Sunday, November 25, 2018

[Food] Gamjatang (감자탕, Pig's backbone soup)


[Food] Gamjatang (감자탕, Pig's backbone soup)

It was one hot spring day during my mid-20s in the army. I was being trained and disciplined to become a prospective sergeant. Everyday was a long, hard day.

Some people may already know that every Korean man must join the army after 19 unless exempt on physical or mental grounds. Unfortunately I was a healthy young man with such lousy eyesight that everything looked blurry (and still does now) without my beloved glasses. I joined the army in spite of the fact that I didn't like Korea or its army at all because I just wanted to run away from reality. Oh, well....if you ask how terrible a condition I was in, I....uhm....had to quit my bachelors course due to finances, broke up with my girlfriend who I was supposed to marry within a few months, and was despised in my family because I gave up my overseas study and future.

Wasn't that terrible enough? You might say 'Have some guts, fight for your life!' but I would say 'Shut up, those disasters have almost shredded my mind!'

Consequently, I quickly left my life as a student and member of the Kim family and started life as a recruit in bootcamp - the lowest class in the army. As time went by, I became a private, first-class private, and then I decided to work as a staff sergeant because I believed that was my only way to make money in Korea, staying far from family to whom I didn't want to return.

Korean Army Recruits
Endless PRI (Preliminary Rifle Instruction) drills and training made me gnash my teeth for a few days. Repetitive exercise of...

Hit the deck! Take aim! Shoot!

On your knees! Take aim! Shoot!

Stand up! Take aim! Shoot!

.....with all the battle gears and a 4.3kg rifle, it wasn't an easy thing. Then, after these countless exercises, I was pushed to the shooting range with an exhausted body.

Oh, well, I wasn't very good at shooting rifles and felt like all the targets were mocking me with the words 'You can shoot your dreams'. If you don't pass rifle shooting training with good marks, you have to go back to the PRI and do everything again. Isn't that great? I can't count how many PRIs I had to do that day.

Anyway, back to my story. It was one hot spring day :( I'm sure all candidates were starving and thirsty. The sweat, dry wind, hot sun, annoying dust and an angry drill sergeant. Ah! Great! 

I remember that lunchtime had come but no one was moving. We all laid on the ground regardless of whether it was full of dust or not. We just wanted to rest. All of a sudden, from afar, someone with our food rations shouted:

"Guys!!! GET UP!! It's Gamjatang today!!"

"It's MEAT! soldiers!!! MEAT!!"

Everyone simultaneously opened their eyes and slowly turned their heads towards the people with food. Their shouting was so powerful and we were slowly rising from the ground like a swarm of zombies.

Meat?! Gamjatang?!

Gamjatang! Meat! Energy!

Without exception, all 'zombies' ran down to the ration box like lightning and 'attacked' Gamjatang. Yes, I was one cruel zombie too. XD

Even now, Gamjatang is one of my favorite foods :)

Chopped pig's backbone

Gamjatang is Korean style pig's backbone soup with potatoes, perilla, sesame leaves, dried oriental cabbage and fermented kimchi - full of protein and carbohydrates. Mild spicy, nutty and salty flavor is very addictive with full-steamed backbone meat, which is very soft and tender. 'Gamja' means potato and 'Tang' means soup in Korean. So it means 'Potato soup' but its main ingredient is, ironically, pig's backbone.

Doenjang (Korean bean paste)


Sesame leaf

Oriental Cabbage leaf

Raw Gamjatang

Pig's backbone is a very cheap ingredient. It was left behind after rich and powerful people took all the meats. One man in Incheon had gathered pig's backbone from among the remnants, boiled soup with other cheap ingredients, and sold it to poor people at a cheap price. Later, this soup became 'Gamjatang'. So Incheon has many famous Gamjatang restaurants today, and Gamjatang is now a very common Korean dish.

A 24-hour Gamjatang restaurant

Today, Gamjatang is not really a cheap dish like it was before. However, Gamjatang is certainly a welcoming dish for all Koreans. Like Gukbap, it is a dish Koreans eat when they want to eat meat and get some energy for a sad and monotonous life. To comfort and cheer somebody up :)

I still can't forget the Gamjatang that was cooked in a messy hall. I was hungry, not only for food but also for warmth from my family. I had struggled to overcome the loneliness and despair of my reality and past that had tried to consume me. I clenched my teeth and was resolved to prove to my family that I was no longer a 'loser'. I was determined to prove that I'm a 'winner' in other ways. I don't know why, but Gamjatang's hot and soft taste filled my soul with life every time I ate it.

I think that, maybe today, I'll call my friend who is under pressure like I was. And I will ask him to have Gamjatang for dinner then will say, as I give him a piece of backbone,

"Here's your piece of life. Eat it. Let's wish our lives to be a piece of cake."

Instant Gamjatang noodle

Bon appétit!

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