One pot, one chicken: a bone-cracking treat
Walk off the main drag ― and deep into ever-narrower alleys ― passing the food carts and blood sausage eateries, the middle-aged merchants begin to grab at your sleeve, urging you to try their specialties. Suddenly, the clock spins backwards and steam fills the air from dog soup restaurants cooking up a feast. Hazy fishy smoke from grilled mackerel drifts over.
Then you see it: a prominent red sign declaring “One Chicken” like a beacon in unknown territory. Who could have guessed that behind these endless stores and eateries is hidden one of Seoul’s most sought-after dishes: dakhanmari?
The dish, named after it primary ingredient ― one chicken ― needs no explanations to Koreans. It has been copied all over the country and exported to Japan and China. Its popularity has drawn tourists into these alleys. Without a proper map or a guide, one is bound to be lost in a labyrinth and never find the eight restaurants specializing in dakhanmari.
Jin Ok-hwa started the fad in 1978, when her restaurant began serving soup with one whole chicken in a large pot.
Her restaurant was originally called “Chicken Noodle Soup Place,” but after listening to customers shout orders for “one chicken!,” she changed the name to “Grandma Jin’s Original One Chicken” in 1981.
Now 74 years old, Ms. Jin still owns the eatery that she opened with her husband to cater to merchants nearby.
From the start, she believed that fresh ingredients were key. Ms. Jin would ride her bicycle to the central market nearby and buy two chickens at a time ― besides, she had no money to buy many at once.
The restaurant has seen an increase in the number of customers over the years. As word spread, more foreigners have been coming. In particular, Japanese tourists visit often, ever since the Japanese media highlighted the place as one of Korea’s distinctive restaurants. With the restaurant thriving, Ms. Jin built an additional dining hall on the second floor in 2002.
On weekday evenings, the restaurant’s 70 tables spread across two floors are jam-packed. Ms. Jin has even opened a branch in Hwaseong city, Gyeonggi province.
On our way out, we noticed another restaurant nearby that also drew a considerable following. A middle-aged woman with a very graceful smile stuck her head out of the door and said, “Please come in and try our chicken, it’s really really delicious.” She beamed like an angel, and we promised to return the next day.
The angelic woman’s place is called “Myeongdong Dakhanmari,” which, she later explained, opened in 1984 in Dongdaemun Market as the second restaurant specializing in dakhanmari. She is Kang Hui-suk, 59, and used to run a western restaurant in the basement of Dongdaemun Shopping Mall. But when her floor was converted to house thread and silk shops, she had to relocate. She named the new restaurant after the Myeongdong neighborhood in downtown Seoul, which is known for hand-made noodles.
Her only bump in the road was the first bird flu scare in late 2004. For three months, she lost about half her customers and chicken prices increased. Even after her patrons returned, she didn’t raise the price of her chicken dishes, feeding her honest image.
They did, and during the avian flu scare last summer, restaurants in the area didn’t suffer much because the general public realized that boiled chicken was safe.
Ms. Kang says that her dakhanmari dish is popular regardless of the season because it is very inexpensive. A whole chicken ― enough to feed three or four people, costs just 13,000 won ($13.43). Noodles cost an additional 2,000 won. Long known as a stamina food, boiled chicken is believed by Koreans to help one overcome fatigue and general physical weakness.
Both restaurants serve classic dakhanmari, featuring a whole, uncut chicken in a large vat of soup, which is cooked at each table.
Both places have a similar spicy dipping sauce (made with chili, mustard, soy sauce and vinegar) and a choice of extras for the soup, including chicken gizzard, rice cakes, potatoes and hand-made fresh noodles.
Spicy traditions at DIY originator
We at the IHT-JoongAng Daily first visited the original dakhanmari restaurant. Although its exterior and interior are plastered with pictures of Jin Ok-hwa, the “original grandma,” she wasn’t around, to our disappointment.
We were told that Ms. Jin had suffered three strokes, the most recent of which hit last year. Presently, she has difficulty walking and doesn’t directly manage her restaurant anymore. However, sometimes her husband, who is in his 90s, brings her on a stroll around the place to see how it’s going. Ms. Jin’s son has taken over day-to-day operations.
By 6 p.m., the entire first floor was already packed with noisy diners. We were led upstairs where there were just two open tables in the corner. Here and there signs read, “No seconds on noodles” and “Kimchi is self-service.” The restaurant was incredibly messy and lit by harsh fluorescent lights. Worse, the toilet was dirty.
By the time a battered aluminum vat the size of a washbasin arrived at our table, I imagined I was a prisoner of war receiving my daily gruel.
The waitress brought small side-dishes and utensils: red chili pepper paste, kimchi, rice cakes, a pair of scissors, a ladle.
In the middle of the cream-colored soup was a fairly large chicken, as well as potato chunks and rice cakes, which we ordered as extras.
We asked the waitress how to best enjoy the meal, but she was terse and unfriendly. Instead, a woman beside us suggested cutting the chicken into bite-sized pieces first and then adding kimchi to make the soup tastier. When we were about to toss in some red sauce for good measure, the waitress intervened. “The temperature of the soup might make it spicier, so wait and taste first!”
As it turned out, the women beside us regretted adding so much red pepper. The waitress reluctantly instructed us to make our own dipping sauce from condiments on the table: red chili paste, mustard, soy sauce and vinegar. Then we dove into the chicken.
Both soup and chicken were lean, almost fat-free, as the chicken had been precooked. But unlike most defatted chicken, the flesh was reasonably tender and retained its taste, however mildly.
The well-fermented kimchi added a nice and spicy kick. By the time we were eating noodles, the final portion of the meal, we felt full and satisfied, considering the price we had paid. Our experience at the original restaurant was worthwhile.
Mellow flavors mingle for elderly
The second-oldest dakhanmari restaurant in the neighborhood, Myeongdong Dakhanmari, serves basically the same dish as the Original Dakhanmari. And, similarly, all 60 seats are taken by 6:30 p.m.
What differentiates this restaurant is a special topping called “Bosin Ginseng Jujube.” For older clients, the restaurant started adding ginseng and dates to improve the flavor, making it similar to ginseng chicken soup. As more people asked for the extras, the owner began selling them as an extra topping.
To experience the full ginseng flavor, the waitress suggested that we not add red pepper flakes to the soup. At Myeongdong, a friendly floor staff skillfully cuts the chicken into bite-sized pieces, and even demonstrates how to make a delicious dipping sauce.
The secret is a teaspoon of mustard, a tablespoon of red chili sauce, two to three tablespoons of soy sauce and just two drops of vinegar. “Mix thoroughly in only one direction,” the waitress said, “If you mix randomly, then the mustard gets bitter.” When the sauce was evenly mixed, she added a fistful of chopped leeks.
We liked the rice cakes a lot more than those at Original Dakhamari. These were milder, but tasty because the sauce was not as pungent. The chicken had been only half-cooked, so the soup was a bit more fatty, but the meat, which was nicely infused with ginseng flavor, was very tender and matched the dipping sauce.
As Ms. Kang’s restaurant has added two branches ― one in 1992, and the most recent last year, coinciding with the restoration of the nearby Cheonggye Stream.
A third of the customers are college students, about 20 percent Japanese and Chinese tourists and the remainder are construction workers and office workers. Recently, Ms. Kang was joined by her daughter-in-law, who wishes to inherit the business.
At the end of the meal, it became increasingly hard for us to compare the two restaurants because of the way the dish is cooked.
At Original Dakhanmari, the soup and chicken are cooked a deep red with kimchi and spices, but at Myeongdong Dakhanmari, the dish is prepared with optional ginseng with no red peppers. The special topping costs 4,000 won extra. At Myeongdong, we ate kimchi on the side, which was unusually fresh, kind of like salad. We were told that Ms. Jin’s kimchi is not purchased, but made every day in the restaurant’s kitchen.
In terms of service, the two restaurants differ greatly. The Original Dakhamari is DYI for the fun of cooking and dissecting the chicken, while Myeongdong cuts things up for you. The choice seems to be hot or mild ― both in the dish and the temper.
by Ines Cho
Reporting by interns, Kong Jun-wan and Jin Hyun-ju