Step 1: Stir gochujang, gochugaru, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, curry powder, mirin, raw sugar, onion, and black pepper. Chop chicken thigh or breast into bite-sized chunks. Pour marinade over chicken. Let sit several hours.
My favorite Korean comfort food for the seventeen months I lived in Anyang, just south of Seoul, was 닭갈비 (dak galbi). Some fellow teachers introduced me to it shortly after arriving. We went to the popular chain Yoogane, which offers a variety of takes on the dish, from fairly traditional to a version that comes with a huge ring of boiling cheese for dipping. Yoogane became a refuge from the worst day-to-day stress I’ve ever experienced, a cozy blanket of spicy chicken and faint K-pop.
Step 2: Chop cabbage, carrot, sweet potato, and perilla leaves. Set aside whole perilla leaves. Soak rice cakes. Cook udon. Start rice cooker.
There’s really not much to it, is the thing. Dak galbi is just some chopped chicken and vegetables, some rice and noodles if you want, and a spicy sauce. But throw it all in a skillet for twenty minutes and you end up with magic.
Step 3: Heat cast iron skillet on medium-high. Once heated, add cooking oil. Pour chopped vegetables and rice cakes into skillet. Add chicken and marinade on top. Cook 3-4 minutes, reduce to medium-low, cook 10-15 more minutes. Stir frequently.
Despite leaving Korea in 2017, I hadn’t tried to make dak galbi since. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been much of an ambitious cook. Maybe because others have so often cooked for me. But early last year, not too long after ending the relationship with the person I went to Korea with and just as the pandemic was shutting down the country, I really needed dak galbi in my life—and a Yoogane was nowhere to be found.
Step 4: When nearly finished, sprinkle with mozzarella. Create space to stir-fry cooked udon. Plate perilla leaves, ssamjang, kimchi, and rice.
Last week my girlfriend and I went to H Mart, a glorious Korean-American supermarket chain. (Side note: Michelle Zauner’s story “Crying in H Mart” is beautiful and poignant and worth reading. She writes about H Mart’s outsized role in helping her through her mother’s death.) I had preached the virtues of dak galbi several times, but an H Mart trip never panned out; the closest branch is a twenty-five minute drive away, neither of us has a car, we have a puppy, and also there’s a deadly virus everywhere. But we finally bit the bullet, rented a car, and loaded up on Korean groceries for the next few months. And Sunday night, as the winter holiday came to an all-too-soon end, I made dak galbi. It wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was perfect.
Step 5: Place skillet on table. Eat, hot, ssam-style (wrapped in a leaf) or not.*
2020 was hard. It was a year of grief and bitterness and isolation. Ending it (January 3 counts) by cooking a comfort meal, by creating joy and reminding myself of the promise of travel and adventure and new experiences, was an important balm.
2021 will be better—it has to be—though I worry by how much. I don’t know what fresh horrors await us. What I do know is that I’ll be eating dak galbi a whole lot more.
*Instructions adapted from Sue of My Korean Kitchen, with her recipe linked at the beginning. Sue has a ton of great Korean recipes and ingredient suggestions—reading her site has been a small joy since moving away.