Deep-fried pork dish from Japan become an icon of the city?

In the middle of Seoul Seoul, the South Korean capital, against the picturesque background of Mount Nam, is Sopa-ro, A hillside drive filled with numerous restaurants that all offer the same menu with huge-sized Korean Tonkatsu.

Tonkatsu Tonkatsu is an amalgamation of ton, meaning pork, and Katsu, an abbreviated Japanese cutlet translation.

The Tonkatsu served in these eateries in Namsan Namsan, the Korean term for Mount Nam, is identical to the traditional version done at other snack shops all over Korea.

Namsan In Seoul is the location of several tonkatsu eateries and the famous N Seoul Tower. Photo: Korea Tourism Organization

The pork is flattened to cover the entire width of the plate. It is then fried and breaded until golden and crisp, then eaten with a sweet sauce made of brown. The soup is plain and creamy, while white rice cab,bage salad, and kimchi are served with every pork tonkatsu.

The restaurants are all branded as Tonkatsu establishments on the signs but sell other Korean food items like stew and soup.

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They are greeted by huge lines of tourists from outside and within the city, looking for crispy pork, similar to what they saw in the 90s when the food of Japanese origin was made as a regional dish within Seoul.

The dish was introduced to Korea via the Japanese influence of the colonial period during the 1930s and the 1940s. A few years later, Western cuisine was introduced to Japan around the turn of the 19th century.

It was not until the early 1960s that Western food became popular in Korea. However, it took longer until the Tonkatsu to gain popularity among the Korean population, as per food writer Park Chung-bae.

Food columnist Park Chung-bae. 

“At the time, when most Koreans had a hard time making a living, fried pork was not a popular dish for the public,” Park explains. Park. “Western cuisine was a luxury in dining out, a fancy dating course for a young couple.”

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However, the pattern changed as the ingredients of this fried meat became readily available in the rapidly developing nation, Park says.

The pork industry increased during the 1950s due to the increasing demand for imports from Japan in the 1950s. A national campaign to eat more foods made from flour to combat a rice shortage in the 1960s led to wheat flour becoming more accessible in the marketplace.

I keep making Tonkatsu all day long, both at night and day. I continue doing my job.

Park Je-min, the proprietor of Namsan’s very first tonkatsu restaurant.


Additionally, the production of cooking oils began in the 1970s with the development of a food processor called Dong-bang-you-ryang. It is now known as Sajo, as he explains.

Tonkatsu‘s real breakthrough on Mount Nam came thanks to taxi drivers. The first establishments that served Tonkatsu in the region were restaurants that served taxi drivers. They were located close to taxi garages along the mountainside.

Park Je-min, 62, runs one of the first eateries serving Tonkatsu in Namsan. The restaurant owner says he did a souped-up tofu stew made of soft ingredients for taxi drivers around 30 years ago.

Images from 1992 showcasing Park Je-min’s former restaurants that began serving Tonkatsu to taxi drivers. Photo: Naver

“At that time Tonkatsu is not an extremely very popular food and I was looking to try something different and decided to serve it in our. I went to an Tonkatsu restaurant in Seongbukdong to taste it for myself and then brought it back in Namsan in 1992.” He refers to the area in north Seoul close to Mount Bugak, another site well-known for Tonkatsu.

It was a quick success.

The restaurant was soon crowded with queues of taxis lined up on the street, as drivers sought out the expensive Western dish for a low cost, and nearby restaurants began to follow suit.

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According to taxi driver Yu Gil-jun, the first time he had Tonkatsu “tasted like heaven.”

“It was a culture shock,” Yu remembers. “These times, Tonkatsu is all over the place and the one served in Namsan may not be as unique. At times, this dish seemed unusual. We would visit the restaurant often, queue up and eat a big meal.”

The dish was recently brought back on the radar of foodies as it was featured in the Disney+ Korean original series Moving, particularly among those unfamiliar with the background of Namsan Tonkatsu.

A romantic dinner scene in a restaurant serving Tonkatsu Namsan from the Disney+ series “Moving.” Photo: Disney+

In the action-hero-thriller that consists of 20 episodes, The family members of the protagonist, as played by Zo In-sung and Han Hyo-Joo, serve as secret agents with supernatural powers that meet up in Namsan, the National Security Agency headquarters, located in Namsan.

Undercover, they meet and fall in love during a meal at the Tonkatsu eatery in Namsan, and the food symbolizes their affection.

For those who are new and frequent visitors alike, the mountainside eateries are still providing tonkatsu.

The view at night is of Seoul from Namsan. 

One of the best moments of serving Tonkatsu in Namsan over the past 30 years is the customers’ huge smiles, Park says.

“So I keep on making Tonkatsu all day long both at night and day. I’m just working,” he says, trimming the cabbage that will serve with the dish.


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