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.

19 May 2004

Dongdaemun 2

(No time to write much. So just enjoy the photos. Quick recap from last post. Thus far, we've strolled past hello apM and Migliore.)

....... and couple of metres down the street from Migliore, you'll arrive at my favourite of them all, Doota. The last time I was at Doota, it was closed for renovations. This will be my first visit to the refurbished Doota.

The approach to Doota.

The concert area to stage live shows and concerts, usually in the evenings on weekends.

Concourse (aka the smoking area - no smoking indoors, so the puffers "chill out" here).


Casual wear floor - for the young and hip. Looks like flourescent colours are in this season. Wonder if they glow in the dark.

Accessories floor - handbags are in flourescent shades too. Wohoo!

This floor for ladies wear.

View of Dongdaemun Stadium from the top of Doota. No, the cars are not playing football. The stadium doubles as a market place when not in use for games.

Dongdaemun cityscape.

The food court pearched at the top floor of Doota. It sure looks a lot classier now than the previous amusement park theme they had. Pretty decent food to be had here.

And this is DONGDAEMUN, the Great East Gate into Seoul from dynasties of the past.

Had some hoteok (호떡) from a street vendor on the way home. Read all about hoteok from my Street Food post here if you don't know what that is.

16 May 2004

Dongdaemun 1

For the benefit of first-time vacationeers who may be visiting Seoul this summer, let's take a quick trip to the shopping hotspot of Seoul, Dongdaemun (동대문). Dongdaemun means "Big (Great) East Gate".

Dongdaemun is the younger, hippier cousin to Namdaemun ("Great South Gate"), another much-touted wholesale shopping area in Seoul, though not much to my liking. To get here via subway (my preferred mode of transport), you'll need to get off at the Dongdaemun Stadium Station. Take exit no. 2. There's also a Dongdaemun Station nearby, but the Dongdaemun Stadium Station is more convenient to where we want to go.

As you come up the stairs from the subway station, you'll be greeted with this stall that sells all kinds of crispy rice crackers and snacks.

The narrow sidewalk is flanked by various stores and street vendors peddling a wide variety of stuff. This store sells baseball caps, the one next to it mobile phone accesories ....

.... and this one costume jewellery - bracelets, necklaces, earrings etc.

A couple of metres down the road and you'll come to the first of several large departmental stores.

This is the entrance to hello apM. I believe this is the new kid on the block amongst the stalwarts in the neighbourhood.

You'll find that the shopping centres in the Dongdaemun area are typically like this - you get a multi-storey building (typically 8-12 storeys high) which houses 40-60 independant retailers on every floor. Each category of products has its own floor, so you'll find the ladies' wear all on one floor, mens' wear on another, casual wear, shoes, accessories, sports wear, leather goods, etc etc etc. on their respective floors. There's also a food court in all these department stores.

Another street vendor selling colourful caps ....

.... hot-dogs ....

.... and mini pizzas.

A couple of metres down the road ....

.... and you'll come to another large departmental store.

This is Migliore.

(to be continued .... busy busy)

14 May 2004

Bosod Bulgogi

Today we're having bosod bulgogi (버섯불고기) at a mushroom restaurant. Bosod bulgogi is beef with mushrooms. This is a different take on the standard bulgogi (barbequed beef, or "fire beef") fare.

First, a scan around the joint.

Choice of floor seating or chairs here.

Here's their menu. Typical of these mushroom restaurants, you'll find all things beefy and mushroomy here. Most of these specialist mushroom eateries grow their own mushrooms in plastic canisters in the back of the store. So they're certain of being freshly cropped prior to serving.

Not a bad business model when you think about it. After all, mushrooms require little cultivation attention and they sprout pretty quickly. All this at minimal cost to the proprietor, who gets free supply of fresh mushrooms daily. Anyway, back to the grub.

We start off by heating up some stock in a shallow stone dish. The beef stock is prepared with large onions, garlic, soya sauce, a touch of syrup/sugar, salt, pepper and the all important sweet korean pears. The latter gives this stock its unique sweetness. Add some leaves of crown daisy and sliced large onions for effect.

This is the main dish. A variety of mushrooms and paper-thin sliced beef. KRW9,000 per person's portion. You're looking at 2 portions here. Anything less is kid's play.

A shot of some of the side dishes. Nothing new or fancy that hasn't already been covered in past posts.

This is the salad that's served with the bulgogi. The dressing is typically horseradish (wasabe) based, so watch out before you dig in or you're sure to have a nose flush.

Grab a sampling of the various mushrooms and lay them flat on the dish. Let it simmer for a while before adding the beef since the mushrooms take longer to cook. You don't want to overcook the thin slices of beef by adding them in too early. When the mushrooms are almost done, place the beef over the mushroom.

You will not be able to fit the entire serving in one go. So typically, you'd apportion it into 2 or 3 rounds, with equal portions of mushroom and beef. No hard and fast rules - entirely up to you.

I love watching the bloody-red beef as it turns colour.

It's now ready to eat. I like my beef "medium" so I usually take it off the fire when it's done so that it doesn't toughen from overcooking.

Pinch some side dishes, some mushrooms and a slice of beef and tuck in.

The important elements to a great bosod bulgogi are (1)good beef (2)good stock and (3)fresh mushrooms. This place meets these criterias. Well done. I also like the generous portion of beef they served. I'd say this is above average compared to some other stingy places we've been to in the past. We managed 3 rounds filled to the brim on this occasion.

As I've indicated earlier, most of these mushroom eateries grow their own mushrooms, so criteria (3) is usually a giver. What separates them, in my opinion, is really (2). Taking the extra effort to make up a good batch of the stock is crucial. Too bland and all you get is some mushy mushrooms in some brown liquid.

The bosod bulgogi here gets my thumbs up.

12 May 2004

Doh Si Rak

Ordered-in lunch again today cause it's raining outside. We've been having wet weather these last couple of days. So nothing fancy today.

The doh si rak ajumma (lady) is adding my name to her Hall of Fame. By now, I must hold the record for being the most inconvenient customer. Why? Cause I always have late lunches (once I remember that I haven't yet had lunch) and she'll have to work overtime to drag this box of food all the way cross town for this ONE customer. :o)

Nice soup today. Non-spicy clear soup of bone marrows with turnips. Tasty.

This is a nice fresh salad, of sorts. I believe its the top leafy part of bean sprouts. Nothing goes to waste here. If you eat it, we serve it. Squeeze a dash of vinegared chili sauce and its good to go.

Chinese cabbage kimchi in all its mighty red splendour. Mushroom na-mool.

Close-up of the fried anchovies with a hint of chili sauce. It tastes nicer than it looks. Trust me. The top is just fish cake (odeng) tossed in sweet chili sauce. Nice.

KRW4,000. This meal is cheaper than the usual KRW5,000 because I think there's no meat dish in there. At least that's how I reasoned it. What do I know. I speak no Korean.