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Food stories from a chef

A Winter’s Craving: Gamja-tang

Jan 20, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

A Winter’s Craving: Gamja-tang

Staggering along one of those ubiquitous Korean mukja golmoks (or restaurant alleys) at one in the morning, I try to find my way to a cab when my drunken friend grabs my arm. I turn and look at him and he gives me a slow, friendly smirk as he raises his index finger in front of his face. Just one more drink. Somehow it feels like he’s grinning in slow-motion. I nod and we turn to the closest restaurant. The red glowing restaurant sign simply says “Gam Ja Tang”. No name, no description. Just gamja-tang. You’re in for a treat. My friend opens the door and I step inside the small, dingy space. It’s packed with salary men in their suits, ties loosened and jackets off. The room looks a little smoky from the steam of the pots atop each table-top burner. Bottles of soju are lined up at each table. A mouth-watering aroma of spicy and savory flavors immediately hits me. I suddenly feel sober and sit down, eager to order.

That was my first introduction to gam ja tang, a hearty, spicy pork bone stew with ground perilla seeds. It’s a versatile dish as you can have it for dinner, as anju (food that is paired with alcohol in Korea) or as the perfect hangover meal. But typically, it’s the last stop of the night. After several rounds of drinking, this is where many office workers end up before they head home. Which is why pretty much every gamja-tang restaurant is a hole-in-the-wall. Their main customer base is made up of drunk Korean men in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

My alcohol bingeing days are mostly behind me now but gam ja tang is still a dish that I crave during the colder months of the winter, especially when temperatures drop below freezing. Gamja-tang is made with chunks of bone-in pork, usually from the neck or the spine; boiled potatoes; perilla leaves; and napa cabbage. It’s flavored with doenjang (Korean soy paste), gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), and ground perilla seed powder. While it isn’t overly spicy, it has just enough heat to make you sweat a little. Just right for a winter day.

When trying gam ja tang for the first time, you’ll notice that all of the meat is attached to bone. You have to either pick out the meat from the bones with your chopsticks or, like a local, you can hold the bone with your hands and suck the meat right off. The meat has been slowly braised for several hours and also has quite a bit of fat so it has an amazingly soft texture. Because all the meat used in this stew is right next to the bone, it’s full of flavor, similar to a bone-in steak. The potatoes also really stand out as Korean potatoes have a deeper, sweeter flavor than the varieties in the US. They act as a good counterpart to the rich, spicy broth. 

A Winter’s Craving: Gamja-tang

When you order, you have the option of choosing a small, medium or large portion. I always order a large, you should too. The food arrives in a pot at your table and is boiled for a few more minutes on a tabletop gas burner. Depending on the restaurant, sometimes there will be rice cakes, noodles or sujebi (hand pulled dough) as well.

Once you’ve finished most of the stew, every gamja-tang restaurant will offer you the option of having bokkeum bap (or fried rice) using the remaining sauce. They add rice, gim (or seaweed laver), sesame oil, and sometimes chopped kimchi to the pan and make a fried rice for you. You can’t end a gamja-tang meal without enjoying the utter pleasure of a gamja-tang fried rice. Sometimes, it almost feels like the highlight of the meal.

I have a few gamja-tang restaurants I frequent when in Seoul. 24시뼈다귀감자탕 in Hannam-dong offers a muk-eun-ji version that I highly recommend. Mukeunji is aged kimchi which when cooked adds immense depth and umami to a dish. This restaurant is open 24/7 all year round, which is why it’s popular with chefs who work late nights as well as many celebrities. 

Another great place is Dong Won Jip in the Euljiro area of Seoul. The great part of this place is they serve single portions so you can dine alone. Most other gamja-tang places usually start at double portions for a small order.
Korea is known for its brutally cold winters so now is a good time to try gamja-tang. I promise you won’t be disappointed. 

24시뼈다귀감자탕 (T.02-790-8309): 73, Daesagwan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul, Korea

Dong Won Jip (T.02-2265-1339): 22, Eulji-ro 11-gil, Jung-gu, Seoul, Korea

A Winter’s Craving: Gamja-tang

Chef Hooni Kim trained at Daniel and Masa in New York City before opening two restaurants there: Danji, the first Michelin-starred Korean restaurant in the world; and Hanjan. Born in Seoul, he divides his time between NYC and Korea, where he is the founder of Yori Chunsa, a nonprofit that feeds and trains orphans to become cooks. Chef Hooni is also the author of the highly acclaimed cookbook My Korea: Traditional Flavors, Modern Recipes published in 2020 by W.W. Norton & Company. 

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