A Tasty Journey Into Gamjatang: Examining a Dish in GTA’s Koreatown
Written By Won Ki Lee
Gamjatang is a spicy and hearty traditional Korean soup. It is mainly made from pork bones, potatoes, cabbages, garlic, green onions, and wild sesame seeds amongst other ingredients. Gamjatang is a very comforting dish, as its rich broth is simmered for a long time, allowing the bones to add deep flavour to the broth. The pork bones in gamjatang also provide various vitamins and nutrients. Gamjatang is the perfect Korean soup to warm up one’s soul on any occasion.
The origin of the name gamjatang is controversial to this day.[i] Some argue that this dish is called gamjatang because there is gamja (potato) in the soup, thus gamja (potato) + tang (soup). Others argue that the word gamja actually originates from the name of gamja-bone (pork spine), thus gamja (pork spine) + tang (soup).
Though the origins of gamjatang are somewhat uncertain, it was first developed in the southern Korean province of Jeolla.[ii] This province was known for farming pigs instead of cows, so when they made the soup, they used the bones they had from the pigs and an assortment of vegetables as the main ingredients for the soup. Traditionally, gamjatang was served to the elderly or those who were weak or sick to strengthen their bones.
Gamjatang became particularly well-known in Incheon, when the Incheon harbour first opened. The harbour was a spot where people from different regions of Korea were able to interact and share their regional dishes, gamjatang being one of these dishes. Gamjatang’s high caloric content and cheap price made it an ideal and efficient source of energy for labourers and commoners to enjoy. Today, many gamjatang restaurants can still be found lining the streets of Incheon.
Popularity of Gamjatang in the GTA
The poplarity of gamjatang in the GTA is quite peculiar because in South Korea, gamjatang is not sold in common Korean restaurants; I seldom saw it on the menu in majority of the restaurants I went to. Instead, when I wanted to eat gamjatang, I would have to go to restaurants that specifically sold gamjatang as their specialty dish. For this reason, I wanted to investigate into how gamjatang became such a popular dish in the GTA.
Gamjatang is in fact a popular dish in the GTA. Firstly, most, if not all Korean restaurants in the GTA, serve this dish.[iii] When looking at the menu in Korean restaurants, one thing they have in common is that they all sell gamjatang. Another indicator to gamjatang’s infamous popularity is that many grocery stores sell frozen gamjatang. The Owl of Minerva, a popular Korean restaurant, noticed how popular their gamjatang was in their various locations throughout the GTA and decided to introduce their gamjatang in frozen form to the grocery market scene.
I had a conversation with a server at The Owl of Minerva. While he served me my order of gamjatang, I asked him what other customers usually ordered. According to him, gamjatang was one of the most popular dishes amongst other dishes. I then asked him about The Owl of Minerva’s frozen gamjatang, to which he replied, “I think they started selling frozen food because of the increasing demand they were getting, especially for gamjatang, in the Chinese community”.
Asian grocery stores such as Oceans Fresh Food Market, T&T, PAT, and Btrust sell The Owl of Minerva’s frozen gamjatang. With the Owl of Minerva’s frozen gamjatang, all customers have to do is place their food in the microwave and microwave it for 3 to 5 minutes. This offers customers the convenience of having restaurant style gamjatang stocked in their freezers to consume whenever they want.
PAT also sells premade fresh gamjatang. Customers can purchase premade gamjatang broth and bundled gamjatang ingredients, such as semi-cooked meat and fresh vegetables, so that they can easily combine the ingredients and cook them in a pot for a few minutes. This also allows people to eat a warm, hearty bowl of gamjatang in the comfort of their own home.
The Perfect Trifecta: Price, Quantity, and Taste
Based on an interview with an international student, Yelp reviews, and my own personal experiences for Korean ethnic restaurants that operate in the GTA, I have identified three emerging themes regarding gamjatang: price, quantity, and taste. I conducted an informal interview with a friend of mine who is an international Chinese student and a big fan of gamjatang. His reasons for enjoying gamjatang reflect the perfect trifecta that gamjatang offers; taste, quantity, and affordability. When I asked him about why he liked gamjatang, he replied that he loved how filling and flavourful gamjatang was for its price. Another thing he enjoys is the varieties of banchan he gets with his gamjatang.
Many of the top listed Korean restaurants in the GTA had gamjatang listed as their first dish under soups and stews. The reason Gamjatang is listed first is because the menu orders the dishes in terms of price, ranging from lowest to highest. The average order of gamjatang ranges from $6 to $9 per serving, depending on which Korean restaurant one goes to.
This price includes the gamjatang, the bowl of rice, and the various banchan that come with the order. Banchan refers to the various side dishes that come with the main dish, such as kimchi, assorted pickled vegetables, and other vegetable side dishes. One thing to mention is that the banchan can be refilled as many times as the customer wants. Overall, the cost of gamjatang makes it an ideal budget-friendly meal that is full of flavour as well. One yelper writes, “pork bone soup cannot be topped elsewhere. $6.95. Geez.” And many other yelp reviewers consistently mention how cheap gamjatang is.
The picture above is what came with my order of gamjatang. I received four banchan, a bowl of rice, and some barley tea. However, the star of the meal was the gamjatang, and I removed the pork bones and potato from the soup to show just how much I got for $8.99.
Gamjatang is a Korean meal that has a large quantity per each serving. An order of gamjatang consists of a large stone bowl filled to the brim with hot soup, plenty of pork bones with tender meat, and a large piece of potato amongst other veggies. When ordering gamjatang, one also gets a bowl of rice on the side and various banchan that can be refilled to accompany their meal. One Yelper specifically mentioned, “the gamjatang portion was generous with lots of veggies heaped on top.” He also mentioned how he received six types of banchan on top of a bowl of rice and gamjatang, stating that they were “all fresh and tasty”.
When I ordered gamjatang at The Owl of Minerva, my meal came with four types of banchan. The first banchan I got was kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage side dish, which is a standard banchan at all Korean restaurants. The second banchan I got was bean sprouts seasoned with sesame oil. The third banchan was pickled cucumbers. The last banchan was kkakdugi, pickled cubed radish. Considering the price of one order of gamjatang, this is a huge portion of food.
Gamjatang is a very flavourful Korean soup. The pork bones are simmered for hours to develop a rich, deeply flavoured broth. Once the broth is ready, the chefs add the other ingredients and cook the soup until the potatoes are cooked through and the meat is fall-of-the-bone tender. Many Yelpers commented on how flavourful and well spiced the soup was. One Yelper claimed, “I had the pork bone soup extra spicy. The spice level was perfect”. Another Yelper was worried about the spice since she thought Korean food was spicy, but she found the gamjatang to be “filling, mild, and great to eat when it’s cold outside”. The banchan I had with my meal also tasted fresh. In particular, the pickled cucumber was sweet, tangy, and crunchy at the same time and the kkakdugi was tart and refreshing. Also, the sticky rice paired well with the banchan and gamjatang and absorbed their flavours well.
One thing worth noting is that many Yelpers mentioned that they tried gamjatang due to peer influences. Some ordered it because their friends ordered it, while others ordered it because they saw other diners ordering it. One Yelper said that she went to a Korean restaurant with a group of friends and that they all “ordered gamjatang because it seemed popular with other people”. Another Yelper said they tried gamjatang because “they heard good reviews from their friend”. It seems that more and more people from different ethnicities are enjoying gamjatang because they know someone who enjoys gamjatang and has recommended it to them.
Ending the Tasty Journey of Gamjatang
Overall, gamjatang is a hearty Korean soup that is enjoyed by people from all walks of life, regardless or age, class, or ethnicity. Despite gamjatang’s humble beginnings, where it was traditionally served to commoners and labourers due to how cheap and easy it was to make, its flavours allowed it to gain popularity and spread to different regions throughout Korea and the world. Particularly in the GTA, gamjatang has become a best seller in many Korean restaurants and its success can be attributed to its price, quantity, and taste. Gamjatang is so fulfilling and flavourful that it leaves people craving more, resulting in many Asian grocery stores selling frozen and fresh gamjatang for people to enjoy anytime they want.
Won Ki Lee is an international student who flew over from South Korea and who is a passionate social science student at UTM.