Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Delicious is what this is!
What is pictured above is gamjatang, one of the most delicious dishes with a not-so-delicous translation: pig spine soup. I've been hearing about gamjatang for ages from friends! I mean seriously, they were singing hymns about dinner! I soon learned that gamja means potato and tang means soup in Korean, so I expected a simple potato soup. After it had been talked up for weeks, someone finally told me what was in it...pig spine. This wasn't what I would normally deem as a magic ingredient, but I must say, it is quite tasty.

When they finally told me what this dish actually contained, what I pictured was a small, soup bowl sized serving with a little spine sticking out. Thinking back on it, that would mean the pig was as small as a gerbil, but hey, I can't help that my imagination isn't exactly logical. What was served up was a large pan of red broth with what looked to be a dinosaur spine sticking out, topped with glass noodles, green leaves, and stalk mushrooms. There are also some potatoes and other vegetables in the broth, just waiting to cook and be mixed together. It gets its red color and delightful spicy flavor from hot peppers.

Jen and Adam were the ones to help me along with this milestone. The restaurant we went to for this dish was a traditional seating restaurant, which means you sit cross-legged on the floor on a cushion. This is more comfortable than you might think--heated floors keep you warm, they often hand you a blanket to keep you even warmer, and if you are lucky enough to have a wall at your back it's pure heaven.

Sides served with the soup--kimchi (of course), carrots, jalapenos,
pickled radish, rice, and some other items.

Fully cooked and ready to eat!

Close up of the pig spine. Seems unappetizing, but after a little work,
you would be surprised.
So basically, after you order the size that you want of your soup, they bring this huge pan out and set it on the burner that is in the center of the table. (These tables are one of the most amazing things invented. They should have them everywhere!) The vertebrae are separated into sections of three or four, and boiled at high temperatures so the meat is so tender it will fall off the bone. Each person doles out a bit of the soup for themselves, selects a spine cut, and uses their chopsticks or a similar tool to remove the meat. Then the bones are placed in a small waste bucket that sits on the table, and your full enjoyment of the soup can begin! 

Not only is this dish nutritious and delicious, I hear that it is also a hangover cure. I know alcohol comes up in almost every blog, but it is such a huge part of life here that I simply cannot help it. No worries, friends and family, I shall not return an alcoholic--I almost always only drink on the weekends! And I will be able to offer you many cures and fun ways to drink when I return as well.

This is just one of the many strange and fabulous dishes that I have sampled in Korea, and I hope to try many more. I think that there will be two exceptions to this "try anything once" rule I've been following:

This is Urechis unicinctus, AKA the "fat innkeeper worm", AKA the "penis fish". In Korea, it is eaten raw and wriggling with salt and sesame seeds. And oh yeah, it's still alive. You can see these worms at almost any store with live seafood outside (which is many, many places), so they must be a bit popular. This was one of the first things I was shown (by Dan and George, always educating me one what really matters!) in Korea.

In China, this is usually stir-fried with vegetables or dried and powdered, which I personally believe must be more palatable.

It is also used as bait. And how could bait not be delicious?

Disclaimer: Not my own picture, borrowed
from the internet. This is something I should NEVER
have a picture of!

This dish is known as sannakji, or small octopus. When you order this, a live octopus is plucked from a tank of warm water, brought to your table, and its tentacles are one by one cut into small pieces. There is still electricity pulsing through their limbs, so they wriggle around on the plate. The octopus is still alive, so the suction cups on the tentacles try to adhere to your cheeks, your tongue, your teeth, and if you're not careful, your throat. With my luck, I would try this one time and get choked by the last dregs of life of an octopus tentacle!

Fortunately, this seems to be a novelty item, so I don't think many friends will be trying to force me to try it any time soon.

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