Buldak: South Korea's torturous but irresistible dish
China's Sichuan region (fiery), India (oily and spicy) and Southeast Asia (lots of bird's eye chili) all have their own established culinary reputations. But what of Korea?
The peninsula sandwiched between Japan and China, has, since 1592, when the invading Japanese brought the aforementioned capsicum with them, had a not insignificant predilection for the chili pepper, too.
Korean cuisine is vast and extends well beyond kimchi and bulgogi.
There are tastes for all seasons but chili tends to play a starring role in most Korean cuisine. Of all the Korean dishes that utilise the chili, there is at least one that should have chili lovers salivating. It is a dish that pleases and frazzles your senses in equal measure and is the darling of students and culinary thrill seekers alike.
Literally translated as "fire chicken," buldak is a dish that has you reaching for your jug of fruit soju quicker than you can say "C18H27NO3" (which is the chemical formula of capsaicin of course).
It is safe to say that buldak is not a Korean cuisine mainstay. It isn't really Korean food at all, not in the traditional sense anyway.
It's a novelty food, designed primarily so people can show off to their friends and girlfriends. In short, buldak is to help people feel better about themselves.
In much the same way as the fabled British-Indian phall curry was created so insecure British men could impress their dining companions (some say it was named after the phallus to denote just how manly these phall eaters are), buldak is also something of a late night boost to your self esteem.
Most commonly found around university areas or wherever young people gather, the dish is actually deliciously tasty and incredibly simple, it just hurts a bit to eat.
Pieces of boneless chicken are doused in a fiery chili sauce and seared over flames to lock in the destructive chili power. The process is repeated until you have several layers of heat.
The small plate arrives at your table and looks rather pathetic, as I found when I recently ventured out to taste for myself what all the fuss is about. Fans of value for money may not be impressed with the amount but appearances can be, and often are, deceptive.
I bite down on the first piece and instead of heat there is a smoky succulence and a juicy taste that pleases the palate.
After swallowing, all that remains of my first fire chicken experience is a trickle of heat, lingering at the back of my mouth. The taste of the chicken is good however and I quickly follow that first piece with a second and third.
But here that little heat trickle builds, and by the time the fourth piece has disappeared down my esophagus the trickle has turned into a violent torrent of invisible fire.
To add mental agony to the physical pain, while the fire builds in my mouth I can see actual flames lick the ceiling of the restaurant kitchen, as yet another batch of fire chicken is seared and another table of Korean students prepare for their gastronomic fate.
Nevertheless, this is what I came for so I drop another piece in. Its every touch on the surface of my tongue is now painful and tiny beads of sweat form on my forehead.
I notice this is common to many of the diners. Finally, that small dish of chicken is almost gone. The last piece goes in and the fire is at its hottest. I chew open mouthed, trying to draw in cooling air with every bite, but it isn't nearly enough and as the heat crescendos I reach, grasping and gasping, for water.
I find a jug of milky, pineapple and and soju cocktail instead and pour a shot glass full. No effect. Another and another follow until finally the heat slowly begins to subside and as the jug is emptied the temperature of my mouth reaches a less torturous level.
The endorphins have been released and combined with the effects of the jug, I feel pretty good as I sit back and reflect.
I leave the restaurant safe in the knowledge that I'll be back and next time will probably bring an unsuspecting newcomer to suffer with me.
And the price for this experience? ₩14,000 (US$12) will easily make two people very uncomfortable.
Hong Cho Red Station, Jeonbuk University area
1 Ga 1314-175, Deokjin Dong, Deokjin Gu, Jeonju
홍초 레드스테이션 전북대점
전라북도 전주시 덕진구 덕진동 1가 1314-175
Tel: +82 (0) 63-271-9595
Branches are located throughout Korea
To read more articles by Rob McGovern, or to contact him go to one of his two blogs. A Land of Quirk and Charm for his personal outlook on Korea or www.robmcgovern.wordpress.com for slightly more polished work.
Rob submitted this piece as part of CNNGo’s iReport section. To find out what other stories we are looking for, go to our iReport page.
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