What is it about the hot sweaty weather that makes me crave the flesh of the pig? This time last year, almost to the week, I was engaged in a batshit crazy scheme to travel round Seoul looking for the best dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥), or pork and rice soup, that I could find, eventually plumping for one near Sinsa station as my favourite. (I don’t propose to go back over the finer points of this great Busan dish – you can find lots more explanation of what it is and how it should be served at that old post.)
Recently a well-known gukbap franchise opened a store a few moments’ walk from my work, so I’ve popped in there a couple of times to have some soup over lunchtime. But to be honest, it’s a pale imitation of the real thing and I always leave feeling a bit meh. So when I had an unexpected long lunch break today, I decided to do a little Naver-ing to see if there was anywhere nearby that I’d missed. And there was.
Dureban is just a block from Gangnam-gu Office station on the confluence of line 7 and the Bundang line. It has immediately vaulted to the top of my list, and I intend to become something of a regular, because the 돼지국밥 here was great.
The soup is served bubbling hot, as is customary in Korea. While you wait for it to descend from boiling to merely scalding, you set about adding your seasonings to taste. Salty, fermented baby shrimp (새우젓) add saltiness and umami; gochugaru (고추가루) adds some heat and depth; ground perilla seeds (들깨) add, well, 들깨ness.
Unlike many other places I’ve visited, though, Dureban also provides you with your own chives and chili to add as the whim takes you – useful for those of us who like to personalise our lunch to taste.
As the bubbles subsided and the steam cleared, I began to realise that the plethora of condiments wasn’t the only point in this place’s favour.
The soup was absolutely crammed with pork. A couple of the places I visited last year were good, but a little skimpy on the swine, with little shavings of pig where big chunks should be.
Here at Dureban, there’s a combination of the two – generous thinly sliced pork meat throughout the bowl, but two or three larger chunks lurking in there too, with just the right amount of fat. With a nice bit of kimchi on top, they were just begging to be despatched, and quickly were.
The broth is great here – not transcendent, but far better than some of the weak, blander bases I’ve tasted in the past. By now the sweat was building on my forehead, but I finished every drop.
There’s a sundaeguk on the menu too, as well as some other meaty dishes for the evening visitor, but I can’t speak to those.
Dureban was great, and as I exited through the outside “tent-bar” style annex (below), which would be great for night-time drinking, I found the bus stop back to my office not four paces from the front door. It’s like God wants me to come back. I will.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Dwaejigukbap (돼지국밥)
- Subway: Gangnam-gu office (강남구청역) exit 3.
- Directions: Come out of exit 3 and double back to the intersection before turning left. Dureban is 150 metres or so on the left, look for the black sign as above.
- Hours: Uncertain, though open lunchtimes and Saturdays, at least. Try calling them on 02-514-8229.
Gamjatang is one of my favourite Korean soups, though even to call it “soup” is stretching a definition, as we’ll see. Made with pork neck bones, potatoes and a rich red broth, it’s one of the most visually striking dishes you can get, the huge bones poking out of the dark liquid like the skeleton of some fearful creature of the deep. It’s not entry-level Korean food and no mistake, but if you can get over the slightly scary appearance of your lunch – or if, like me, you see it and instantly want to try it – you really shouldn’t miss it.
Anyway, my mind turned to gamjatang this week when Dan Gray posted up his favourite five places to get this soup, over at Seoul Eats. When I saw his photo of the offering from Dongwon Jip, in the city centre, I knew what I wanted to eat. So I made the expedition to Euljiro 3-ga yesterday at lunchtime to see if the taste matched the photos.
Dongwon Jip is a little hole-in-the-wall place in the industrial area of Euljiro 3-ga, surrounded by little hardware shops selling copper wire, metal sheeting, paint and tools and God only knows what else. This is a dreadful old cliché, but it looks unchanged from what Seoul must have looked like in the 1970s, an ever-shrinking island of stasis in the midst of a sea of rapid change.
Daniel Tudor, the erstwhile Economist correspondent for Korea and co-owner of the Booth pizza pub chain, talks about how some people are Gangnam style while others are Gangbuk style, preferring north of the river to the clean open but characterless avenues of the south side of Seoul. Well, call me a Gangbuk saram, even if a big sweaty white guy sticks out in the streets round Dongwon Jip like a nun in a strip club.
This isn’t a place to take a girl on a first date, unless she likes sitting among soju-swilling ajosshis picking shards of pork off a huge pig bone. (If she does, for God’s sake propose to her immediately.)
It’s no-frills, and while there’s other stuff on the menu, the soup is the star. There are group-sized portions, as you’d expect, but at lunchtime most people are eating the individual servings for 7,000 won, so that’s what I got.
Gamjatang – here known as “gamjaguk” (감자국), but it’s the same stuff – can be fiddly to eat. The bones are cooked for ages, so that the meat is literally falling off them, but there’s still a bit of surgery to do with chopsticks and spoon to pull all the pork from the skeleton. I’ve been to places where this needed scissors or a very firm grip, but the meat is so well cooked here that it really does fall from the bones with just a nudge of a spoon.
As you slowly work your way through the bowl, discarding bits of spine as you go, you’ll occasionally encounter smaller pieces of bone in the bowl, so be careful. Again, this soup was so well made that was barely an issue. Despite its deep red colour, the broth wasn’t spicy, or at least not especially so. Instead, it was rich and flavourful, with lots of spring onion and garlic to pep it up. Huge chunks of potato help the soup live up to its name (though there is some dispute about whether the “gamja” in the name refers to the pork neck, the potatoes, or both). So filling, even for a big man like me.
You can eat the soup with rice and little bits of pork in it. Larger pieces can be smeared with ssamjang and maybe a small shard of garlic and eaten with chopsticks. I got some odd looks for pulling bones out of the soup with my fingers, but then again I was getting a lot of curious looks anyway, perhaps because I was a foreigner, or perhaps because despite it being lunchtime, I was the only person in the restaurant not pounding back soju.
The kimchi here is lovely, tangy and fresh, and there’s some radish as well to keep you going. I can’t imagine you’d need it – such a generous portion of soup for 7,000 won. I hate to imagine what the big size looks like.
Dongwon Jip serves up a really, really good bowl of soup. God, it was satisfying, hearty and rich. I was sweating like bejesus, more from the humid day than the spice of the soup, but it was totally worth it. I can imagine it being even better in winter. But there’s no way I’m waiting until then to come here again. About as down to earth a Korean food experience as you can have, but one of the best. Recommended.
- Category: Korean
- Price: $$$$
- Must try: Gamjaguk (감자국)
- Subway: Euljiro 3-ga station / 을지로 3-가 역) exit 4.
- Directions: There’s more than one way to get here, but the easiest is as follows: come out of exit 4 and turn immediately left into the little alleyway in the second photo of this post. Walk along the street for a couple of minutes and you will come upon the restaurant on your right, next to a chicken place. There is no English signage at all, so you should look for the shopfront shown in the photos above. Once inside just ask for the gamjaguk. If it’s full, there’s a staircase leading up to a second floor, just to the left of the main door.
- Hours: Monday – Saturday all day until 10pm.
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.
I had the day off today, and with the nice weather I thought I would take a wander up to Gwangjang Market (광장시장), near Jongro 5-ga. Gwangjang Market is a multi-purpose market, with lots of textile shops in particular for anyone who’s looking for fabrics, but mention it to any Seoulite and they will instantly think of food. So I took my camera with me to take some snaps and look for a cheap lunch with all the locals (and quite a lot of Chinese tourists, for some reason). The interior of the food market is a riot of shops and stalls selling seafood, bindaeddok (mung bean pancakes), pajeon, jokbal, sundae, raw beef bibimbap, and some wicked kalguksu (noodle soup). Takeout chicken feet for only $5 a cup. Steal.
This poor old guy had seen better days. But I was here to eat, and there are more sit-down stalls here than you could eat at in a lifetime. First up, kalguksu (칼국수), the knife-cut noodles soft against the rich broth. Yum, and only 5,000 won. So much food. I had some meat bindaeddok (고기빈대떡). For just 4,000 won I was stuffed. Brilliant value, and the ajosshis sitting next to me were so delighted at my speaking Korean, however poorly, that they insisted on giving me some magkeolli. After that I spent a little while translating for some Chinese tourists who couldn’t communicate with the ajumma. Gwangjang Market is at exit 7 of Jongro 5-ga, though I took the No. 143 bus from HBC which drops you literally at the entrance in about 15 minutes. Open until quite late, I believe. Go there! If your Korean is slim to non-existent, some English is spoken, or just point and eat. Nothing better.
I’ve been too busy to post anything substantive over the past week or two, but busy mostly eating rather than anything else. If you are on Instagram and follow me (@sojusunrise) you probably see a stream of calorific goodness and wonder how I am still alive. (Those of you who know me personally will know that it is touch and go…)
So here are a half-dozen bite-sized chunks of what I have been eating since the Lunar New Year. A couple of these establishments are new, while a couple are merely new to me, but all of them will be hearing from my lawyers in the event of my death from massive food overdose, which is probably imminent. Forgive the occasionally blurry iPhone pics – I am still working on an old 4S so if I don’t have my real camera with me it’s basically like shooting in a fishtank.
Little Baja, Itaewon
The newest place on this list by far, Little Baja opened up during February in the increasingly trendy lanes behind Itaewon’s main drag. I remember when this whole area was a wasteland of crappy flats and dark alleyways, but no longer. Little Baja serves exclusively seafood tacos, and is a great place to pop in for lunch. I had the fish taco and the shrimp taco – the former was pretty good, the latter was fantastic, in a slightly crispy corn taco piled high with cabbage and home-made sauce. Both were about 4,000won (I forget exactly, but in that ballpark). Recommended.
Directions: In the back alley behind McDonalds in Itaewon, walk along until you hit the CU Mart. Little Baja is on the street heading down opposite that, 50m on your right.
Baby Greek, Seollung
Baby Greek is hidden in an anonymous basement food court in an office block in the Seollung area. It’s basically the most unpromising site for a Greek gyros place you can imagine, and despite working 5 minutes from here, I’d never have had a clue it existed were it not for Gemma’s blog post about it a while back. I finally got myself here this week, and I’m glad I did. Easily the best gyros in Korea, the chicken was juicy, the bread perfect, the tsatsiki fresh and garlicky and tasting like it’s made with proper Greek yoghurt, not the rubbish you usually find here.
My family have lived in Greece for 35 years, so I’ve had a thousand different gyros in a hundred different places; this is a lot better than a lot of cheap gyros you get in Athens, and for 6,000 won I was totally stuffed. I hope the owner is plying her trade above ground before long, so let’s give her some love.
Directions: Yeah, just get Gemma to explain it. Avoid going at 12 noon because every salaryman in Seollung descends on this small basement food court and there’s not a wipe-down table to be had.
Following a discussion on a Facebook page (Sandwich Lovers Seoul), I dropped in to Beirut during the week. It’s a tiny place – three small tables – on the way up to the mosque in Itaewon. The lamb sandwich runs 5,000won and contains minced lamb keema, a couple of different types of pickle, tomato, mayo and a little onion. The bread is freshly baked to order, so you’ll wait about ten minutes to get your sandwich. It’s totally worth it, I think.
The end result is tasty although in comparison to the gyros I had in Baby Greek it was far less filling and I was still hungry afterwards. Worth a visit if you are nearby, though I wouldn’t go to Itaewon specifically to eat it.
Directions: On the left as you walk up the road towards the mosque. See the Itaewon map at the end of this post.
Hassan Haider has been serving up hotdogs from this funky hole in the wall in Gyeongnidan since the turn of the year, give or take. The interior is pretty much a meat-lovers’ paradise, because he shares space with a butcher, so you’ll be munching on your hotdog with sides of beef hanging in plain view. I loved it, though I’m damned if I was able to get a decent photo of these bad boys.
The fennel sausage is topped with creamy garlic slices, and my favourite – the cajun hot link – just defies explanation or description. Hard to eat but easy to finish. Hassdog is constantly looking to improve the recipes so the menu is definitely subject to change. If you haven’t been here yet, you should.
Old-style beef restaurant (옛날막고기), Yongsan
I took advantage of a nice crisply sunny day last week to wander down to Yongsan for some shopping, and dropped in to this little Korean restaurant for some lunch. It was exceptional. It’s a meat-based menu, with a nice interior quite unlike your usual stripped-down gogijip aesthetic, and apparently very well known in the area for its pork and beef. I had a spicy pork stir fry (jeyyuk-bokkeum, 제육볶음, if my spelling isn’t letting me down) and it came out with a whole heap of banchan, a great little doenjang-jjigae (됀장찌개) loaded with more pork, and a clucking ajumma who was clearly delighted to see a foreigner chowing down like a local – offering me, with great ceremony, a fork that looked like it had been sitting in a drawer since the Park Jung-Hee era.
When I see articles saying that Seoul is one of the 10 most expensive cities in the world, and compare it with my experiences in places like this, I just have to snort with laughter. This meal cost me 6,000 won and it was as good a lunch as I’ve had all year. Of course if I’d known exactly what the name meant – it doesn’t really translate into English – I’d probably never have gone in. Glad I did. Super.
Directions: Come out of Samgakji station exit 4 and walk down towards Yongsan iPark mall. It’ll be on your right. From Shin-Yongsan station, come out of exit 6 and walk up in the opposite direction until you see it on your left. You will need to read Korean to be sure which one it is, though, as there is very little written in English.
Guilty Pleasure, Itaewon
Not new, but new to me. Guilty Pleasure takes a little finding, but this is a great brunch spot. Our party had Eggs Benedict, which comes with beetroot-cured smoked salmon (I was wary, because I loathe beetroot, but it was really good), the brunch platter of eggs, bacon, biscuit and gravy, and some fabulous truffle-flavoured scrambled eggs with duck prosciutto, to which I added an order of chips. I didn’t partake of the cocktails as I had to head off to work soon afterwards, but from what I hear, they are also pretty good. I’ll come back here again.
Dongin Dong, Seollung
My absolute favourite spicy galbijjim place in Gangnam is the mighty Dongin Dong in Sinsa, which is worth a trip across the city (I reviewed it here). This outpost may be related to the original, it may not, I’ve no idea. It’s very close to my work, though, so after classes one night this week I headed across with a couple of fellow teachers to introduce them to the joys of spicy beef and jeon. When I specifically asked the sajangnim to make it spicy, his raised eyebrow was worthy of the most supercilious Paris maître d’ – and when it came out, sizzling in its cast-iron pot… great Odin’s raven, it was spicy. Beads of sweat formed on our brows, and we sucked down makgeolli like men who had just crossed a desert on camel-back.
The jeon is not in the same league as the pancakes in Sinsa, where they bring out great heaping mounds of pork, oysters, tofu and courgette all battered-up and fried, but the galbijjim is arguably better. I love this place. Not cheap – the set of 2 portions galbijjim and a selection of jeon runs 49,000 won – but so worth it.
Directions: From Seollung subway, head out exit 2 and after about 50m turn left at Linko onto the main food street. After another 100m or so, you come to another food street heading down to the right. Turn down there, and Dongin Dong is on the left about two-thirds of the way down, on the left, with a white sign and some benches outside. Again, it’s all in Korean (menu included), so you need to read Korean, bring a Korean, or just point at the set menu on the wall and hope for the best!
One of the reasons I started this blog was to try and demystify Korean food for foreigners, and recommend great places that I had found (or been taken to) for traditional Korean dishes. In the year or so since I started, though, I have more often ended up demystifying foreign food for my Korean friends; I get frequent texts these days asking me for directions to Linus or Braai Republic, or asking the best place in Itaewon to get a taco.
While that’s great – there is nothing I love better than playing tour guide in our newly-hip part of town – I’ve had a hankering recently to get back to those initial ambitions. There’s a world of amazing Korean food out there waiting to be discovered, and it distresses me when my foreign friends and co-workers walk past a great galbijjim place to eat a mediocre pizza instead. So, when I get hold of some awesome local food, I want to share it as widely as possible – and, since I’m still learning about Korean food, I have a lot of discovering still to do.
This is a bit different though, because when I had a couple of days off this week I decided to hop on a bus to Jeonju with an equally hungry friend. Jeonju, down in the southwestern province of Jeolla-do, is widely reputed as the culinary capital of the country, the home of the famous Jeonju bibimbap but also more generally just the best place in Korea to eat. Food here is better, fresher and tastier than Seoul, and comes with more side dishes than usual, each prepared with care and attention to detail. Or so I was told. On a rainy Sunday night, I hopped on to a bus and south into the dark night I went.
Our first stop – literally straight from the bus station, bags on the shoulder – was Seoshin-dong, to visit the long-established Yetchon Makgeolli (옛촌 막걸리), which is about as traditional a drinking den as you could wish for – brimful of ajossis and young guys knocking back the dangerous, milky brew. The deal here is that you buy a set – ours was 30,000 won – which includes a HUGE kettle of makgeolli and 8 – count ’em, 8 – dishes, several of which would have made a meal in their own right. Chicken soup, kimchijeon, fish, mussels, oysters, jokbal – the hits kept coming.
At one stage in the evening, I made a daft makgeolli-fuelled comment about how, well, Korean the food was, but in that stupidity lay a nugget of truth; never mind making concessions to the foreign palate, this place’s cooking made no concessions to the Seoul palate. A large plate of kimchijjim – pork with tofu and braised kimchi – came out next. The kimchi was a sweet-and-sour masterpiece, or monstrosity, depending on your point of view. It was all too much for me, the flavour almost overwhelming.
Next morning, we were in search of a little restoration. So we headed to the mighty Veteran Kalguksu (베테랑 칼국수), which I was assured would serve me up a bowl of noodle soup for the soul, and after walking through a rabbit-warren of kitchens and dining areas, finally found a spot right at the back of the maze-like restaurant.
Dear God, this place was good. Like the famous bibimbap of this city, the soup comes “unmixed” and you swirl the ingredients together with a little bit of gochugaru (red pepper powder) to taste.
It really was nothing like other versions of kalguksu I’ve had. The broth was so good; thick and flavourful. It was like a religious experience; I’m not sure the word “soup” can really do it justice.
I was reminded of the old line about how Alexander the Great, on seeing the breadth of his domain, sat down and wept because there were no more worlds left to conquer. How can you open a can of Campbell’s chicken soup after this?
Whatever. On! Jeonju’s hanok village is a riot of traditional houses and tourist tat. Selfie sticks lurk round every corner, ready to poke your eyes out. We ate some fabulous shrimp dumplings that were more like large prawn cakes, and the famous octopus skewers which, frankly, I passed on.
This guy seemed to have captured the chest-bursting monster from Alien and deep fried it with extreme prejudice. “Extreme Fritters” indeed.
We queued up for fresh-baked hotteok at this funky little store, which allegedly makes only 200 a day. I’m not a fan of sweet things, but this was exceptionally nice.
There was precious little space in our stomachs, but there was one more dish that we had to try. Of course, it’s the famous Jeonju bibimbap. Now, when it comes to bibimbap, I can take it or leave it; I’ll never fully shake off my conviction that rice is an accompaniment to a meal, not a meal in itself (almost the polar opposite of the Korean point of view), and as for vegetables, well, don’t get me started.
This was something else, though. At Seong Mi Dang (성미당), the bibimbap comes out with a plethora of banchan. I read somewhere recently that restaurants always serve odd numbers of side dishes, for luck. I have no idea if it’s true, but let’s go with “yes”. Anyway, I counted thirteen here. Thirteen!
This place has been serving up bowls of bibimbap for 50 years, which in Korean terms is an eternity. I had the raw beef bibimbap (육회 비빔밥), and if anything can convert me into a lover of Korea’s national dish, it is this place. This is one of those rare photos, I think, which captures just how special this dish was.
So there you have it, Jeonju food. It’s just two hours from Seoul by KTX, but the bus is less than half the price and only took about two and a half hours from Express Bus Terminal in Seoul. Whichever way you get there, you should definitely go. On this evidence, Jeonju’s reputation as the epicentre of good Korean food is well-deserved.