I just got back from lunch. Working in a new area since the beginning of the month, one of the things I have been most excited about was finding new culinary treats to expand my stomach. As this is an old neighborhood, narrow alleys abound. I have already enjoyed some delicious raw fish (회, pronounced “hwe”), simple, delicious Bibimbap (비빔밥) and spicy, hearty Galbi stew (갈비찜), among others. But, how do I judge whether or not a neighborhood’s restaurant “scene” is up to the task of pleasing my pallette?
With 돼지국밥. Always, with dwaeji gukbap.
To prove this, I am creating this post with exclusively archived photos, to show how obsessive I have been about this very Korean but even more very Busan Metropolitan area dish. No, it’s not because I forgot to bring my camera to lunch.
But first, a little information about dwaeji gukbap (literally translated as “pork, soup, rice”), courtesy Eat in Korea:
Theories abound about the origin of the soup. Some say it was invented during the Korean War when peasants would gather pork bones discarded by the US army and make a meal out of it. Others argue that the soup dates back to the Goryeo dynasty when peasants gifted with pork or dog meat by the nobles were reluctant to waste any part of it.
In addition to the broth, each restaurant might put its own unique spin on the base broth, adding a little green onion, sesame oil and whatnot before serving it to the customer. It’s then up to the customer to decide how much they want to customize. They could go for the standard pork-soup-rice, or other options like 순대 (soondae, or noodle-stuffed blood sausage), 냉장 (naengjang, or offal), or less-traditional choices. One of my favorite gukbap stops, 영진돼지국밥 Youngjin Dwaeji Gukbap, offers a very non-traditional Mandu Dwaeji Gukbap (the regular gukbap with added Korean-style pork dumplings). Also, diners will be served green onions, rice (either in a metal bowl or already within the soup), briney baby shrimp and red pepper paste for seasoning, all to your personal tastes.
The pork bones need to be boiled for a long, long time in order to gain the typical milky-white broth, according to the Eat in Korea article. So, unlike other Korean food stalwarts like kimchi fried rice (김치볶음밥), bibimbap, and gimbap (김밥, or Korean-style maki rolls), which you could easily learn how to make at home, making dwaeji gukbap would be a rather cumbersome, time-consuming task. Not to worry, if you’re in Busan and neighboring cities that comprise the Gyeongsang-do provincial region, as there’s a dwaeji gukbap restaurant on practically every corner (also, to a lesser-extent elsewhere in Korea, will you find soondae gukbap, whereas dwaeji gukbap tends to be a very southeastern South Korean-style dish).
So, what is it about these gukbaps that keeps me falling back on them time and time and time again when looking for a satisfying meal? Perhaps it starts with how and where I discovered the dish.
It was sometime in 2013 in Jangnim, a non-descript, somewhat industrial, somewhat tired, somewhat old corner of southwestern Saha-gu, where I returned to South Korea that year to teach at a hagwon in nearby Dadaepo. The Busan Metro line 1 extension to Dadaepo Beach was still about four years from completion, so who knows how much more exposure the area will get once that’s open in April of this year. But, I digress, at the time of this story, it was pretty damn unknown, even to some people who had grown up in Busan.
In one of my continuing attempts to break from my fear of the unknown by walking into random restaurants and ordering whatever I thought was the trademark dish of the place (or, whatever 한글 hangeul I could read at the time), I walked into a new restaurant just up the road from the end of the little alley that led to my small apartment building. Their signature dish? Dwaeji Gukbap.
[Fun tangent: I had actually been exposed to dwaeji gukbap once before, in a very small, very tired restaurant in Deokcheon, Busan all the way back in 2010, on the same day all of us EPIK program teachers had been dumped off at our assigned schools. Two other newbies and I were hungry and feeling slightly adventurous, so we walked into the restaurant that was just around the corner from my very small, very terrible school-selected apartment to hopefully get some chow, to be met with a salty older woman and a couple old men who were all hanging out, drinking soju and watching TV. We hand-waved and pointed as best we could through a very awkward exchange until the woman prepared for us three bowls of the soup, to which she included a large bowl of the requisite 부추 (buchu, or chives) for us to add to our individual servings. Not knowing what it was for but knowing and having eaten a number of Korean side dishes (반찬, banchan), I tucked into a hearty portion of the lightly seasoned green onions on their own. The old men laughed, the old woman laughed and then she helpfully and forcefully put some of the buchu into each of our bowls, laughed once more for spice and then went back to the television and alcohol with her buddies. Becoming addicted to the dish in 2013, I ventured out one summer evening to my old haunt of three years before, only to discover that the little restaurant had long since been shuttered, never to serve its fine food to another clueless foreigner again.]
Back in Jangnim, back in 2013, I was becoming hooked on this magical mixture of pork, soup, and rice. It was so simple and yet, depending on how much you doctored it and which restaurant you did the doctoring, so satisfying. I was going two, three, sometimes four times a week.
And then, I discovered soondae gukbap.
The rest, as cliche writers write, is history. It is with no small part of credit that I say dwaeji and soondae gukbap helped me along the way toward being comfortable enough with my poor Korean reading and understanding acumen to continue to try out new restaurants. With the help of dwaeji gukbap and soondae gukbap, I was able to further expand my tastebuds into more than just the approved-for-foreign-audiences items like bibimbap and bulgogi, an expansion that continued today at the first dwaeji gukbap restaurant in this new-to-me neighborhood.
While that place won’t make the list of my favorite gukbap stops, the following will! This is, of course, an ever-expanding list. Feel free to leave comments with your own favorite restaurants, because I’m always looking for more ways to expand my belly! Click on the links of the restaurants for more detailed information about them, including directions.
- Youngjin Dwaeji Gukbap (영진돼지국밥), located in the KSU/PKNU area in Busan (as well as other locations): As of now, my go-to king of gukbap stops. Flavorful broth that needs very little doctoring, super-meaty soondae and fresh-tasting, thick-cut pork, everything about this place is quality, even the kimchi. Shoutout to my friend Kelly Shin for this valuable recommendation!
- Gusan Dong Dwaeji Gukbap (구산동돼지국밥), in nearby Gimhae City (accessible via the Busan-Gimhae Lightrail Transit): This long, squat, non-descript restaurant was recommended to me by several folks when I first moved to Gimhae in 2014 and expressed my fondness for all things gukbap. And, they were all correct in calling this the best gukbap in the city. Super meaty, super flavorful, and often super busy. Only the kimchi gets low marks, as it is made with some kind of funky spice that kind of tastes like you’ve blended kimchi with Pine Sol floor cleaner. Bummer. Despite that, this was for a long time (until Youngjin entered the picture) my favorite dwaeji gukbap stop.
- Hanmat Dwaeji Gukbap (한맛 돼지국밥), located between the Gageum and Dongeui University subway stops on line 2 in Busan: Unlike the current current and former kings, this one was not recommended by anyone but instead found while killing time waiting for a bicycle to be fixed. I appreciated the kitschy, old-school exterior. But, as with everything, it’s what’s inside that counts. And, what’s inside is a delicious rendering of this region’s finest dish.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Red Dragon Diaries’ Tom Gates, formerly of Busan and now kicking ass back in the U.S., asked me to join him for one of his fun local food videos back in 2014. We ended up on Seomyeon’s famous “gukbap street,” which has about a dozen gukbap restaurants of varying quality and success. The one we ended up at, which isn’t named in the video but which is called Gyeongju Dwaeji Gukbap (경주돼지국밥), hit the spot at the time, but has not since kept pace with what I’d consider the top pigs. But, it’s still a decent meal that would probably go down well for you, as well.