I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write up a blog about Chuncheon. It’s the city I visit most outside of Seoul – my father grew up there and my grandma still lives there, so it’s basically my second home in Korea.
Chuncheon is only 1 hour north-east of Seoul by train, and it’s a really great day trip – especially for couples! Chuncheon is where lovers from my parent’s generation would travel to spend long afternoons together away from Seoul, so there’s a bit of romantic nostalgia associated with the city. It also peaked in popularity as a tourist destination in the early 2000’s after mega-hit Korean drama Winter Sonata came out. The early episodes of the drama were set in Chuncheon and Chuncheon’s “Myeongdong” is where the ill-fated lovers Yu-jin and Jun-sang agree to meet for a date, but then Yu-jin is left waiting and heartbroken after Jun-sang “dies” when he is hit by a car on his way to meet her. The nearby island, Naimseom, is also where the couple enjoy their sweetest moments of first love, riding bikes down the tree-lined lane and making kissing snowmen.
If you haven’t guessed already I was one of the thousands of girls/women who cried buckets over this drama and fell obsessively in love with its star, Bae Yong Jun.
These days, more than ten years later, the glow of Winter Sonata is finally fading from Chuncheon, but there’s plenty of other reasons to visit. And by plenty I mean two. And they’re both food reasons.
First, let’s talk about dak galbi. I’ve written about this before, but Chuncheon is the home of dak galbi, one of the most universally loved dishes in Korea. I eat it every single time I go to Chuncheon, but these photos are from recent visit when I went with my American friend who LOVES dakgalbi and wanted to see if the original version was any better than her favourite local restaurant in Seoul.
This is the entrance to the famous dakgalbi alley in Chuncheon’s Myeongdong (the main shopping district). There has to be 20+ restaurants in there – ALL dakgalbi and impossible to differentiate if you haven’t done your research.
My grandma’s favorite is a place called Yumi Dakgalbi, but I wanted to try somewhere different so I used my Naver skills and picked a place that had gotten pretty good reviews.
It’s called Woomi Dakgalbi and it’s right near the end of the alley. According to the sign, it’s been around for about 45 years.
Very basic menu – but surprisingly they had a choice between original dakgalbi and spicy dakgalbi, which is unusual. I realized this after we had ordered – I had just asked for dakgalbi like I always do and the waitress didn’t even bother asking whether I wanted spicy or not. Probably had something to do with the white girl at my table… how racist! Well, so much for stereotypes because this particular white girl likes her food HOT so we asked them to add some extra chilli sauce to our chicken.
The prices were higher than I expected – my friend’s favorite dakgalbi in Nowon (northern Seoul) is a sweet 7,000 per person and the portions are MASSIVE. They also have the option of adding cheese-stuffed rice cakes to your chicken. The four-item ‘extras’ menu here was a bit sad. I was starting to get nervous that my friend wouldn’t think this place good enough to justify the 1hr travel + 4,500 won per person.
The chicken comes out within seconds: huge chunks of marinated, boneless chicken (skin ON), sliced cabbage, spring onion, perilla leaf and long white rice cakes.
The story of dak galbi is one that involves ingenuity and the noble desire to create food that is both cheap AND delicious. In the 60’s, marinated pork ribs barbecued over a charcoal grill (dweji-galbi) were a really popular “anju” (dish eaten with alcohol) in Chuncheon. However, pork supply became unstable and in the face of possible ruin, one restaurant owner had the genius idea of simply substituting the pork with chicken, and dak galbi was born! It became popular among university students as a cheap eat you could share with friends, and then just took the entire nation by storm.
The original dak galbi, which is just marinated chicken grilled over charcoal, is coming back into fashion these days. I’ve tried it, but I honestly like this version better – mixed with veggies and other goodies, and cooked on a cast iron plate. My favorite thing to add-on are udon noodles. Sweet potato is also a favorite of many. Oh, and mozzarella cheese if you’re feeling particularly decadent. But it’s also perfectly delicious on it’s own, and that’s how we decided to eat it.
Arguably, the best part of eating dakgalbi is actually the fried rice (bokkumbap) at the end. You have to pay extra for the rice but it IS NOT OPTIONAL. Dakgalbi is not dakgalbi without the bokkumbap. You’ve heard of the “dessert stomach” right? Well in Korea, we have something called the “Bap Bae” or the “Rice Stomach.” No matter how full you are from the main meal, you always have room for bokkumbap. Don’t EVER make the mistake of saying something stupid like, “Oh I’m too full, let’s just pass on the fried rice today” because you will be judged and you will lose friends.
I like leaving it on the hot plate for a while to let the nooroong-ji crust get nice and crunchy.
I think what makes dakgalbi and dakgalbi fried rice so addictive is the marinade – it has all the elements of a good Korean sauce (gochujang, garlic, soy, and sugar) but also has an extra kick to it that’s quite unique. From the recipe’s I’ve seen, the secret is actually curry powder, which is not a very common ingredient in Korean cooking. But the cast iron plate must have something to do with it to, because I tried to make it at home once with a regular frypan and it was an absolute disaster.
So is dakgalbi in Chuncheon worth traveling for? I’d say yes. Even though my friend and I both agreed that we’d had better dakgalbi in Seoul, it’s just more fun when you eat food in it’s hometown, made by people who have been making the same thing, everyday, for decades. You know, like eating a croissant in Paris or a pizza slice in New York.
Also, you’ll get to try Chuncheon’s SECOND most famous dish, makguksu. “Makguksu” roughly translates to “recklessly made noodles” because back in the day, the noodles were made from unhulled buckwheat. Now that buckwheat is much easier to hull and process into noodles, makguksu has evolved into a much more elegant dish that is quite similar to bibim neng-myun, but MUCH better.
The cold buckwheat noodles are served with a small amount of icy broth, spicy sauce, some thinly sliced veggies, picked radish, seaweed and sesame seeds. You mix it all together and it is THE BOMB. There is a perfect balance of sweet/spicy/tart in the sauce that makes me think this dish also has a secret ingredient… A-Ha! Naver tells me that the sauce includes crushed apple or Korean pear, which totally explains the fresh, just-sweet-enough flavour.
It’s quite photogenic too, don’t you think? There are many restaurants in Chuncheon that specialise in makguksu, but we just ordered it as a side because it goes well as a light and refreshing accompaniment to the dakgalbi. The makguksu at Woomi was really good… I’d actually rate it higher than the dakgalbi.
Makguksu and Dakgalbi are the main event in Chuncheon, but while I was there I ate one more thing that was too good to leave out of this post. Hanging out with my grandma after church on Sunday, she took me out for lunch nearby at a popular sundae gukbap restaurant.
Sundae gukbap is blood sausage souprice and has long been a favorite of mine and my brother’s. People are always a bit shocked when they find out how much we like it, because it is real Korean country town old-man food, and we’re two very culturally Australian immigrant kids. But I am 100% Korean by blood and nothing proves that fact more than my love for sundae gukbap.
Looks kind of like Busan’s pork souprice, right? In many ways the two soups are similar but Sundae Gukbap raises the intensity level to about 9000. The base is a milky beef bone broth, and the soup is packed with pieces of blood sausage, a variety of offal (liver, kidney, heart, etc) and sometimes, if you’re lucky, pieces of actual pork meat. This is all very tasty, but the thing that makes this soup truly awesome is the spoonful of crushed perilla seeds that is added as a seasoning. Perilla seeds have a very unique flavour that is something like roast sesame seeds mixed with strong black pepper, and adds this gritty texture to the soup, which doesn’t sound pleasant, but makes the soup taste really wholesome.
The soup varies from mild to spicy depending on where you go but of course I like mine nice and hot. This particular restaurant specialises in a spicy version of the soup, so you if you can’t handle it, you have to ask them to make it a milder for you. I sweat like crazy eating it and went through about ten napkins just wiping my brow, but it was the best sundae gukbap I’ve had in my life. The flavour is so rich and just overpowers you with heat and salt, which I love so much and will probably be the death of me one day.
They also sell the steamed blood sausage separately, but it wasn’t that great. It’s the type of very firm and glutinous sundae that works much better in a soup than just by itself. I’ve had much much better.
I am yet to try a gook sundae gukbap place in Seoul – it’s not exactly the kind of food that young people (particularly foreigners) get excited about eating (unless they’re hungover…) I suspect, however, that being a country-town food, it is probably done best in restaurants like this, outside of the main cities.
Spicy chicken, spicy noodles, and spicy souprice – no prizes for guessing which side of the family my tastebuds are inherited from! Chuncheon is a great food-adventure day trip from Seoul – really easy to get to (there’s an express train called the ITX that goes straight there from Yongsan station) and really easy to navigate since it’s a small city. They also have an annual Makguksu and Dakgalbi festival every August, which shows you how much pride the city takes in these two humble dishes. All the best Dakgalbi and Makguksu restaurants in the city come together and set up outdoor food stalls right opposite Chuncheon train station – sounds looks like a pretty fun time.
And just in case you’ve actually come to this blog looking for helpful information, here are some handy links and maps 🙂
Jobuja Maeun Sundaega