7 really Spicy South Korean dishes — and how to eat them

Our mission: to find South Korea’s spiciest, most lip-burning, tongue-scalding, stomach-scorching food.

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As strange as it may sound, spice is therapeutic for many Koreans.

Feeling as if your head is on fire may be very therapeutic.

In a culture where hot sauce is as common as salt and pepper, a normal answer to “I’m so stressed out” is “Let’s go wolf down something terribly spicy.”

Here are the seven steps to becoming a true Korean spice eater, rated from one to five.

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7. Buldak (Fire chicken)
6. Ddeokbokki (Rice and fish cakes in chili sauce)
5. Abiko curry
4. Maeundae galbijjim (Braised short-rib stew)
3. Lee Kang-sun Silbijip nakji bokkeum (Stir-fried octopus)
2. Jjambbong (Seafood noodles)
1. Onnuriye Donkatsu (Pork cutlet)

7. Buldak (Fire chicken)fa0548

Spice rating: 1/5

When the Korean economy was in a slump a few years ago, this delicious grilled chicken dish topped with chili-loaded sauce became wildly popular. (Can you see what we mean by Koreans and spice therapy?)

Buldak started a trend in Korea for extremely hot food, and it is still popular in many places – accompanied by a cool beer, of course.

Chimaek is a buldak-beer combination.

Order buldak encircled with a ring of mozzarella cheese to take away the anguish if you wish to tone down the heat.

Social heat: You can enjoy buldak, remark upon how spicy it is, and still have a normal conversation. Good to share when catching up with an old friend.

Set your tongue on fire at:
Hongcho Red Station, 817-33 Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; +82 2 3452 6878

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6. Ddeokbokki (Rice and fish cakes in chili sauce)

Spice rating: 2/5

Soft rice cakes and fish cakes cooked in sweet red chili sauce, ddeokbokki is one of Korea’s most loved snacks and comfort foods.

It’s commonly sold on street corners and at food stands.

The Dongdaemun Yeobkki Ddeokbokki restaurant chain has roughly 80 branches across the country and delivers hot-hot-hotness in airtight containers right to your front door.

Brave eaters can request extras, such as hard-boiled eggs, glass noodles, fried dumplings or hot dogs.

Social heat: Expect some disruptions a few minutes into the meal. The spice slowly creeps up on you and can quickly debilitate the novice eater.

Experience the pleasure/pain at:
Dongdaemun Yeobkki Ddeokbokki, Lucky Plaza, 156 Heungin-dong, Jung-gu, Seoul; +82 2 2236 8592

5. Abiko curry

Spice rating: 3/5

Abiko is a Japanese curry restaurant that serves its specialty in a variety of spice levels.

Because I was not in the mood for deadly heat on the day I visited, I advised my partner, Jodie, to get Abiko’s “best of the best” spice level, while I had the “baby” curry.

A single test mouthful of her “best of the best” made me grimace and cough.

Social heat: The meal will dominate the table conversation. If you’re not in the mood to make small talk and enjoy gasping and grunting while you eat, this is the place to go.

Test your will to live at:
Abiko, 537-4 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; +82 2 515 3212

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4. Maeundae galbijjim (Braised short-rib stew)

Spice rating: 4/5

According to an unscientific survey we conducted on the streets of Seoul, Maeundae galbijjim is currently one of the most popular spicy foods.

Forget everything you thought you knew about galbijjim, the sweet and flavorful beef short ribs.

At Maeundae, the traditional Korean meal enters a new era of heat (mae-un means “spicy” in Korean, so don’t say they didn’t warn you).

A single nail-sized bite of the rib causes excruciating agony on your tongue.

The melancholy worsens since there is nowhere to hide in the little diner.

Steamed egg is available to help with the spiciness on occasion.

Social heat: You can bring your secret rival or frenemy and encourage him/her to move up to the ultimate spicy level.

Unload the day’s frustration onto your tongue at:
Maeundae, 29, Bongeunsa-ro 4-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul; +82 2 558 5788

3. Lee Kang-sun Silbijip nakji bokkeum (Stir-fried octopus)

Spice rating: 4/5

Nakji bokkeum is made out of stir-fried nakji (octopus) drenched in a considerable amount of red pepper sauce.

Rice, beansprouts, and sesame oil are served on the side to aid with the discomfort.

An experienced eater’s tip: Don’t pour all of the saucy nakji on top of your rice without first tasting some. This careless conduct will turn your face the same color as the food.

Lee Kang-sun Silbijip, which was established over 45 years ago, has four spiciness degrees.

The restaurant is located in Jongno-gu’s Mugyo-dong area. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the region has been associated with the iconic spicy meal.

Social heat: If you’re willing to let your companion see you during this meal – with your red face and belly bulging with liquids you drank to dilute the spice – it’s true friendship.

Have your stomach suffer at:
Lee Kang-soon Silbijip, 75-1, Cheonggyecheon-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul; +82 2 737 7880

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2. Jjambbong (Seafood noodles)

Spice rating: 4/5

The first thing you’re told when you sit down for jjambbong (a ridiculously hot seafood-based noodle dish) is to eat the noodles first.

Once you hit the broth, infused with four different chilies from Korea, China, Vietnam, and India, the fire becomes too fierce to put out through standard means.

One mouthful of noodles is enough to cause acute pain on the tongue.

Add a spoonful of broth and your entire head may feel that it’s been set on fire.

The version served at Shingildong Spicy Jjambbong is immensely rich.

I found myself dabbling dangerously into the soup and noodles even as I experienced gut-wrenching pain.

A sign in the restaurant politely requests customers to use the restaurant’s bathroom if they feel the need to throw up, rather than purge themselves on the street.

The stack of milk cartons in front of the famed noodle shop is a testament to the satanic levels of spice inside.

Social heat: Expect some bonding over the noodles as you watch each other wince and writhe in pain.

If you need to make amends with colleagues at work, invite them out for a team-building experience.

Cry for your mama at:
Shingildong Spicy Jjambbong, 10-1, 62 Road, Singil-dong, Yeongdeungpo-gu, Seoul; +82 10 5395 1151

1. Onnuriye Donkatsu (Pork cutlet)

7 spicy South Korean dishes and how to eat them: Explore the fiery flavors of South Korea's cuisine with these dishes. Learn how to enjoy them to the fullest.
Spice rating: 5/5

Onnuriye Donkatsu (“Pork Cutlet Around the World”) is a deceptive restaurant name.

This restaurant is famous for providing the Donkatsu of Death, also known as the Drop-Dead Donkatsu, which is by far the spiciest meal I’ve ever eaten.

The pork cutlet is soaked in an ominous dark crimson sauce created from a rich stew of Asian herbs and the spiciest chili on the planet, according to owner Song Jung-won.

Song maintains the formula for his outrageous sauce a well-guarded secret.

“I want it to be the most difficult challenge possible for only 0.1 percent of the population,” he adds.

“Something about the spiciness draws people to it even when they’re in pain.” They frequently ask themselves, ‘How hot could it possibly be?'”

One thumb-sized piece of donkatsu was enough to put me off.

The restaurant challenges guests to finish the Drop-Dead Donkatsu in 20 minutes, but be warned: the meal will not be served unless you bring a carton of milk with you.

The Wall of Fame honors the daring few – and they are few – who complete the task.

Social heat: There won’t be any conversation after a bite of this dish. Come alone, or with someone you wish to hurt.

Find out how worthless and weak you really are at:
Onnuriye Donkatsu, 355-23 Sindaebang 2-dong, Dongjak-gu, Seoul; +82 2 823 8589

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How to Handle Spicy Food

Eat something before the first meal. Spice may assault an empty stomach in the same way that you are more sensitive to the effects of alcohol when you haven’t eaten.

Prepare the right drink. When it comes to alleviating the pain of spicy food, water is no help. It only rolls the spice around in your mouth and momentarily relieves the pain.

Milk or other dairy drinks help take the heat out of your mouth and also comfort your burning stomach.

Plan ahead. The effects of spicy food can linger long after actual consumption.

Embarking on a spicy challenge when you have an important meeting, exam or travel plans coming up is not a bright idea. You never quite know when the afterburn will kick in.

Pick the right companion. Spicy food can cripple your social skills.

You’re not exactly charming when your eyes are watering, you’re blowing your nose every three seconds and the only sound you can produce is a groan of pain.

Consume heat only with friends who understand that sometimes we all need a good cry.

Don’t be overly ambitious. Or proud. Yes, everyone will be impressed with your ability to eat the chilies straight out of the kung pao bowl … for about five minutes. But you’ve got to live with that scorched stomach for the rest of your life.

When the pain of spicy gets too much, stop. That’s your body telling you it can’t take the heat.

“Contributing makes me feel like I’m being useful to the planet.”

— Jack Martin, Writer