I’ve heard many expats profess that dakgalbi is one of their favorite Korean foods. What exactly is dakgalbi (닭갈비), a popular dish that is as iconically Chuncheon as it gets? And, where’s the “galbi” in dakgalbi?
According to written records, dakgalbi appeared in the late 1960s in small makgeolli taverns in Chuncheon as an inexpensive snack to be eaten while drinking. It was the brainchild of tavern owners who wanted a cheaper yet tasty alternative to the comparatively expensive “gui”(구이) or chargrilled barbecue dishes. Makes sense as Chuncheon boasts a thriving livestock industry, which means restaurants were able to offer this tasty chicken dish at cheaper prices.
Dakgalbi soon became popular among soldiers on leave and also for university students on a low budget. By the 1970s, dakgalbi had earned the nicknames “commoners’ galbi” or “university students’ galbi” (the word “galbi” means ribs, which expats often confuse with the word “gui” or barbecue).
Today, there is even a street known as “Dakgalbi Golmok” in Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon Province, which has a high concentration of dakgalbi restaurants. Take note that the name of the dish, “dakgalbi,” is a bit of a misnomer, because despite the fact that its name means chicken ribs, there is no rib meat in dakgalbi. It’s usually chicken thigh meat, typically boneless, although some restaurants will toss in a meaty piece of femur bone or two for people to gnaw on.
There are different styles of cooking dakgalbi. The most recognized is the kind that is stir-fried, right at the table, on a large round cast-iron pan. Chicken steaks are marinated in a spicy gochujang-based sauce overnight and cooked with an assortment of vegetables, including sliced cabbage, sweet potatoes, scallions, onions, perilla leaves and rice cake. It is a communal meal where everyone helps themselves to the chicken straight from the pan with their chopsticks. A mixture of rice, gochujang sauce, seasoned laver flakes and sesame oil can be added to the same pan later on in the meal which makes a tasty fried rice. The rice, along with all the caramelized bits, cooks into the pan, kind of like a paella. The crispy bits sticking to the bottom of the pan are ridiculously good.
Another popular version, which is relatively harder to find outside of Chuncheon, is the kind we had during our road trip: sutbul dakgalbi or dakgalbi barbecued over charcoal. It is less saucy than the kind that is stir-fried and, because it is cooked over charcoal, it has an intense smokiness to it. I personally prefer this version. I’ve also seen dakgalbi cooked over hot stones as well, but I have yet to actually try this style.
Different restaurants make their own version of marinades for the chicken, so although the color of the chicken is typically red, it could contain other ingredients such as curry powder. I’ve been to restaurants that offer non-spicy versions of dakgalbi as well, marinating their chicken in a sweet soy and garlic-based sauce, reminiscent of a traditional bulgogi marinade.
Instead of heading to the highly commercial district that is Myeongdong (yes, there is one in Chuncheon as well), home to the city’s famed Dakgalbi Street, we chose a place that was less touristy and more frequented by the locals, located in a small alley in a quiet residential area.
The boys rocking their red Hello Kitty aprons, courtesy of the restaurant. We ordered seven portions of dakgalbi and one portion of chicken gizzards. And, of course, beers.
The man hovering over the barbecue grill by the doorway was busy grilling dakgalbi and gizzards. Plate after plate of uncooked marinated chicken and fresh gizzards were sent his way from the kitchen. From the moment we walked in, he basically didn’t stop. The grill master doesn’t cook the meat through, though. Just enough so that once they were brought to our table, cut up into bite-size pieces and sizzling hot, they only needed to be cooked over the charcoal for a couple more minutes.
Although the marinade is red, it is less spicy than the kind I’ve eaten in Seoul that are cooked on a pan. Less sweet, too.
Chicken gizzards. I love them.
And, at last, our charcoal barbecued Chuncheon dakgalbi. Tender, juicy as can be, with crisp edges and that smokiness I can’t get enough of.
To finish off the meal, a bubbling bowl of doenjang guksu, which is basically doenjang jjigae with some thin wheat noodles. I ordered this because the complimentary jjigae that came with the barbecued chicken was so good. The soft noodles went oh-so-well with the salty soup that was packed with umami from the fermented soy beans.
The only part that sucked about that last meal on the road was that it was time to go home. But, our bellies couldn’t be happier.
I think this one agrees.
Hwangto Sutbul Dakgalbi (황토 숯불 닭갈비)
Hupyeong-dong 801-12, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon-do
강원 춘천시 후평동 801-12