With the Japanese occupation followed by the Korean War, the peninsula had suffered countless loss of historic gems over the past hundred years. Many restaurants, eateries, and jumak (peasants’ bar), carrying memories and stories of ordinary people in history, disappeared in the ashes of destruction.
That is why Imun is special. A sole survivor of past centennial stands humbly in the back alley of 21st century, serving the ordinary people as it had always been. The actual opening year was in debate for a while as it was assumed sometime between 1902~1907. They finally settled with the year 1904 as Imun’s official birth year, making 2017 as its 113th year.
It was almost 4pm on a hot Monday afternoon when I walked into the restaurant. Best to avoid lunch hour at all cost. Only two other tables, and few more joined in as I was going through my meal. Three tables were young couples, with one being English-speaking tourists. Being the oldest registered restaurant in Korea sure has its advantages. Despite some negative reviews criticizing the unpleasant odour of the soup, it cannot beat the curiosity of younger patrons as they venture into their own culinary journey.
Like most old seolleontang restaurants in the city, there are two kinds of the same soup–botong and teuk. The size of the bowl is same but the quantity of meat is definitely different. For just another 3,000 won, I’d go for teuk with a mound of meat.
Not only there’s more amount but there’s also different variation of meat. When you order a teuk seolleongtang, ask for jira – the spleen. Apparently not many seolleongtang places give out jira anymore. But here at Imun, it’s even available as a platter. The thinly sliced jira has unique texture and strong flavour–you either love it or hate it. Nonetheless, a good opportunity to give a try.
The meat from ox head has chewy, gelatinous feel. The brisket is sliced very thin. With so much meat, the rice and noodles at the bottom of the bowl is nearly out of sight. They place the spoon in the bowl after they go through toryum–a process to warm up the rice in hot, boiling soup pot.
The two kinds of kimchi is available on table to serve yourself. You can season the soup with salt and pepper but many people prefer placing a piece of kimchi with every spoonful to balance out the flavour.
More green onions the better. A little bit of radish kimchi juice helps, too. The restaurant refrains from using any artificial seasoning, many people, especially the younger generation with their tastebuds adjusted to all kinds of artificial flavours, find the soup bland. Nevertheless, this is a bowl of soup that has 113 years of history. It is difficult to describe in words as your head wonders how many people have had the same bowl of soup over so many years.
Imun’s old two-storey hanok structure was demolished in 2011 when the area in Jongno was taken down for redevelopment. Many were in disappointment towards the government that failed to recognize the value in Korea’s first licensed restaurant. Imun is now settled in newer, modern building and keeps the tradition alive in every bowl they serve.
Imun Seolleongtang 이문설농탕
38-13 Ujeongguk-ro, Gyeonji-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul
Seolleongtang (teuk) W12,000
Doganitang (teuk) W15,000