In search of pig and rice Nirvana
Recently I was in Busan for work [sic] and had the opportunity to try the great non-fishy specialty of that city, dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥), pork and rice soup. In an alleyway tucked behind the teeming shopping streets of Seomyeon in Busan, a whole row of spit-and-sawdust restaurants serve up bowls of filling, life-affirming soup, with great seething vats of boiling pork out front to entice you in. These are real ajosshi hangouts, with nary a tourist to be seen – one old guy couldn’t take his eyes off me all through my dinner, and I don’t think he was admiring my fine pectoral muscles. For 6,000 won you get a big bowl of meaty, warming soup, as well as all the side dishes you can eat.
After this, I was hooked. But Busan is a long way and the KTX ticket adds several zeroes to the cost of that soup. Surely I could find something comparable in Seoul? Alas, my Korean friends told me, there aren’t many places in the capital that can do a decent 돼지국밥, and certainly nowhere that compares to Busan. Put it out of your mind, they advised. Stick to traditional Seoul specialities, they suggested, like budaejjigae, or sweet potato pizza.
Well, said I, balls to that. Somewhere in this teeming metropolis of fifteen million souls, there must be someone who knows how to boil a piece of pork in some water for six hours, surely? And so I went on a hunt for the best dwaejigukbap I could find, with the help of some generous Seoul Eats Facebook group members and some Naver-ing of my own. My search would take me to all four corners of the city, going through five pigs, three gallons of those little salty shrimps, two dining companions and half a dozen bowls of rice.
The basics of dwaejigukbap are simple. According to Jessica Steele – whose awesome and insanely comprehensive blog post on this subject is here (seriously, there’s music videos and everything) – pork bones are boiled three times to make the broth, to which soft slices of pork, spring onion and various other seasonings are added. Brought to the table along with the soup are the regulation bowls of rice and kimchi. An indispensable side dish is radish (깍두기), which I’m assured is the key to any good dwaejigukbap joint, “as central to dwaejigukbap as the chips in fish and chips”, or so I was told.
As well as these, you’ll usually get garlic (마늘), green chillis (고추), garlic chives (부추) and noodles (면). Some restaurants will offer you additional portions of sundae (순대), or variations in which the meat is plated up and served separately. Any and all of these can be thrown in, munched separately, or whatever; this is not fine dining, but rather a meal whose origins, like budaejjigae, lie in resourceful Koreans, in this case Busanites, making the best of what they had to hand in the darkest days of the Korean War. In most of these places, the locals will be surprised enough to even see a foreigner, so don’t stop to give a toss what the proper etiquette is.
Finally, and crucially, you will find little pots of salted shrimp (새우젓) and hot red pepper paste (gochujang – 고추장), along, sometimes, with more familiar salt and pepper. These do need to be added, since the soup as brought to table is fairly bland and will definitely need at least a little bit of salt and spice added, depending on your taste. Since the saltiness of the shrimp and the heat of the gochujang varies from place to place, proceed with caution at first and add more after a couple of exploratory spoonfuls.
First stop on my porky odyssey was Donsubaek (돈수백), which describes itself on its website as a “Premium Pig Rice Soup Franchise”. There are branches all over the city, but we went to the Sinnonhyeon branch, which coincidentally is right next to the mighty Ceramic House, which I reviewed a couple of weeks back. (Directions to all of these restaurants are at the bottom of this page.)
As a restaurant experience, it was about as far from Busan’s food alley as you could imagine; all air-conditioning, clean surfaces and a resolute lack of noisily slurping ajosshis in hiking gear. I will leave it to you to decide if this is a good thing or bad. Service was quick and efficient, and the spread of side dishes all present and correct.
So, how was the soup? Short version: pretty damn good. As usual, it needed plenty of seasoning, which turned it from the milky white colour in the first photo below into the richer pinkish hue of the final, ready-to-eat version.
All in all, this was a fine bowl of soup. It didn’t quite hit the heights of Busan (spoiler alert; none of the dwaejigukbap places reviewed in this blog post will), but to be honest it was pretty damn good. The biggest pleasure was the price: just 6,500 won in the heart of Gangnam for a filling meal. My dining companion, who describes herself as a gukbap obsessive, pronounced herself satisfied, although she admitted that she is easily satisfied. For convenience (24 hours a day), locations all over the city, a good quality broth and side dishes, and overall value, Donsubaek gets 8/10.
Could we do better? I was sure that we could. And so, the very next day – actually, the lunchtime after the evening before – I headed up to Chungmuro to the second stop in the trail, Chungmuro Dwaejigukbap (충무로 돼지국밥), about which I had read good things. But disaster! Naver had lied to me; the restaurant was gone, replaced by – I can barely bring myself to type the words – a bloody Paris Baguette café. Dispirited, I glumly searched the map, but salvation was at hand; an alternate option a couple of stops along the subway in Sindang (신당). Fifteen minutes later, and getting hungry now, I was at 국밥이야기, and I was quickly sitting down to my second bowl in the space of a day.
This place was a bit more rough-and-ready than the franchise restaurant of the previous night. No noodles were forthcoming, and seasoning was restricted to shrimp and gochujang but no salt and pepper, but otherwise everything was present and correct. The ajumma was delighted to see a white man on the premises and, mistaking my hesitation to spoon the boiling liquid into my gob for some sort of waegook ignorance, made a point of showing me how to eat the soup with the rice and generally clucking over me.
My general feeling was that this soup wasn’t quite as tasty as the previous night. The pork was a bit fattier (no bad thing, in itself), the broth just a bit meh. The chives had been pre-added, so that was one less variable for the diner to control. The price was even better than the previous day, though, at 6,000 won, and the serving was generous, with an even bigger one on the menu for just a couple of thousand more. Overall, if I lived within walking distance of 국밥이야기 I’m pretty sure I’d be in there at least once a week, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend travelling across the city for it. 7/10.
On! A few days later I found myself heading out from work late on a Friday night, and Gangnam traffic was typically nose-to-tail, so a hop onto the subway seemed in order. Was there somewhere on my route home that I could grab some dinner, I wondered. So I took a look at Naver, and lo and behold… could it be…? A gentle stroll from Seocho station, there was another dwaejigukbap joint. Perfect.
So the next stop on my tour was Iga (이가돼지국밥). Down a small flight of stairs – there’s something very exciting to me about Korean basement restaurants, because you never know what you’re going to find – I was about to have the best pork and rice soup yet.
The restaurant was neither ghetto nor upmarket, but somewhere in between; pretty big, spotlessly clean once again, with a couple of tables of office workers grazing on bossam and soju. The ajumma looked at me with that familiar panic-stricken face as I walked in, but relaxed when I addressed her in my shitty Korean. Quickly the side dishes and accessories were delivered to my table, and after three or four minutes, I got my soup. Iga offered up the usual bits and pieces – including chopped green chillies, a tight coil of noodles, and earthenware pots of radish and kimchi – the latter just to my foreign taste, aged but not too bitter, hot but not insanely so.
But of course, no-one comes here for the kimchi. So, how was the soup? A first exploratory taste, with only a smattering of seasoning added, was inconclusive. It looked a bit – well, meh. As I started to add seasonings, the sympathetic ajumma hovered, warning me not to add too much spice for my delicate foreign palate and helping me with the odd dish, but mostly just standing around watching me with rapt interest, the way you might watch Roger Moore disarm a ticking atomic bomb. A spoonful or two of shrimpy saltiness, gochujang and black pepper later, and the soup was transformed. Goddamn, this was good.
The ajumma knew her stuff. The broth was subtler than at the previous establishments, but as I supped it grew on me. I think the gochujang may have been more concentrated, I don’t know; certainly the picture above suggests a darker and spicier soup than I’d had before, and the chili slowly began to draw beads of sweat out on my brow, to her immense satisfaction. The pork was sliced more thinly than I’d had elsewhere, more like thin sliced roast pork than bossam meat. I did slightly miss the hearty chunks of pork of my earlier meals, but I would be lying if I said this was anything other than utterly satisfactory. On taste it was level with the 돈수백 soup, or maybe a chive’s-width superior; but the personal touch gave it a slight edge over the chain-restaurant efficiency of the first stop on my journey. The price was right, at 6,000 won. And this was the sort of place I could picture getting pissed in with a bunch of friends, which is always a good sign. 8.5/10.
Next, I found myself in Daehan Gukbap (대한국밥), in a tangle of streets near Samgakji station. Near the train tracks the fancy apartments of Yongsan give way to low rise buildings of an altogether more modest vintage; the area behind 대한국밥 consists of little but shacks that have probably not seen a lick of paint since the Park Chung-Hee era. But this wasn’t quite the gritty taxi-driver hangout that I was beginning to expect; instead, it is part of the Baek Jong-won empire, he of the ubiquitous meat restaurants and cute pop-star wife 15 years his junior. I arrived just after twelve on a weekday, and got the last free seat; soon there were office workers lining up under the warm drizzle outside for a bowl of soup. Cheek by jowl with slurping Koreans, I only got one photo before the stares of those queuing patiently for their lunch shamed me into putting my phone down and getting tucked in.
Verdict: meh. A solid bowl of soup, this had a few things going for it. The pork was not as lean as some of the other establishments, which I consider to be a plus; though sliced thin, there were plenty of authentically fatty slices lurking in there. The gochujang was either home-made or tarted up with some extra chilli and garlic, and the chopped green gochu was almost Thai in its fieriness. The broth was so-so, however, and I felt that I was adding a lot of seasoning to dial up the flavour. When I stepped outside and discovered that the stop for the green number 3 bus that would take me all the way back home to HBC was right outside, I knew that I would be back, but there’s no way I would travel cross-town for this soup. 7.5/10.
By now, I won’t lie, I was beginning to flag. The weather was getting hotter and clammier, and wandering the streets of Seoul looking for hot soup was beginning to seem like an insane waste of my time. You think it’s hard work reading this? Try visiting all these dwaejigukbap joints day after day. Just try typing “dwaejigukbap” all these times. In my feverish dreams, pigs danced in front of my eyes, little shrimps screamed in their salty mass graves. But I wasn’t going to give up quite yet. Not while those pigs still roaming the earth unslaughtered. One more push, Andy.
My final stop was supposed to be a gamjatang and dwaejigukbap place near Isu station, but ten minutes of fruitless wandering around there in the boiling midday sun persuaded me that Naver had lied again, the restaurant gone and replaced by what seems to be a sexy bar (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this represents progress or not). So I clambered back on the subway and headed across to my fallback choice, Busan Dwaejigukbap (부산 돼지국밥) near Sinsa station. What a lucky choice it was.
This restaurant got almost everything right. Although the chives were, again, pre-added, the soup made up for it. By far the porkiest-flavoured of all the broths I tasted, I could actually believe that the pleasingly fatty slices of meat had actually simmered therein for hours on end.
The shrimpy seasoning was very salty, the gochujang nicely hot. There was no chopped chilli, unfortunately, but to make up for it a small metal canister arrived at my table, unbidden, with a fried egg inside.
The soup was spot on and I couldn’t fault it in any way. Overall it was every bit as good as the offering from Iga down in Seocho and, at 6,500 won, will definitely join my rotation of regular haunts in this part of town. 8.5/10.
And so I proclaim joint winners of my (utterly arbitrary and meaningless) award for best 돼지국밥 in Seoul: Iga in Seocho and Busan Dwaejigukbap in Sinsa. I would suggest the former for dinner with friends and a couple of drinks, the latter for lunch on the go.
So, the takeaways from this experiment? 1. There’s no such thing as a bad bowl of 돼지국밥. 2. The broth matters above all, but the bits and pieces that come with it make the experience, allowing you to personalise it to taste. I know that I like my dwaejigukbap quite salty and quite spicy, but others will disagree. 3. Ajummas will always help you out, even if you aren’t sure exactly what to do or what to add to your meal; staff in a chain restaurant will be far more scared of talking to a waegook, if you are indeed a foreigner. 4. Schlepping around Seoul eating bowls of almost identical soup make a man go just a little bit mad. 5. They are all trumped by the dwaejigukbap of dwaejigukbap alley in Seomyeon, Busan. Go to Busan.
Donsubaek (돈수백) – branches all over the city. To get to their Sinnonyheon outlet, come out of exit 4 and walk down the alley in the general direction of Gangnam station, and then take the first left. Donsubaek will be on your left. Open 24 hrs.
Gukbap Iyagi (국밥이야기) – Sindang station exit 9. Walk a minute or two and turn right at Starbucks. The restaurant is about 50 yards down the sidestreet on the left. Opening hours unknown.
Iga (이가돼지국밥) – Seocho station exit 1. Turn right immediately after exiting the station down the sidestreet running parallel with the main road. Iga is about 5 minutes down the road on the left, look out for the big white sign. Open 24 hours.
Daehan Gukbap (대한국밥) – Samgakji station exit 8 or 9. Walk straight from the exit up and over the railroad tracks, and Daehan Gukbap is in the block of shops and lunch places at the foot of the other side of the bridge. Alternatively the No. 3 green bus from Gyeongnidan will stop here – keep your eyes open for the railway and get off before it turns down towards Yongsan. Opening hours unknown.
Busan Dwaejigukbap (부산 돼지국밥) – Sinsa station exit 4. Turn left out of the exit and walk past the petrol station, along the main road west from Sinsa station. Busan Dwaejigukbap is just a couple of minutes along the road. Opening hours unknown.
There are plenty of other places in Seoul selling the same dish. Some, no doubt, are better. Which is your favourite? Let me know. I’m not porked out yet!