You’ll see gamjatang (감자탕) described as pork spine stew, but don’t let that put you off. ‘Spine’ feels too visceral and gnarly for this comforting and frankly delicious dish. Think of it instead as a pork bone stew with vegetables, just like your grandma would make, if she had a penchant for chilli.
Gamjatang is peasant food, hearty and filling. It’s commonly eaten at ridiculous-o’clock to stave off, or cure, a hangover, or as an excuse to continue drinking, which means that gamjatang joints are often open 24 hours. Every version I’ve had has been different, of varying degrees of spiciness from gochujang and gochujaru, with any combination of enoki mushrooms, perilla leaves, mugwort, onions, spinach, cabbage and potatoes (gamja, 감자). Wild sesame (perilla) powder (들깨가루, deulkkae garu) and fermented soybean paste (된장, deonjang) are essential additions that round out the meaty spiciness. The cooking is finished at your table, excellent as you can order bokkeumbap to finish, terrible if you’re starving. Some places will also serve it in individual portions, which arrive bubbling and ready to eat, cheap and filling. Or, they may have something similar: bone hangover soup (뼈해장국, ppyeo haejangguk) though I can’t guarantee it’ll make you feel better after a hard night.
So gamjatang is potato soup, right? Well, gamja (감자) does mean potato but they’re not strictly necessary. So we’re talking about a potato-less potato soup then. Well, not really. Gamjatang has a long history, starting before potatoes were introduced to Korea in the 19th century. Back then, the word for pig backbone was also gamja (감자). Or so the internet and my Korean friends tell me. And although I’ve heard rumours of a second explanation, gamja most certainly does not mean affection, a ruse my boyfriend tried on me. To complicate the issue even further, it is also known as gamjaguk. While both are words for soup, tang (탕) is the polite form, so using guk (국) indicates a certain friendliness or warmth.
There is a moderately famous gamjaguk street in my neighbourhood. You know the kind, where every restaurant serves the same thing and has been doing so for decades. The sort of place you want to visit to eat one dish expertly prepared, though perhaps not in the most luxurious of settings. This street is a short walk from my house, and a slow waddle home. We always visit Daerim Gamjaguk (대림감자국), the first restaurant on the right, for no reason other than that our first meal here was sensational.
Now, let’s get back to that spine business. If you don’t like picking meat off bones, this dish isn’t for you. And while we’re on tips: don’t wear a white shirt, or if you do, ask for an apron. At first glance it may seem all bones, but exploration will deliver a bounty. Scrape the meat off with your spoon, then pop the vertebrae apart and suck off what’s left like a caveman. The meat and tendons will have softened, with the whole lot permeated by the superb broth, not overly spicy, and undeniably Korean.
This version has lots of vegetables, my favourite being the slightly bitter mugwort and pungent perilla. Potatoes are hidden at the bottom, to soften and absorb the spicy, rich stock while it slowly bubbles away, table-side. The servings here are generous, the small size has at least 6 bone sections heavy with pork, not to mention what has fallen off and floats in the soup. As it simmers the soup is enriched, so spicy and savoury it’d be a shame to waste.
But try to save room for bokkeumbap (볶음밥, fried rice). At Daerim Gamjaguk it’s prepared on a dining room hotplate. Fragrant with sesame oil and soup seasonings, loaded with seasoned seaweed and fat soy bean sprouts it’s an essential end to a fabulous meal, no matter how full you already are.
Daerim Market Gamjaguk Street
I visit the first place on the right, 대림감자국 (Daerim Gamjaguk).
Small Gamjatang (enough for two very hungry people, better suited to three moderately hungry people) 22,000won
Bokkeumbap (fried rice) 2,000won per serve.
Location: Saejeol Station (line #6). Take exit 2, go straight then turn left over the bridge. Turn right into the alley that runs alongside the stream, and take the first alley on the left. Daerim Market gamjaguk street is across the first major crossroad, you’ll see the sign.