The promise of spicy, stir-fried South Korean chicken has turned our gaze to the regional capital of Chuncheon.
As the region’s most popular dish, dak-galbi is one of those warming winter meals that’s best shared with the entire family.
Prepared atop a cast-iron skillet in the center of the table, the jumble of ingredients includes marinated chicken, cabbage, sweet potatoes, perilla leaves (from the mint family) and tteok bokki (Korean rice cakes) — all topped with sweet and spicy gochujang sauce (a fermented Korean chili paste).
But dak-galbi isn’t just a cheap, ubiquitous meal. Emerging in the 1960s after the Korean War, “commoner’s galbi” has become a symbol of the city’s resilience.
“I hope people don’t come to Chuncheon just to eat dak-galbi without understanding its history,” Choi Jeong-Yern, owner of a second-generation dak-galbi restaurant in Chuncheon, tells CNN Travel.
“I hope people learn that Chuncheon’s iconic dish was created out of the pain that people carried after the war. This is a local food that has a history and a story.”
The dak-galbi story
On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began with the Battle of Chuncheon, where a series of attacks all but leveled the city.
“After the war, chicken farms became the livelihood of people who were poor and almost begging on the streets,” says Jeong-Yern. “There was agony and pain, even after the conflict was over.”
During this dark era, dak-galbi was a happy discovery. The dish made use of cheap, copious ingredients, creating something comforting and communal that brought people together.
“This is a local food that has a history.”
“The story of dak-galbi started from a couple who were running a popular pork restaurant in the 1960s,” Park Sung-Soo, a Chuncheon culture tour guide, tells CNN Travel.
“One day, they ran out of pork and decided to use chicken, which was cheaper and more abundant. They stir-fried the chicken in the same way as the pork, and the dish was a hit.
“Other people started serving the same dish, one after another, and eventually there were many dak-galbi restaurants in Chuncheon.”
Where to find it
Dalk-galbi became so symbolic of Chuncheon that the city dedicated an entire road — MyeongDong Dakgalbi Street — to the purveyors.
Travelers can wander the aromatic lane, choosing between tiny family-run restaurants.
Even though there are dozens of restaurants on MyeongDong Dakgalbi Street, Jeong-Yern says each one has its own style.
“Every restaurant in this historic alley contributes its own special taste to the dish,” she notes.
“Our restaurant’s dak-galbi is light and not too spicy, which is something we’re proud of. I think of dak-galbi as my own history. My parents started this restaurant, handed it to me, and now my son will run this place after me.”
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