Friday, August 15, 2014

Ribless Chicken Ribs in Korea

Last winter, I was given a chance to go to South Korea for free, all I had to do was pack enough warm clothes for a week and get there. Being a huge K-drama and K-pop fan, it should be a no-brainer. Not to mention my long torrid affair with Korean food, my fondness was to the point where I jokingly told my husband if ever we got fired from our current jobs, we should think about starting fresh in Korea.

The only trepidation I had was we had to go with an Indonesian tour group. If my past experience with such tour groups is anything to go by, the holiday will be more of a boot camp of late nights and early mornings, with an endless litany of sights and shops. Not exactly my idea of relaxation. After deliberating for the better part of a month, we decided that as our first introductory trip to Korea, being chauffeured around everywhere accompanied by a local tour guide might not be so bad.

Though the trip did turn out to be as expected -- early mornings, late nights, sights, photo-op, shops, more sights, more photo-op -- what saved it for me was the food. Every morning I was secretively looking forward to lunch and dinner, expectant of what deliciousness I would encounter on the day.

Our korean tour guide, who goes by the name Lara, spoke English fluently and had a no non-sense attitude. Being a hired local guide, there was little she could alter by way of itinerary and places to visit. But there was one thing the tour company allowed her complete freedom, that was the choice of eateries to eat. And for that I am thankful. Sure there was a day or two when we ate Thai food or Chinese food, but mostly it’s good ol’ Korean food, with a visit to a matjib 맛집 (famous restaurant) or two thrown in.

Our first proper Korean meal was at a lively Korean barbecue place. Set by the riverside steps away from the wharf where ferries depart hourly to Namiseom 남이섬, the eatery stands shoulder to shoulder with dozens other barbecue places. The protein served in all these barbecue places is not the standard beef (galbi anyone?), nor is it pork (samgyeopsal omnomnom…).

I made a point in asking Lara the name of all the dishes I thought was delicious. She explained that Chuncheon 춘천 is known in Korea for its numerous poultry farms, hence chicken is the protein of choice for barbecue here. Over time this namesake dish called Chuncheon Dak Galbi 춘천 닭갈비 earned the status as the city’s specialty dish.

Dak galbi is literally translated as chicken ribs, which is a misnomer because the protein in this dish are boneless chicken thighs, no ribs are involved. Thick, juicy chicken thighs marinated with Korea’s representative condiment of fermented chilli pepper paste (gochujang 고추장) for at least a day before hitting the grill set in front of us. Grilled alongside are shiitake mushrooms, king oyster mushrooms and tteok 떡 (cylindrical shaped rice cake).

When the chicken was no longer pink, when clear juices were about to drip to meet the flames underneath, when the meat had taken the charred flavour from the grill, I readied a fresh lettuce leaf on my left hand palm. On it landed a piece of chicken, then a slice of king oyster mushroom, a few slices of raw garlic, maybe a slice of green chilli, definitely a spoonful of gijangbap 기장밥 (rice with flecked yellow with millet). All wrapped up, the abundant lettuce package struggled to fit into my mouth. It felt supremely satisfying. I went in for another one, this time the chicken was smeared with ssamjang 쌈장 (fermented chilli soybean paste), topped with a piece of tteok, kimchi and rice. Endless variations can be had, depending on what I felt like eating after devouring the last parcel.

To escort these bundles of food on its way down the stomach was a bowl of soup with dried radish leaves in a doenjang 된장 based broth, which took on the commendable job of taking the edge off of the chilly air.

Waiting for everyone else to finish eating -- I am somewhat of a fast eater -- I went for a walk around the restaurant to settle my stomach. Along the outside wall were hanging rows upon rows of radish greens in various states of drying, these were the leaves decorating the doenjang soup we just had. At the entrance of the eatery, patrons were greeted and enticed by the view of a man burning charcoals with supercharged lighters, to render them ashen ready for the grill. I stayed to watch for a while, the glowing charcoals fascinated me like a moth to a flame, and the warmth thawed my frozen limbs.

Body warmed up, stomach's full, all that's left to do was to sightsee Namiseom (for only a full hour! We didn't get to see much.... Sigh....).

Dak Galbi
Namiseom ferry terminal in Gapyeong
경기도 가평군 가평읍 북한강변로 
location on google maps

PS: The rows of dak galbi restaurants lining the ferry wharf are in truth located in Gyeonggi-do 경기도, not in Chuncheon-si where the dish is most famous. I suspect they auspiciously rode the coattails of their nearby Gangwon-do neighbours across the Han River to borrow this dish in hopes that it’ll take off, and it did. The number of tourists passing through the area certainly didn’t hurt either.


  1. Haha. I was wondering how much meat a chicken rib would have and how you could debone those teeny tiny ribs when I realised they were just thighs. I love chicken thighs! Best bit on the chicken. The rice cakes look interesting. I thought it was some kind of turnip at first.

    1. ^.^ Yeah the names of some korean food can be a bit misleading. If you don't count the eggs, chicken thighs are my favourite part as well!


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