Good Eats in Korea: 매운탕 MaeWoonTang

A friend recently sent me a link to a piece written by Zagat entitled “8 Korean Culinary Staples You Need to Know.”  Reading it made me realize how little I knew about what “real Koreans” eat everyday before coming here.  Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia exposed me to a variety of “ethnic foods” such as shopping mall Chinese and lasagna at Sbarro.  Tacos or pho weren’t even heard of back then in my little town.  My first bite of Thai food was during my days in University and I didn’t really eat Korean food until I was well into my 20’s.  Even then what I typically ate was Korean barbeque and mixed rice (bibimbop).  So I could understand why Zagat would name bibimbop, kimchi, bulbogi, mandu, ssam, kalbi, soondubu, and pajeon as being “culinary staples.”  These dishes are popular items found on Korean restaurant menus in the U.S., but not what Koreans eat daily.  I’ve only lived here for a few months and my knowledge of Korean food is still rather limited, but in my opinion, none of the dishes Zagat listed are “staples” in Korea except for kimchi.  I find that samgyupsal is more popular than kalbi or bulgogi, ssam is one of the ways you eat barbequed meats (or sometimes just veggies), soondubu is a very small subset of all kinds of dishes made from soybeans, and buchujeon is equally loved as well as pajeon.

In any case, I’ve been trying to explore more of what local Koreans eat and saying “yes” to every invitation that comes along.  Yesterday I had a chance to have some spicy fish stew 매운탕 MaeWoonTang at a small eatery in Insadong.  The ladies that took me to this tiny local place (Busan Sikdang) told me that they’ve been going there for decades for the house specialty and that if I’m up for it, we should give it a go.  Why not ladies!

This restaurant was right off of the main street in Insadong, but away from all the hustle and bustle of the crowds that fill this popular neighborhood.  It felt as if we were indeed several hundred miles south of Seoul in Busan.

IMG_6907I’ve read that some Korean restaurants refuse single diners because they set 2-person minimum/2 order minimum requirements.  This is especially true for barbeque restaurants or places that specialize in stews.  It didn’t occur to me to check for this at Busan Sikdang but the 매운탕 order we placed was for two people.  We also had a bottle of makgeolli (Korean rice wine) and a plate of grilled tofu.

This is what the basic side dishes were (these are free and you can always ask for more)- steamed cabbage served cold with fermented soybeans (Korean miso), cucumbers mixed with hot pepper flakes, soy sauce crabs (which deserves a whole post itself), mung bean sprouts, and ChongGakKimChi (총각 김치 literally means bachelor kimchi, made with ponytail radish.  I asked why it was called bachelor kimchi but the ladies didn’t have a clear answer).

IMG_6900I learned that 매운탕 is the generic name for all Korean spicy fish stews.  Busan Sikdang’s menu said 생태찌개 SaengTaeJjiGae but it can also be called 생태탕 SaengTaeTang where saengtae means fresh fish as supposed to fish that has been frozen.  Generally jjigae has less liquid (more concentrated) and tang is more like a soup.

Our big pot of 매운탕 arrived at the table and was placed on a mini gas stove.  I think they had the stew started in the kitchen first because it almost immediately bubbled and boiled.

IMG_6901I’m not 100% sure but I think the fish used for the stew was pollack.  Along with the fish, there were onions, tofu, leeks, enoki mushrooms, some kind of leafy greens, crab legs, and lots of garlic.

IMG_6903The ladies tasted the stew after a few more minutes and said it was properly cooked.  I think you start eating when certain amount of water from the broth has evaporated, and the stew has developed the perfect level of richness and concentration of flavors.

IMG_6904As the ladies drank the broth, they exclaimed “아, 시원하다” ShiWonHaDa “ahh, this is cool.”  Huh?  The liquid was obviously hot.  But to describe the sensation of the hot broth traveling down the throat and spreading through the body they used the term “cool.”  They told me that when they get in a hot bath, they also say 시원하다 to express how they feel.  I don’t fully understand its use but aside from the literal translation “cool,” I think it means something like clean, cleansing, detoxing, melting away accumulated stress, etc.

IMG_6905As I was their guest, the ladies offered me the innards of the pollack, which I tried to eat a bit of.  It wasn’t fishy but the texture put me off a little.  I’m definitely not as adventurous when it comes down to it…  I hid what I couldn’t eat under some wilted leeks.  The stew wasn’t as spicy as it looked and the fish was very tasty though.  I could see how this spicy fish stew would be comforting on a cold snowy day.

Busan Sikdang was as plain, ordinary, blue-collar, and everyday Korean as they come.  The service was nonchalant, borderline rough and rude, but their 매운탕 was rather special and definitely good eats.  Oh and their rice was really delicious, so perfectly cooked that it was almost glistening.  I think our bill came to about ~$20 for the whole meal, and that certainly explains why at lunch time people line up to eat there and it’s been around for so many decades.


부산식당 Busan Sikdang: 서울시 종로구 관훈동 180; 180 Gwanhun-dong (12 Insadong 11-gil), Tel: 02-733-5761, (map)

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