Korean Cuisine’s Best Kept Secret is Found in Busan Posted by Tony Kitchen on Jan 8, 2014 in Uncategorized
The first time I was offered dog soup–a very rare, intolerable meal in modern day Korea–I turned it down not because it was gastronomically unethical, but because it reminded me too much of what I always considered Korea’s greatest soup, Busan’s pork rice soup (Dwaeji gukbop, 돼지국밥). Busan prides itself on this little known, heavy soup, a dense meal in a steaming stone bowl. It remains a Korean culinary secret off the peninsula, and something worth hunting down on it.
If you mention your affection for dwaeji gukbop to a Korean, they will laugh, repeat the name, and ask you how you know of it. It’s the Busan people’s dish, with a long alley (affectionately called “Dwaeji gukbap alley”) in Busan’s downtown area of Seomyeon lined with billowing steam from curbside restaurants boiling the soup outside its doors. It’s not far from what one could imagine during the Korean War (1950-53) when millions of refugees were forced to the last bit of land the North Koreans never reached: the city of Busan.
With the people starving, the pork offered by the U.S. Army was the only food in abundance. A soup more familiar to the refugees, an ox-tail soup named Seolleongtang (설렁탕), worked well with pork and went a long way. Ox bones weren’t exactly a war time luxury to be had, and so Busan’s culinary staple was born. (An alternative version of dwaeji gukbop brings it origins back to the Goryeo Dynasty, roughly 1000 years ago, when nobles would give pork or dog meat as a gift to peasants who would then create this soup. But since the dynasty’s highest influence was near modern day Seoul and North Korea, along with its continuing popularity being primarily in Busan, the Korean War makes it the most likely origin.)
To call dwaeji gukbop a mere soup would be an understatement. To call it a stew would be too ambitious. It’s a high maintenance recipe: hours of boiling pork bone (돼지 사골) to get the milky colored broth, then adding pork shank (돼지 사태), the pork forelegs (돼지앞다리살) , and at times the less flattering ears or head. This is followed by soy sauce (국간장), miso (된장), rice wine (청주), sesame oil (참기름), and more bone broth (사골육수). When the boneless, tender pork meat soup comes to your table, the primary ingredients are brought along side the side dishes (반찬), all of which are fair game to be added.
First, the rice (밥) is dumped in. Then the garlic chives (부추), the fermented baby shrimp (새우젓), onions (양파), noodles resembling angel hair pasta (면), kimchi (김치), green peppers (풋고추), garlic (마늘), and radish kimchi (깍두기). At times, the patron becomes the chef with the final touch of red pepper flakes (고춧가루), pepper (후추), soy bean paste (된장), and ssamjang (쌈장), a Korean spicy paste.
The cost of making it at home significantly outweighs the cost of eating it at a restaurant, about 3,500 to 7,000 won. It’s common to see this as a partner to soju (소주) along with a plate of more steamed pork (보쌈). It’s beyond just a Busan culture staple. Dwaeji gukbop is encouraged for women recovering from child birth, the fatigued, and–just as most other foods in Korea–any small ailment. Restaurants general specialize in dwaeji gukbab alone, offering other versions with pig intestines, called sundae gukbap (순대국밥).
What once began as a desperate meal for scared refuges over 60 years ago has become a culinary identity for Korea’s Second City. Dwaeji gukbop has a hard enough time making it north to Seoul, let alone across a body of water. The recipe is simple depending on your butcher, but as tedious as making quality kimchi. However, perhaps dwaeji gukbop can one day fight its way out of the back alleys of Busan and into the forefront of Korean cuisine (한식). In typical Korean fashion, perhaps it would only take a K-Pop song?