By this time next year, I predict that any true Toronto food lover will zealously vouch for a favourite pork bone soup joint.
Cheap, filling, sublimely satisfying and spiced just right, the soup also known as gamja-tang is a certified craze in Koreatown, where restaurants use storefront signs and colour menu pictures to boast of their prowess.
"Home of Toronto's best pork bone soup," screams a convincingly bold, bright yellow sign with black and green writing that stretches six feet along the window of Umji Bunsik.
At Seoul Restaurant, the words "pork bone soup" have been scrawled on bristol board, with cute pig faces etched into the first two letter "o's."
So what catapults a soupy stew up into the realm of must-eat Toronto treasures?
A mere $5 to $6 buys a feast of meaty pork neck bones and potato chunks in a wholesome broth spiked with Korean soybean paste and hot red pepper powder.
White rice is always served on the side, and you might be treated to kimchi and other Korean nibblies (panchan). Generous cooks round out their soups with a tangle of fresh bean sprouts, a sprinkling of chopped or shredded green onions, cooked cabbage or dark leafy greens, ginger or even crunchy brown perilla seeds (from a plant that's related to the mint and basil family).
While each rendition springs from the same core ("gamja" means potato and "tang" means soup or stew), subtle differences make each unique.
In other words, a gamja-tang spree is a prerequisite before you can declare which precise bowl best suits your taste. I've already enjoyed six. (And if you're fussed about the setting, the Koreatown restaurants range from cheap and cheerful to slick and trendy.)
The real beauty of pork bone soup is that it demands personalized, mindful eating.
It usually arrives, bubbling fiercely, in a heavy stone bowl set on a tray, with huge bones jutting from the broth. With chopsticks and a long-handled spoon as utensils, how you proceed is your call.
Scenario #1: Pick most of the meat from the bones with chopsticks, then pick up the bones by hand to reach the marrow-filled crevices. Discard the bones in the empty bowl that's always provided, then stir the side dish of rice into the remaining broth and vegetables and eat the rest of the meal with the spoon.
Scenario #2: Spoon broth over the rice, then pull some meat from the bones with chopsticks and scoop up some soupy rice. Enjoy.
The variations are endless. But here are three pork bone soup absolutes: It's not practical to share this soup. You must start with a very empty stomach. It's messy business if you drop a bone.
(And beware of bone fragments.)
Oddly, given the attention and effort required to enjoy gamja-tang, it's considered a Korean hangover helper.
"Believe it or not, a lot of people eat it for breakfast after a night of heavy drinking," says Shaun Park, co-owner of Tasty Restaurant in Koreatown. He's a Korean Canadian who loves gamja-tang and the influx of small Korean eateries — known as bunshiks — along Bloor St. between Christie and Bathurst Sts.
"These little places are becoming popular and are pushing out the bigger ones that frankly were very expensive and not very good."
For background on gamja-tang, you're better off scouring the Internet instead of Korean cookbooks. According to the website What's On Korea, gamja-tang originates from ancient times when people boiled pork bones to treat the sick and elderly. It's said to help children grow, prevent aging and snoring, cure pimples, freckles, liver spots and skin troubles.
In less fanciful terms, Seoul Tourism calls gamja-tang "one of the most perfect accompaniments to drinks."
The Korean city of Daegu boasts a "Gamja-tang Alley" with about seven restaurants featuring the specialty. (Hey, we've got more than that!)
Shigol Gamja-tang — on the "famous Eung-am-dong Gamja-tang street" in Seoul — boils its pork bones twice for extra-tender meat.
Gamja-tang shows up on Korean menus in New York and Los Angeles.
Jonathan Gold, in a February story in L.A. Weekly called "Koreatown's Top 40," writes that "Korean hangover remedies happen to taste really good. Among the best and most restorative of these, as unfortunately we have reason to know, is gamja-tang ..."
As Gold observes, "Korean cooking, at least as it is presented in Los Angeles, is not an especially refined cuisine. Korean restaurants here tend to be either homey or raffish, Mom's cooking or sophisticated bar snacks. Nobody seems especially concerned with royal delicacies from the Koryo empire: Korean restaurants, even the expensive ones, serve people's food."
In Toronto, the people are eating. Although pork bone soup has been served for at least six years in Koreatown, it only recently leapfrogged to the top of menus.
"Pork bone soup is very popular and everybody wants to sell the popular food," observes Younmi Kim, a waitress at Boo Ung Ee, a 24-hour student hangout that's known in English as Owl of Minerva. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, war and crafts. Boo Ung Ee wisely serves just four dishes on its daytime menu.
Susan Ahn, owner of Umji Bunsik restaurant (the one with the big yellow sign), is effusive about the growing adoration of this dish. "Every customer, from different cultures and different countries, they love it. Especially the people who are familiar not only with the taste but the quality and price. Mostly students, young people and families like to come here."
Bryan You, owner of Mat de Mat restaurant, is pleased Torontonians are catching on to something that Korean and Japanese customers already love.
On his menu, gamja-tang is described as "pork born with potato soup" — a delightful typo. Across the street at Joons restaurant, the dish that supposedly translates as potato soup is spud-free.
"The popular thinking is that gamja means potato, but the pork bone neck part is what we call gamja," offers Joons' waiter, Eugene Lee.
However you translate it, this soup revolves around the meat — from neck and sometimes back bones (procured wholesale, since they're rarely seen in supermarkets) and simmered in broth until it practically falls from the bones.
So what's important to you in a bowl of pork bone soup? Please eat your way to an answer.
Hm, it's true that many Japanese people I know really like to eat Gamja-tang.
When I was in Vancouver, my Japanese friends like that better than I do. So they often asked me to eat together at a Korean restaurant 'Jang-Mo-Jip' on Robson St..
Yes, it's delicious but you should know it's hot and spicy. Try it!