Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ddalk Galbi

One of the first dishes I ate when I landed in Korea for the first time was ddalk galbi, a spicy mix of chicken and vegetables cooked on a hot plate at your table. Ddalk galbi restaurants are a big hit with the young people in Seoul, and most of the entertainment districts downtown have several spots where you can sample its greasy, spicy charms.

The name means "chicken ribs", and it consists of chicken stir-fried with a mix of cabbage, leek, carrot, sweet potato, and rice cakes (ddeok). It's all held together with a fiery sauce made from sesame oil, Korean red pepper paste (gochujang), garlic, chilis, and a little bit of soju, a popular Korean liquor. Like many Korean dishes, it's cooked right in the middle of your table, and the potential for collateral damage to your clothes is so great that many restaurants provide their patrons with all-over aprons. Nothing like heading out for a night on the town with the scent of chicken fat and chili in your clothes!

Ddalk galbi conjures up a lot of great memories for me of meals eaten with friends, the table littered with green soju bottles, piles of creamy salad and yellow pickle on the side. Since the restaurants were popular with young people for both the dish and the price - never more than about $6/person, depending on how much soju you drank - the places that sold it were often dives of the first order, with gas lines running above the floor, precarious plastic stools tangled around stainless steel tables that were little more than loops of steel around a gas hose, and a haze of red-tinted chicken fat born aloft on a cloud of charred chili-paste smoke.

We had ddalk galbi on our first night in Korea, when Andrew and Terra dragged our jet-lagged corpses into Bupyeong for the first time. We had it in Chuncheon, the purported home of the dish, with Annette, on our first trip out of Seoul, the first winter we were there. We had it in its short-lived curry incarnation with Dan, and I remember him asking the waitress to add more mini hotdogs, because we loved them so much. I remember having it with my parents in Jongno, meeting Dave just before he fell down the stairs in the subway breaking his ankle in three places. I remember Jo filling up on creamy salad, because of her rules about not eating anything red. And I remember Evan showing us his favourite ddalk galbi place in Yongin, on a winter day so cold that we couldn't even bear to go to the folk village.

It was also the final meal we had with all of our friends together in Korea, and with memories like that, how can I help but want to make it whenever I can? When I happened across a small display of Korean ingredients at the La Zona shopping spectacular in Kawasaki, I was thrilled, and immediately got everything I needed.

My recipe is simple, and feeds two generously with leftovers available for lunch the next day.

You'll need:
  • 500g of chicken, preferably boneless thigh meat, although breast is okay as long as the skin is left on.
  • 2-3 tbsp. of sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp. of soju (or sake, which is what I use in Japan)
  • 2 tbsp. of soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. of mirin
  • 2/3 cup (roughly) gochujang
  • 2-3 heads of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 head of cabbage, sliced in about 1 inch width strips
  • 1 carrot, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 1 sweet potato, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 1 Japanese/Korean leek, sliced into 1 inch pieces
  • 3 or 4 perilla (ganeep) or shiso leaves, cut in half
  • 1 cup ddeok ( optional)

First, marinate the chicken in the soy sauce, garlic and soju for 15-30 minutes.

Heat a large wok or frying pan, and add the chicken. Stir-fry briefly, then add the ddeok, sweet potato, carrot and gochujang. Let this cook together for about five minutes, then add the cabbage, leek and shiso.

At this point, you can add mirin to taste, as well as a little more sesame oil, depending on how greasy you like it. I have added as much as 1 cup of gochujang without affecting the success of the dish - it depends on how spicy you like it. You can also make this a little more spicy by adding one whole Korean chili, sliced thinly, and a tbsp. of Korean chili powder (gochugaru) to the marinade stage. Cook everything together until the cabbage is limp and the chicken is firm - maybe another ten minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently to keep the gochujang from burning.

You can serve this right out of the pan at the table for an air of authenticity, with lettuce leaves for wrapping pieces of meat in to cut the heat. You can serve it over white rice, if you're more comfortable with that, but my husband and I like to eat all the big bits out of the pan first, then add two cups of cooked white rice to the leftover sauce, and return it to the heat to make fried rice at the end of the meal, just like back in the day. For the ultimate Korea nostalgia experience, serve with macaroni salad or coleslaw and yellow radish pickle (takuan) on the side, and try not to trip over the gas line on your way out.


Canadian Bento said...

This seems most excellent, I would like to try it if I can figure out where to procure all the proper ingredients. Any thoughts on how to make it wussier for my wimpy palate?

nakji said...

Without the gochujang, it's basically just a chicken stir-fry. Hmmm. Let me think about it.