Yin and yang of hot definedSzechwan. The mere mention of this Chinese province strikes terror in the hearts of culinary wimps. Home of China's fieriest food, Szechwan cuisine competes with Indian and Sumatran for the title of the world's hottest. Not coincidentally, the province offers Chinese dishes that are perhaps, the closest cousin among Asian cuisines to Korean tastes -- despite Szechwan's geographical remoteness from the peninsula in southwestern China.
So where does one encounter this hallowed tradition in Seoul? Well, practically every Chinese restaurant in Korea offers mapu dofu, the famed Szechwan dish of tofu, minced pork and spring onions in chili oil. For a more idiosyncratic experience, head to Bulia Restaurant (the name is an untranslatable Buddhist reference) near Hongik University.
This recently opened, two-story establishment could be a villa, a cocktail bar or a coffee shop. The exterior features a lot of wood and glass. There is a wooden veranda with parasols, but at this time of year it's as empty as a restaurant critic's wallet. (Well, almost.) Inside, the large hallway has steps leading to the second floor where private and semi-private dining rooms await.
The specialty of the house is the Chengdu favorite: Szechwan hot pot. We order the Bulia jong sik (Bulia set menu, 15,000 won or $12.25 a person).
First, the burner in the center of the table is lit. A large metal basin, divided in half like a yin-yang symbol, is placed atop this. Into one half of this basin is poured an opaque meat broth; into the other half, chili oil. Floating merrily in these witches' brews are a mix of 13 medicinal herbs and spices.
Then the ingredients arrive; beef, lamb, mixed veggies and a variety of mushrooms. Rather like a fondue, the idea is to drop the ingredients of your choice into the basin, cook 'em to taste, pluck 'em out with chopsticks, and pop 'em in your mouth. The choice of two stews in which to cook offers variety, and the ingredients -- notably the shavings of lamb -- are beyond reproach. You can order extra ingredients, including seafood, as you go. To our surprise, the chili oil is, while powerful, not as devilishly spicy as we had assumed ?but more of that later.
We also order yang gogi kkochiryu (lamb skewers; 1,000 won each). These are coated in a simple but effective seasoning of paprika and coriander and served with a peanut dipping sauce. The latter is not spiced or sweetened like Southeast Asian satay dips. These skewers are highly recommended, and they are guaranteed to keep accompanying chums, who are not gustatory masochists, quiet.
Now, back to the main course. After the main ingredients are finished, your waitress arrives with a platter of hand-made noodles, which are dropped into the still bubbling pot.
The noodles, when dropped into the pot, soak up that chili oil, and -- phew! -- this is X-rated stuff. It is at this point that the reason behind the restaurant's name becomes clear: Loud gasps of "My God!" or "Buddha! Mercy!" are inevitable. Hot stuff in every sense of the word, and a delight for spice lovers.
While the famed Szechwan pink chilis are not in evidence, what they have here is quite warm enough, thank you. So whatever you drink just make sure it is cold, wet and there is lots of it. Bulia offers a range of Korean and Chinese spirits, but we drank chilled beer and were glad of it.
Verdict: We were steered to this restaurant by Shin Jon-suk, one of Korea's leading Chinese food experts, and were most pleased. What you get at Bulia is well-priced, well-spiced food from a dining tradition that takes few prisoners.
No English spoken
Telephone (02) 335-6669; 335-6689
Address: 161-1 Donggyo-dong, Mapo district
Subway: Hongik University subway
station, line No. 2, exit 1
Web site: www.Bulia.co.kr
Credit Cards: Accepted
Hours: 11a.m.-11 p.m. daily
by Andrew Salmon