My boyfriend LOVES dwaeji gukbap, or pork and rice soup. He eats it at least twice a week, which means that he is treated to “service” or freebies like bottles of cola every time he enters his favourite gukbap shops. I’ve tagged along more than once to sample Busan’s signature dish. So what is dwaeji gukbap?
Dwaeji gukbap (돼지국밥) is a Gyeongsangnam-do specialty, eaten throughout the southeastern province in cities such as Gyeongju, Pohang, Ulsan, and Busan, although Busan is probably best known for its rendering of the dish. The name ‘dwaeji gukbap’ tells you all you need to know. ‘Dwaeji’ is pork, ‘guk’ is soup, and ‘bap’ is rice. Pork-soup-rice! 돼지-국-밥! The dish is as simple as its name implies, making it the perfect sort of comfort food.
Pork bones (dwaeji sagol, 돼지사골) are boiled down three times to make the soup broth. The first batch of boiled water is thrown out to remove impurities. Only half of the broth is retained from the second boiling, which is then mixed with the third batch of boiled water to make the opaque, white-coloured broth used for the dish. Next, thinly sliced bits of soft pork meat (dwaeji gogi, 돼지고기) are added in along with special seasonings (jomiryo, 조미료) that vary by recipe. Some common seasonings include chili powder (gochu maru, 고추가루), minced garlic (dajin maneul, 다진마늘), black pepper (huchu garu, 후추가루), and salt (sogeum, 소금). The boiling times and the secret seasonings are the keys to making your own unique recipe – some people even add a bit of soju into the mix to liven it up!
After putting the whole lot in a hot stone pot, you can mix in prepared condiments to taste. Finish the dish to your liking with some salty shrimp (sae-ou, 새우), garlic chives (buchu, 부추), noodles (guksu,국수), red pepper paste (gochujang, 고추장) and mix in a little rice (bap, 밥). Now it’s ready to enjoy along with your favourite side dishes. Dig in!
If you think that sounds delicious, you’re not the only one. Dwaeji gukbap has some famous fans. Singer and guitarist Lee Jong-hyun (이종현) of the Kpop band CNBLUE famously announced on TV, “I can’t live without dwaeji gukbap.” Moments later, flocks of young women holding CNBLUE posters were seen raiding gukbap shops everywhere in hopes of spotting Lee, now affectionately known as “The Pork Soup Prince.” Okay, the raids never happened, but wouldn’t it be funny if they did? Certainly, Lee’s comment helped elevate popularity of this humble soup, at least with the K-pop set.
The rap and hip-hop pop group Clover (클로버) took it a step further with their song titled –what else?– “Dwaeji Gukbap,” singing, “I confess tonight… I want to eat Dwaeji gukbap. Let’s leave for Busan.” As the song progresses though, I wonder… are they really singing about the soup?
Certainly dwaeji gukbap wasn’t always so popular. So where’d it all start? During the Goryeo Dynasty (고려, 918–1392), the elite classes would offer their meat scraps to the peasant class who would then take those bones and boil them to make soup. Over 500 years later the Korean War (1950-1953) saw refugees flee from the battlegrounds of the northern provinces to the safety of the south. Food became scarce and old ways soon proved necessary for survival. Refugees would collect scraps from the army bases to make broth, adapting their local specialties to work with the materials available. Busan was the only area of the country to remain free from fighting, thus dwaeji gukbap grew from something cooked up out of necessity to becoming Busan’s signature dish many years later.
As with any food, there are a number of supposed health benefits that go along with it. Dwaeji gukbap is touted as being good for energy, bone strength, clear skin, and children’s growth, all of which makes sense considering that the dish gained popularity during the Korean War and any protein-rich food would have yielded noticeable physical benefits during this time. Less easy for me to explain are the claims that dwaeji gukbap helps cure mercury poisoning (?), aids pregnancy delivery (??) and offers the cosmetic benefits of thinning out a thick waist and thighs (???)… Okay, I’m not so sure about those claims. While I can’t vouch for any of these purported health benefits, I just know that the soup tastes good and that’s good enough for me.
I hope you’ve learned something new and added an item to your menu of unique Korean foods to try. As my boyfriend said after reading this article, “I loved dwaeji gukbap before but now that I know the whole story, I feel complete.” Or he may just have meant he felt full. He was eating a bowl of his favourite soup, after all.