Busan is a city of many things, a place where you can find both urban and rural environments, mountains and ocean, bright neon signs and old markets. From soup dishes of Busan, you can also find the beauty of diversity.
1Pork Rice Soup (Dwaeji Gukbap)
Pork rice soup, serving the spirit of Busan in a bowl
Pork rice soup is one of the staples of Busan. It’s no longer difficult to find pork rice soup restaurants outside the Gyeongsang region. The soup boasts a long and rich history. Commerce was still in its infant stage during the agricultural Joseon era. Obviously, people didn’t have a lot of options to eat out. The best you could find at a typical tavern was cold rice in hot soup. And rice mixed with soy sauce and red pepper powder, or left-over rice served with soup came later.
After the Sino-Japanese War, a great number of Chinese found themselves in Korea, and it led to an increase in pork consumption. The northern part of the Korean Peninsula, sitting closer to China, embraced the pork-eating culture more readily than Seoul. Then after the Korean War, those who moved south of the border started selling slices of boiled pork. It’s believed that pork rice soup in Busan started evolving since around the 1900s, and made big strides after Korean War refugees settled in the region. In fact, this dish isn’t exclusive to Busan. Pork rice soup is also a beloved dish in Daegu and Miryang. Their recipes are slightly different. In Daegu, they use a lot of intestines and their soup tends to be the saltiest. In Miryang, pork and intestines are put in cow bone beef bone broth. In Busan, pork bone or meat broth is the basis, with a hearty portion of meat. But in some places in Busan, you will find Daegu- or Mirayng-style soups. Following the Korean War, the North Korean cuisine of ‘onban’ and other southern food have found their ways to Busan. That explains why Busan offers many variations of pork rice soup. The clearness of the broth depends on whether you make it with bone or meat. Meat broth is clear, while bone broth is milky. The taste of the broth is also different, with the leg bone broth offering deeper taste than broth made with other bones. Pork rice soup can come in many different forms. Sundae (Korean blood sausage) soup comes with a lot of intestines, but pork rice soup is filled with boiled slices of meat. If you’d like to keep things simple, order suyuk (boiled meat) rice soup. For those wanting both intestines and meat, then mixed rice soup is the thing. Pork rice soup reflects the diversity of Busan. Shinchang Gukbap’s rice soup is popular for its clear, light-brown toned broth and refreshing taste. People who know a thing or two about rice soup get suyukbap, which comes with boiled meat, soup and rice.
The one dish that just screams Busan is that of wheat noodles. And this dish perhaps best reflects features of Busan. Once the Korean War broke out, refugees from all over the nation fled to Busan, which went on to become the second-largest city on the peninsula. The combination of the refugees’ recipes and ingredients that you could get your hands on during the war helped create dishes unique to Busan. And the wheat noodles dish is at the forefront of the movement. Those who came down from north of the border tried to recreate the taste of buckwheat noodles from home, using the relief supply of flour. With its gluten protein, noodle made of flour is stronger than that made of buckwheat. And it was nearly impossible to get pheasant, beef, chicken or pork to make broth for noodle. Some restaurants made broth with chicken feet. Such improvisation helped create the wheat noodle dish.
Note that the French people who moved to Southern America added spice to local ingredients that they could get their hands on, which led to the birth of the Cajun cuisine. Busan’s wheat noodle has far stronger flavor than the North Korean style of buckwheat noodle. Wheat noodle was originally a dish created by the refugees from north but it soon settled in among the Busan natives. People started adding more spices, such as cinnamon, red hot pepper powder and ground pepper, and the taste kept getting stronger. Pyongyang Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodle) usually tastes the same no matter where you order it. They can all be grouped in two or three different style (and it is so because owners of popular Pyongyang Naengmyeon restaurants are related). The tastes for wheat noodle dishes all vary at different restaurants, because they all use different ingredients for broth and use different spices. They also tend to be less expensive than Pyongyang Naengmyeon. With its roots in North Korean cuisine, wheat noodle restaurants also make inexpensive but delicious dumplings.
Choryang Milmyeon in Choryang-dong, across Busan Station, offers noodle soup that doesn’t give off strong medicinal scent and is a popular spot for those who prefer blander taste.
There’s more to the culinary culture in Busan than pork rice soup or wheat noodles. Local folks also enjoy warm bowls of soup with beef. Beef rice soup may seem similar with yukgaejang (spicy beef stew) but they’re two different dishes. Yukgaejang’s broth comes from stir-frying bracken, bean sprouts, green onions and beef all separately. Beef rice soup boils most of the same ingredients all at once. There’s something down-to-earth and comforting about beef rice soup, which apparently became popular around the 1920s. It was around this time that permanent markets and five-day markets began popping up across the country. You can order beef rice soup in modest markets and other humble establishments at different corners of Busan. The place in front of Haeundae Bus Terminal in particular has been featured in TV shows several times. The warm broth is never too strong for your stomach. It makes for a hearty, inexpensive meal. There probably isn’t anything special about this dish, though. It may not be a must-visit place in Busan. But if you’re passing by the area, you could do worse than grabbing a bite there. The dish’s recipe and its birth are just as humble.
You will find plenty of restaurants with the words ‘Wonjo (Original)’ or ‘Halmae (Granny).’ Haeundae Wonjo Halmae Gukbapjip has the soup that has just the right amount of bite to it, and makes for great company for some alcohol.
The main ingredient for shellfish soup is difficult to get now.
Shellfish soup is a popular soup dish in South Gyeongsang Province. There was even a shellfish soup alley in Samrak-dong in Busan. After an embankment on the lower Nakdong River was put up in 1987, it became difficult to get clams, and it led to the downfall of restaurants that made shellfish soup. There are still a good number of those establishments around Samrak Bridge and other parts of Busan. The recipe is straightforward. Put some salt into water and wash shellfish with it. Once you get rid of the sand from Nakdong and Seomjin rivers, then you boil the shellfish, with a bit of salt. Add some garlic and top it with chives or leeks, and it’s done. You shouldn’t boil it for too long or the soup will end up tasting stale. The taste is as clean as the recipe is simple. It’s a perfect hangover soup for morning after. It’s a low-calorie dish with plenty of vitamins and minerals. With local shellfish from Nakdong River increasingly hard to come by, most of the ingredients are being imported from China. Imported shellfish have larger roes, but don’t have as deep of flavor.
Seomjingang Jaecheopguk (Seomjin River Shellfish Soup), located near Toseong Station, serves shellfish from Hadong. Raw shellfish bibimbap is also a popular dish.
No matter where you go, you’ll always find fish cakes on skewers at markets.
Fish cake is made of ground white fish or squid. It originated in Japan, where it’s called ‘kamaboko.’ ‘Oden’ is a soy sauce-based soup dish with fish cake in skewers. ‘Stir-fried oden’ is a misnomer used only in Korea. Numerous Japanese people landed in Busan after the opening of Busan Port in 1876, and it led to opening of large fish markets and factories. Along the way, the fish cake became a Busan staple, and evolved into one of the country’s favorite ingredients and dishes. Fish cakes from Busan is especially popular because they contain a good amount of fish. Busan is home to several high-end fish cake shops, including fish-cake only stores that produce them in small amounts. Half of all fish cake manufacturers in Korea, 45 to be exact, are in Busan. Fish cake soup is a staple at street vendors. Across Gukje and Bupyeong Kkangtong markets, you can get a piece of round rice cake soaked in fish cake soup boiled with radish. Bupyeong Kkangtong Market features the ‘fish cake alley (oden golmok)’ which will send you down the memory lane.
Seo Geo-jeong, a scholar in the early Joseon era, once said he wouldn’t mind dying as long as he got to taste blowfish swimming upstream on the Han River. You could tell just how much our forefathers enjoyed this fish. In “Jeungbo Sallim Gyeongje (Revised Augumented Forestry Economy)," , Yu Jung-rim noted that there was poison in blowfish’s blood and roes. But during the Japanese colonial period, poor folks would bring home discarded blowfish intestines and head to eat at home, and more than a few lost their lives. According to Dong-A Ilbo on Jan. 10, 1924, 12 people in Seoul alone died eating blowfish soup between Dec. 1 and 19 in 1923. It was a risky choice of dish to stave off hunger. Since the 1960s, with a spike in blowfish haul, people began to pick up on a proper recipe. Blowfish soup gained popularity in Busan and Masan, two cities close to Japan. In an article titled ‘Busan Blow Fish’ on Nov. 12, 1977, detailed the dish’s rise to prominence, and introduced a Korean-style recipe for this fish soup featuring bean sprouts and water parsley. The Japanese-style blowfish soup is different from the Busan recipe in that in Japan, they only use radish with no other vegetables. For all its potential risks, blowfish soup has long been known for its great taste. It also helps you beat hangovers. Since 1984, only properly licensed chefs or cooks could handle blowfish, and mass breeding has ensured safety as well. With health risks out of the way, blowfish soup is a must-eat dish in Busan.
There are too many great blowfish soup restaurants in Busan to count, and some have branched out to Seoul and other parts of the country. Chowon Bokguk (Chowon Blowfish Soup) is a beloved establishment among the locals and the ultimate blowfish destination for visitors.
The cod soup is simply spectacular. And cod caught in winter near Gadeokdo are considered the best in the nation. Yongwon Port in Changwon is the center of Gadeok cod, and it’s 40 minutes from Busan, adjacent to Sasang Industrial Complex. When the western part of Busan began to be developed, cod emerged as a popular food item in the city. While delicious, cod have soft flesh and they’re difficult to eat raw. And they’re mostly used for soup. Cod have long been considered quality fish that only high-ranking bureaucrats and wealthy people could afford to eat, while the commoners were reduced to eating pollack and snailfish. Frozen cod and fresh cod taste completely different. Ancient writings also give references to dishes such as julienned cod skin and pressed cod skin. Cod skin is just that delicious. And you should absolutely have fresh cod soup in Busan. Blowfish came from Japan, but cod have been Korea’s very own and have been more beloved here than other Northeast Asian countries. This fish just fits into our DNA.
Joongang Sikdang (restaurant) has been serving cod soup for over half a century. Pollack soup and fermented raw fish are also popular.
LOTTE HOTEL BUSAN is the only LOTTE HOTEL in the city. A recent renovation of some 650 rooms have given the hotel a more refined and modern feel. The Choo Shin-soo Star Room, inspired by the major league outfielder, turned heads among baseball fans. Seomyeon, where the hotel is located, is a hot spot in Busan with a large floating population. It’s a popular area among foreign tourists, too.