22 May 2004

Dak Galbi

Everyone has one. I'm sure you do. It could be mum's apple pie, the family's secret lasagne recipe, summer barbeques in the outback, clam chowder at Fisherman's Wharf, homemade "mama-mia" pastas or grandma's herbal soup. Everyone has their own comfort food. Food that makes you go "aaaaaahhhhhh ......". Food that takes you home, food that transports you back to a place or time of significance, food that calms you in trying times, food of contentment.

My Korean comfort food is dak galbi (닭갈비). Yes I'm weird. Not just any dak galbi. Choon Chun Jip's dak galbi. Choon Chun Jip (춘천집) is a chain of restaurants that specialises in dak galbi. What is dak galbi? I call it "sizzling spicy chicken", or "hot plate chicken". But the actual translation would mean dak=chicken and galbi=ribs, which I assume is derived from the de-boned breast of chicken.

This is one of many Choon Chun Jips scattered all over Seoul and its outskirts. This particular day, we're having it at Seohyeon. I'm not sure if it's found in other parts of Korea, as I've never travelled out of Gyeonggi province(!).

Notice Grandma Bossam's familiar yellow signboard on the right of the photo? She's everywhere, isn't she. Anyway, back to my comfort food.

It's usually packed to the brim, especially during lunch and dinner times. Today, I made the unfortunate choice of a Saturday afternoon, which explains the hordes of teenage school girls chomping away in their prim and proper uniform.

After some minutes of waiting, we finally got a table.

First stop always is the complimentary self-service salad bar (buffet). You have a choice of kimchi (giver), yellow picked radish, some cold and sour seaweed(?) soup thingy, the usual samchang + sliced garlic combo, fresh leaves of lettuce, coleslaw and shredded cabbage + dressing.

On the right is a pretty straightforward salad of shredded cabbage, purple cabbage and carrots with thousand island dressing. On the left is the coleslaw of sorts. Its made with square-cut cabbage, macaroni, diced carrots, raisin and coleslaw dressing. These salad brings a good balance to the hot and heaty chicken. I especially like the coleslaw for its raisin, which lends some sweetness to the meal. If you see some fat dude crouched over the salad bar picking all the raisins, do say hi to me.

Now let's get started with the real deal. First off, some oil in the hot pan. The star motif is optional and not crucial to a delicious meal.

Pile on the goodies once the oiled pan is sufficiently warm. At this point, you may want to put on the provided apron if you don't want splash stains on your Gucci shirt.

What you get is a generous portion of de-boned chicken (cut bite size), sesame leaves, leek, sweet potato, deok ricecakes, lots of cabbage and spoonfuls of that all important yang nyeom jang (chili paste seasoned with more chili powder, minced garlic, sesame oil, soya sauce, pepper and sugar).

It's KRW5,500 per portion, and what you're seeing here is a two-person portion. Yeah I wasn't very hungry that day.

Once the pan really heats up, that's when the action starts. Our waiter picks up his sword the tong and sword-fights the chicken, just like a scene right off Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Good entertainment.

Its more stirring, simmering, stirring, simmering till it's done. That's about 10 minutes of twirling and tossing. By the time it's done, your whole body is covered in that delicious dakgalbi smell. Wohoo.

Cooked and ready to eat. What may seem a lot at the start is not really so once the cabbage cooks away. The chicken pieces are soft and juicy, and needless to say, spicy and hot. The cabbage is crunchy to the bite, yet sweet. The sauce covers every inch of everything and blends everything in perfect harmony. Today's meal was excellent.

However, at this juncture, I must comment that the consistency is somewhat lacking here at Choon Chun. At times, the sauce is really spicy and yummy. At other times, it can be mild. Also, different outlets have produced varying end result. So keep this in mind when you visit the various outlets. Perhaps it's the sauce mix ratio. Perhaps it's the waiter's sword fighting skills. Perhaps it's the phases of the moon. I've stopped figuring out why this happens. I hope for the best and just eat.

A popular option towards the end of the meal is to ......... wait wait .... STOP. Yes, stop. Put that pair of chopsticks down. Then order a side dish of rice.

When you do that, the waiter whips out his scissors and starts snipping at them chicken. Snip snip snip everything till they're small fine pieces.

He'll then throw in the plate of hot plain rice, topped with some lettuce, sesame leaves, dried seaweed and more sauce. More swish-swoshing. Look at them tongs fly.

When it's almost done, add cheese. Mozarella cheese to be precise.

Cover with lid and you have an oven on your table.

3-5 minutes later and you have a dakgalbi rice pizza. A two-in-one meal. Not bad eh?

Grab a spoon and scoop a spoonful of that flavourful rice. Being mozarella, you'll get that stretchy cheese effect as the spoon find its way to your mouth. Yummy!

The menu offers the following options to go with your dakgalbi:
- udon (우동) (udon noodles)
- myeon (면) (spagetti noodles)
- chijeu (치즈) (that’s "cheese" Koreanised)
- sweet potato (고구마) (sweet potato!)
- rice

These range between KRW1,000 – KRW2,000 per portion each. I had the cheese (KRW1,500) and rice (KRW1,000). Total meal KRW13,500. Money well spent, if you ask me.

I'd really appreciate it if you would share with us what is YOUR comfort food. Click on the comment link below and drop us a line or two. It need not be Korean food. Comfort food has no nationality. We look forward to receiving your comments. Cheers.