The last time I was in Korea was in 2007, more than 5 years ago, but if anyone asks me what I liked about my time there, I will answer (without hesitation) “The food!” and proceed to deliver an hour-length monologue on what I ate and why I loved it so much. I still remember the face of the man who made the 50c “Sandwich” outside the gate of the University. The warm fish-shaped red bean cakes that were sold around the corner from the kid I tutored. The black sesame sticky rice bun from the student cafeteria that I ate for breakfast almost every morning. The food memories are still very very vivid.
Despite Korean food quickly becoming the “in” cuisine in Sydney, there are still a lot of things I ate in Korea that I can’t find here. So I get very excited and nostalgic when I find out that someone has brought over something I miss from the motherland. Like when soft-serve froyo started making its first scattered appearances in cafes around Sydney, this was my reaction:
This photo was taken in 2009, years before the current froyo revolution at the long defunct “White Apple” … funnily enough in the same location where Chanoma is now. Sad that it didn’t last. I guess the world just wasn’t ready.
So when I heard that there was a new Dakgalbi place in Strathfield, it jumped to the top of my list. And finally, after months of just talking about it, I finally made it there a few weeks ago to catch up with my friend and law padawan Alexis.
Dakgalbi translates to “chicken ribs” literally, which makes no sense because the chicken is almost always served boneless. The birthplace of Dakgalbi is a city in Korea called Chun-cheon, which also happens to be the birthplace of my father. My grandma still lives in Chun-cheon so visiting her always means a trip to “Ddakgalbi alley”, a small laneway in the central area that is occupied solely by restaurants selling the dish that is the city’s claim to fame.
As you walk down Dakgalbi alley, the doors of the restaurants fling open as though they’re all equipped with automatic sensors. In fact, they’re armed with extremely vigilant Korean ladies who unashamedly assault you all at once with their colourful menus and well-rehearsed greetings. This turns an ordinary night into a big moral dilemma – how do you choose?! They’re all just trying to make an honest living!! So you end up walking into the one with the most generic name like “The Original Chuncheon Dakgalbi” and try to ignore the other ladies cursing you under their breath.
The experience at Ssong-Ga Dakgalbi in Strathfield is much less stressful.
The place is comfortably dingy and reminded me of university-district eateries in Seoul. It’s for eating (and drinking) only – kitchen tiles, bare walls, metal tables with a built-in gas burner. If you want atmosphere, you won’t find it here – go down the road to the cafe with fairy-lights and swing-chairs.
Walking in, you’re welcomed with a strong smell of chilli paste and garlic and you just know… “Something delicious is about to happen“.
The menu is straightforward – no mucking around. Just different varieties of Ddakgalbi (classic, cheese, spicy, octopus, beef, etc) with an array of optional extras.
Dakgalbi is a very simple concept that just turns out to be insanely delicious. It’s a big hotplate with vegetables (cabbage, carrot, spring onion, sweet potato), chicken pieces, rice cakes and spicy marinade that is cooked at your table.
Unlike Korean “Why am I paying so much to cook my own food?” BBQ, the staff do all the work for you. You just have to sit there and watch the magic happen. First, they use two metal spatulas to mix in the sauce with the chicken and vegetables until it looks something like this:
Looks amazing and ready to eat… but wait, didn’t we order the cheese ddakgalbi?
Okay now we’re ready to eat. How good does that look?! It’s easy to see why Ddakgalbi is so universally loved – it embraces some of the core truths of eating:
1. Everything tastes better on a hot plate.
2. Everything tastes better with cheese.
3. You can never go wrong with chicken.
And at $32, it is seriously good value. This is a 2 person serving size, but could probably feed up to 4 people. That didn’t stop us from demolishing it though… and going for round two.
Bokkum bap! This is my favourite part – just when you think the fun’s over, they bring out the mixed rice course. I love this about Korean food – there’s often a second, sometimes even a third, act. I love it so much I actually wrote a speech about it in my Korean language class. I gave that speech to all the Level 1 students that term and won first prize. One of my proudest moments.
And it’s not just ordinary rice, it’s special mixing rice with chopped up kimchi and roasted seaweed bits. Just $5 extra and is aptly described in the menu as “Mix in the rice, please!”
This is everything that’s good about Korean food mixed into one a big hot plate.
Ssong Ga Chicken
Churchill Avenue, Strathfield (next to Bassim)