We arrived in Chuncheon, a small city of about 260,000 people, on Thursday afternoon. The drive up from Gyeongju was lovely. The mountains were brown and bare, but I could imagine them green and gorgeous in just a month or two. All the farms we passed were charming, small patches of land surrounded by hills and misty mountains, groves of small fruit trees, and here and there, even some fields green with tiny shoots, to remind us that spring is really on its way.
The city of Chuncheon itself is a funny little place. Its biggest claim to fame is probably that it was the setting of a hugely popular mini-series called Winter Sonata. You can tell just by the title the amount of schmaltz there was in the show. I think the town is trying to be a romantic getaway. The hotel we’re staying in, Chuncheon Bears Tourist Hotel, certainly seems to be playing up this angle, with its faded floral wallpaper and floral curtains. (Good Lord, I found a red light bulb setting on the lamps.) It’s a very crass view of romance, don’t you think? That you might feel amorous because there’s so much pink around you. It’s definitely not working for me, though it might also be that Diane is my roommate.
(FYI, we are not staying in a “love motel.” According to Lonely Planet, one of the love motels in town has an underwear vending machine. There is no such thing in our lobby.)
Chuncheon and Gangwon-do, the province it’s in, do have a special culinary claim to fame, though, that is far from cloying and delicate. Since we’re in the province on the northeastern end of South Korea, we’re right next to North Korea. The climate and terrain are similar to what you find across the border—lots of mountains, less arable land for rice, and so more foods that are made out of buckwheat, potatoes, and corn. Wild pheasant also seems to be a big deal, just as in the North. The tourist map for Chuncheon even has a picture of smiling hunters with a pile of pheasants at their feet.
But Chuncheon’s most famous dish is probably 닭갈비, dakgalbi, a spicy mix of chicken, rice cakes, cabbage, and sweet potatoes. Everything gets poured onto a giant griddle right on the table. After about 10 minutes, they come by with a platter of onions, perilla leaves, and more red pepper paste, which also gets poured onto the griddle. It’s really impressive how much the rice cakes get infused with the flavor of chicken, a rich and slightly sweet flavor. The restaurant we were at, 우성닭갈비, Oosung Dalkgalbi, uses “squash” sweet potatoes, which is how Koreans describe American orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. (The only kind of sweet potatoes you used to be able to get in Korea were the ones that taste like chestnuts, the ones labeled “Japanese sweet potatoes” at my local grocery.) I think I would personally prefer regular potatoes, and let the sweetness come only from the red pepper paste, but Diane and her mother liked it very much. No complaints about the chicken, though, which was all juicy thigh meat.
If all this food isn’t enough, and you feel the need for some starch, you can ask for a bundle of noodles to be added while the chicken cooks, or you can ask for a bowl or two of rice to make a spicy fried rice right on the same griddle after you’ve finished eating the chicken. The rice at the bottom will take on that crispy quality that Korean people love in nurungji, a word devoted solely to describe the browned rice stuck at the bottom of the rice pot.
I can’t say that dakgalbi is my favorite food. There’s something about its uniform sweetness and spiciness that gets old for me pretty quickly. (It might also have been that we were close to the end of our trip, and I was starting to feel like I couldn’t eat another bite.) At the same time, though, I appreciate how easy dakgalbi is to eat, that it’s the kind of food that goes well with a big group of friends and a couple of bottles of soju. It would be great party food for sure, especially for people who own giant griddles they can set in the middle of their giant tables. Maybe we could start a trend of giving giant griddles as wedding gifts instead of fondue pots, with the accessory of a metal paddle. I should call the Chuncheon Tourism Office.