The Korean Ring of Fire
Once, when taking a friend to a local agujjim (monkfish) restaurant, we were devastated to find that the red volcanic sludge in the pan was neutral in hotness — the kind-intentioned ajumma had noted our foreignness and gone to great lengths to tone down the heat of this characteristically fiery dish. On another occasion, when some foreign friends were guests on a TV show, the producers behind the scenes urged them to act as if the kimchi was unbearably spicy for their delicate taste buds. This little fiasco was met with peals of laughter from the audience, further confirming the mythical frailty of the waegookin (foreigner) palette.
Some contend Korean food is the spiciest in the world, and, yes, it can certainly raise a grim smile on the red, sweaty face of a hot-food aficionado. Partly because of chips on our shoulders but mostly because we just love spicy food, we launched our Seoul-based crusade: We aimed to test ourselves against the hottest local foods we could find. Knowing this would require a constant flow of beer mixed with soju to soothe our mouths, we set out on a mission to find the single spiciest Korean dish around.
Bul-dak: Not-so-spicy boneless chicken on skillet
2/5 Chili Peppers
Bul-dak “fire chicken” might be on its way out of public favor, as most of the locations we found on Google and Naver maps seemed to have gone under. But at Hong-mi Fire Chicken & Pan-Fried Food in Jongno, we ordered extra-spicy fire chicken and the house specialty, fire chicken on melted cheese.
Ian: Having heard Koreans and foreigners say this was the spiciest dish in the land, I’ve been had — BAMBOOZLED! Hot, but not within the upper register of what I usually eat. No challenge at all. I can’t help but wonder if there’s some meddlesome do-gooder in the kitchen protecting the hapless waegookin from themselves. Tastiest dish on the list, but not helping us achieve our mission objective. Honestly, I think the waitress or cook threw us under the bus. “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” — C.S. Lewis
Matt: I have fond memories of eating fire chicken and drinking beer with a couple of English academy coworkers. It really was a baptism by fire for an innocent young expat. But the fire chicken of my memory is much hotter than anything on the market nowadays. This “extra-spicy” fowl at Hong-mi had a bit of a piercing effect in the back of my throat, but failed to bring on any full-body alert or send me into a state of fear and trembling. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”? Not quite.
Jokbal: Pigs’ feet (and friends)
3/5 Chili Peppers
Jokbal usually yields no hot wallop. But in the labyrinthine alleys of Dongdaemun, Changshin-dong Spicy Jokbal has a cult following for its fiery-footed swine. For adventurous eaters, the special set is a must: You’ll get chicken feet, two kinds of pigs’ feet and some short-arm octopus.
Ian: These always summoned repressed memories of pickled pigs’ feet in jars back in North Carolina, with my Grandaddy suckin’ away at their toe knuckles; hence, I was wary. But this spicy version is pretty damn tasty, although next time I’ll go for the charcoaled slabs of samgyupsal. The spice primarily stuck to the tongue tip and lips, no doubt due to the gnashing of teeth necessitated by the ordeal. Ain’t much meat neither, just a whole lot o’ sauced-up fat and gristle. Although we initially dismissed these as not all that hot, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash was stuck in my head the whole next day … ahem.
Matt: Before the main course had even arrived — a small serving of “mini-jok” — the waitress had deposited bowls of bean sprout soup that were perfectly clear and yet … spicy. When the jokbal arrived and I had put on the plastic gloves provided, I soon discovered this was no dainty meal. It required plenty of biting and ripping to separate the tendons and ligaments from the bones, which was made trickier by the nettling spiciness. By the end of the meal, various pork joints were littering the table, and this little delicatessen was marked for future visits.
Ddeokbokki: Sticky rice cakes ‘n stuff
4/5 Chili Peppers
At the main branch of Yeopki Ddeokbokki in Dongdaemun, cartons of Coolpis (a yogurty, fire-quenching mouth cooler) sat ominously on every table. We opted for “hardcore rice cake” Set A, with extra goodies like egg and dumplings, and added cheese and a side of boneless chicken feet, just to be professional about it.
Ian: Another level of intensity from what you usually expect for this: really, really spicy, just on the cusp of intolerable. Koreans say to eat the egg first with spicy food, since it helps the gut handle it, but I had popped two heartburn pills before this adventure and quietly congratulated myself on my forethought. The chicken feet were surprisingly mild — more of a smoky BBQ. The odeng pieces, though? They soaked up a ton of sauce and gave the biggest hit out of the whole crock-pot of foolishness. We definitely went to Little Russia for beer afterwards.
Matt: I was skeptical that a street snack could be turned into a meal, but we ordered a little extra and ended up satisfied. It got hotter and hotter as the broth boiled down and the spiciness built up — slowly, like a symphony. A flaming symphony. When all was said and done, though, it was just children’s food, give or take a few mouth ulcers. And the chicken feet had no effect whatsoever. Yet for my scoffing attitude, I was struck down the next day with several bowel attacks that left me pale and fragile. Lesson learned.
Mugyo-dong nakji: Octopus tentacles smothered in fire
4/5 Chili Peppers
There are hundreds of restaurants named Mugyo-dong Nakji nationwide, so we headed to the one behind City Hall. It’s a renovated hanok called Youngest Sister Nakji, and on this particular evening every seat was occupied by flush-faced office workers. Celebrity signatures adorned the walls and gruff ajummas quickly appeared with nakji bokkeum (mixed octopus) and clam soup.
Ian: My heartburn sucks lately (gee, I wonder why), so I chugged some chocolate milk beforehand to prepare for this place; it was old-school, authentic Koreana. The octopus was tasty and paired well with the relative simplicity of the clam soup. At first it was a tangy spice — I didn’t get why the guys next to us were beet-red — but I soon learned that it was a creeper, and that the oil for the side of bibimbap was a catalyst, ratcheting it up. Both of us broke into a sweat at exactly the same time. Damn spicy, but not wholly miserable. Increased booze intake resulted in drunken sweaty conversation with our neighbors. Solidarity!
Matt: I was expecting something a lot spicier, but I left the octopus house relatively undamaged. The sauce was nice and garlicky, and I enjoyed the vibe of the place: stressed-out salarymen and -women kicking back with therapeutically spicy food and plenty of alcohol. The octopus had a lingering sting to it and I found myself digging into the huge heap of bean sprouts when the sauce’s boomerang effect started to hit. I’d recommend this dish to anyone who wants to test the waters.
Naengmyeon: Icy, spicy buckwheat noodles with hot sauce
4/5 Chili Peppers
Dong-a Naengmyeon in Hannam-dong is known for its incendiary noodles and a no-bullshit approach: drab blue interior, cafeteria-style seating, order at the counter, pay before eating. Only three items are on the menu — mul naengmyeon (cold wheat noodles), bibim naengmyeon (cold mixed noodles) and dumplings. The level of spiciness must be specified upon ordering, so of course we grabbed one of each item on the menu at maximum intensity.
Ian: Having had my ass kicked here before, I went for the slightly more sane mul naengmyeon, since some of the spice can be left behind in the liquid. During my previous visit I’d seen ajeossis giving up mid-meal, their egos crushed and vanquished, but although both of us were sweaty and red-faced by the end, it wasn’t as wicked this time around — not to imply there wasn’t ample nose-blowing and piles of tissues left in our wake. The cups of meat broth accompanying were scrumplicious and shouldn’t be missed. I snuck in a drinking yogurt to soothe my palate afterwards.
Matt: Ian warned me this restaurant was going to destroy us, so I was a bit surprised when I tasted the noodles and detected sweetness. Huh? Soon, though, the smoky, sinister aftertaste set in and my forehead broke out in sweat. It was a new experience to have something so spicy served cold. When Ian finished his noodles I was still chipping away at the bottom of my bowl but managed to drink all the soup without incident. It turned out to be feel-good spicy food.
Maeun galbi-jjim: Spicy beef short-rib stew (a.k.a. the worst decision ever)
5/5 Chili Peppers
For a concoction of beef short-ribs, glass noodles and a dangerous red sauce, we visited the Hyewha location of Maeundae, an Apgujeong-based chain. The waiter was extremely reluctant to let us order the spiciest version, but we did. As we sat listening to pitiful K-pop tunes and took in the simple concrete interior, we were ignorant of our impending doom.
Ian: Oh, sweet Jesus; this was brutal. From the first bite, my mouth and throat burned with the strength of a thousand suns. Sweat and tears were flowing, the fount turned wide open. I voiced cowardly thoughts of meal-abandonment. All conversation was ground to a halt as I held chilly bottles of soju to my neck, desperate for any respite. The meat was tender and slow-cooked, but as the broth boiled down, the clear noodles absorbed what I dubbed “The Devil’s Brine.” I saw that rat-bastard of a waiter chuckling from behind the partition and was reminded of an old Korean proverb: “Revenge is a dish best served spicy as fuck.”
Matt: At first we tried to make light of the situation, but soon the mood turned grim and the conversation died down. A chill swept over me and I had to put on my jacket. My stomach began to ache. My tongue felt like it was shot full of novocaine. This was the only food that put me into a state of physical distress. We managed to finish the meat, but left a pile of glass noodles at the bottom of the pot. As if to cheer us up, the waiter told us afterward that we’d handled it better than the locals, and through our haze we realized we’d done it: spiciest dish in Seoul, found. Now to crawl home.
If you want to try any of these for yourself, here’s how to find the restaurants we mentioned:
Hong-mi Buldak: Jongno-gu, Gwancheol-dong 13-2, (02) 733-7942
Changshin-dong Spicy Jokbal: Jongno-gu, Changshin-dong 581-5, (02) 3675-9689
Yeopki Ddeokbokki: Jung-gu, Heungin-dong 156, (02) 2236-8592
Youngest Sister Nakji: Jongno-gu, Cheongjin-dong 142-3, (02) 736-0824
Dong-a Naengmyeon: Yonsan-gu, Hannam-dong 657-43, (02) 796-7442