Dakgalbi is the king of Korean food: bite size pieces of chopped chicken breast marinated in a spicy sauce of chili pepper paste, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil for 24 hours, then stir fried together with cabbage, sesame leaves, green onions, cylindrical rice cakes, and chunks of sweet potato. Cooked right at your table in a round cast iron pan, after ten minutes of heat and stirring with metal tongs everything bubbles under a red sauce, the chicken is so soft you can squash it, the cabbage crunches in your mouth, and the rice cakes and sweet potato almost melt in your chopsticks.
Though you can find dakgalibi restaurants throughout Korea, the dish comes from Chuncheon, and the city’s Dakgalbi Street is the best place in the country to try it. Twenty-five restaurants face each other across the narrow, winding alley, glass fronts illuminated by primary coloured neon lights, heat, and the smell of frying spices blasting past the middle-aged women who stand in each doorway touting for customers. The restaurants differ slightly in character and atmosphere, though price and service are more or less identical. All have circular wooden tables with a pan in the centre and a gas heater below, the edges full of small plates and bowls holding the normal side dishes of cold seaweed soup, shredded cabbage and carrots with dressing, gimchi, and lettuce leaves to wrap the meat in before eating. You get free water as standard but the best liquid accompaniment for dakgalbi is soju, a cheap, bitter spirit made of rice and barley.
When you’ve eaten about three quarters of your meal, it’s a good idea to order some rice to mop up the rest of the sauce. The waiter will cut the remaining meat and vegetables into small pieces, cover the pan with a metal lid, and parch the leftovers along with the rice and tiny strips of seaweed.
The portions in Chuncheon are big. Two servings of dakgalbi should be enough for three mouths, especially if you order extra rice. Ordering in Korean is easy: two servings is dakgalbi tu-gay, three servings is dakgalbi se-gay.
Dakgalbi can be very spicy. If you need more water, ask the waiter for mool chom do chuseyo.
Look for the semi-busy alley on the right hand side of the street running away from the Jungang-no crossroads, where all the banks are located, towards Midopa Department Store.