Don't say we didn't warn you: Korea's 5 spiciest dishes
My mission: find the spiciest, most lip-burning, tongue-scalding, stomach-scorching dish in Korea.
Strange as it might sound, for me and many fellow Koreans, spice is therapy.
There's something cathartic about feeling like your brain is on fire; it's a sentiment many Koreans relate to.
In a country where extreme spice is considered as basic as salt and pepper, a sensible response to “I’m so stressed out” is “let’s go wolf down something terribly spicy."
After a month of setting my spicebuds on fire, I bring you my five favorite spicy Korean dishes.
5. Buldak (Fire chicken)
This savory barbecued chicken dish covered in chili-loaded sauce became immensely popular a few years ago when the Korean economy was going through a rough patch -- see what I mean about Koreans and spice therapy?
Buldak started a boom for extraordinarily hot dishes in Korea and it remains popular at many pubs. Along with a cold beer, of course.
If you want to tone down the heat, order buldak surrounded by a ring of mozzarella cheese to melt away the misery.
Social heat: You can enjoy buldak, remark upon how spicy it is and still have a normal conversation. Good to share with an old friend you want to catch up with.
Set your tongue on fire at:
Hongcho Red Station, 817-33 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (홍초레드스테이션 서울특별시시 강남구 역삼동 817-33); +82 2 3452 6878
More on CNNGo: Seoul's 5 best Korean barbecue restaurants
4. Tteokbokki (rice and fish cakes in chili sauce)
Soft rice cakes and fish cakes cooked in sweet red chili sauce, tteokbokki is one of Korea’s most loved snacks and comfort foods.
It's commonly sold on street corners and at food stands.
Dongdaemun Yeobkki Tteokbokki restaurant runs roughly 80 branches across the country and delivers the hot-hot-hotness in airtight containers right to your front door. Brave eaters can request extras, such as hard-boiled eggs, glass noodles, fried dumplings or hotdogs.
Social heat: Expect some disruptions a few minutes into the meal. The spice slowly creeps up on you and can quickly debilitate the novice eater.
Experience the pleasure/pain at:
Dongdaemun Yeobkki Tteokbokki, Lucky Plaza, 156 Hongin-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul (동대문엽기떡볶이, 서울특별시 중구 홍인동 156 럭키 프라자 1층); +82 2 2236 8592
3. Abiko curry
Abiko is a Japanese curry restaurant that offers its specialty at various levels of heat.
Not being in the condition to stomach killer spice the day I visited, I urged my companion, Jodie, to order Abiko's “best of the best” spice level, while I went with the “baby” curry.
One test spoonful of her “best of the best” was enough to make me wince and cough. Jodie described her experience as “wanting to eat anything and everything to put out the fire.”
Both not at our best, we ended up mixing the two dishes and toning it down.
Social heat: The meal will dominate the table conversation. If you’re not in the mood to make small talk, and enjoy gasping and grunting while you eat, this is the place to go.
Test your will to live at:
Abiko, 537-4 Shinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul (아비꼬, 서울특별시 강남구 신사동 537-4); +82 2 515 3212
2. Jjambbong (seafood noodles)
The first thing you’re told when you sit down for jjambbong (a ridiculously hot seafood-based noodle dish) is to eat the noodles first. Once you hit the broth, infused with four different chilies from Korea, China, Vietnam and India, the fire becomes too big to put out through normal means.
One mouthful of noodles is enough to cause acute pain on the tongue. Add a spoonful of broth and your entire head may feel that it's been set on fire.
The version served at Shingildong Spicy Jjambbong is immensely rich. I found myself dabbling dangerously into the soup and noodles even as I experienced gut-wrenching pain.
A sign in the restaurant politely requests customers to use the restaurant's bathroom if they feel the need to throw up, rather than purge out on the street. The stack of milk cartons in front of the famed noodle shop is testament to the satanic levels of spice inside.
Social heat: Expect some bonding over the noodles as you watch each other wince and writhe in pain. If you need to make amends with colleagues at work, invite them out for a team-building experience.
Cry for your mama at:
Shingildong Spicy Jjambbong, 165-5 Shingil-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul (신길동 매운짬뽕, 서울특별시 영등포구 신길동 165-5); +82 10 5395 1151
1. Onnuriye Donkatsu (pork cutlet)
The innocent restaurant name, Onnuriye Donkatsu: Pork Cutlet Around the World, is deceiving.
This place is actually known for serving the Donkatsu of Death, aka, the Drop-dead Donkatsu, by far the spiciest dish I've ever endured.
The pork cutlet is drenched in an ominous dark red sauce made from a rich broth of Asian herbs and what owner Song Jung-won claims is the spiciest chili on earth.
Song keeps the recipe for his over-the-top sauce a close secret.
“I want to make it the utmost difficult challenge for only 0.1 percent of the population,” he says. “There’s something about the spiciness that draws people to it even though they’re in pain. They usually think ‘how spicy could it possibly be?’”
One thumb-sized slice of the donkatsu was enough to make me give up.
The restaurant dares diners to eat the Dropdead Donkatsu within 20 minutes, but be warned: they won't serve the dish unless you bring a carton of milk with you.
Only 70 some customers have gotten their faces on Onnuriye's donkatsu Wall of Fame since the challenge started in 2009.
Social heat: Do not expect any conversation after a bite of this dish. Come alone, or with someone who you have no interest in speaking with or someone you want to hurt.
Find out how worthless and weak you really are at:
Onnuriye Donkatsu, 355-23 Shindaebang2-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul (온누리에 돈까스, 서울특별시 동작구 신대방2동, 355-23); +82 2 823 8589
For tips on eating spicy foods, click to the next page.
What's the spiciest dish you've tried in Korea? Tell us in the comments section below.
How to handle spicy food
Eat something before the real meal. Just as you are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol when you haven't eaten, spice can seep deep into an empty stomach.
Prepare the right drink. When it comes to alleviating the pain of spicy food, water is no help. It only rolls the spice around in your mouth and momentarily relieves the pain.
Milk or other dairy drinks help take the heat out of your mouth and also comfort your burning stomach.
Plan ahead. The effects of spicy food can linger long after actual consumption.
Don't embark on a spice challenge when you have an important meeting, exam or travel plans coming up. You never quite know when the afterburn will kick in.
Pick the right companion. Spicy food can cripple your social skills.
You're not exactly charming when your eyes are watering, you’re blowing your nose every three seconds and the only sound you can produce is a groan of pain.
Consume heat only with friends who understand that sometimes we all need a good cry.
Don’t be overly ambitious. Or proud. Yes, everyone will be impressed with your ability to eat the chilies straight out of the kung pao bowl ... for about five minutes. But you've got to live with that scorched stomach for the rest of your life.
When the pain of spice gets too much, stop. That's your body telling you it can't take the heat.