand corner and Namsan on your right. You’ll get to The 100 about three or four minutes along the road, on your left.
- Hours: Apparently 11:30am – 10pm, but don’t take my word for it. It’s newly open so hours may vary.