#5: 닭발 (Dak Bal)

14 Mar

I sit back in my chair, flecks of red sauce on my face and shirt, stuffed to the rafters, the pile of bones and cartilage on my plate standing much taller than any other pile at the table.  To the surprise of my companions, I’ve torn through dozens of 닭발 and given the chance would gladly scarf down more.  Long after the others at the table had had their fill, I soldiered on, ignoring the smoldering fire that my mouth had become.  I interpreted their perplexed, yet amused looks as something to be proud of.  They were impressed by this foreigner’s ability to handle not only the heat, but the strangeness of the dish itself.  Or so I thought.  Sometimes my desire to prove my adventurousness clouds my judgment.  “Wow.  I can never eat that many,” one girl says, “they’re good but they give me terrible diarrhea every time.”  The other agrees, “Yeah, me too.  Doesn’t your stomach hurt, Graham?”  Oh, God.  Perhaps I should have slowed down.

I had eaten and enjoyed 닭발 – chicken feet – a number of times before finding The List.  However, the meals had never been foot-centric and hence not substantial enough for me to write about.  And aside from some pretty amazing Chinese-style chicken feet in New York, the feet I had eaten hadn’t been particularly memorable anyway.  As luck would have it though, a friend had on several occasions mentioned a very well-known 포차 (pronounced po cha) or tent restaurant that specialized in 닭발.  Even more interesting were the high-class prostitutes that apparently congregate there late at night when their shifts end.  Chicken feet and women of loose morals?  I was sold, so we made plans to meet up at 한신포차 (han shin po cha) in the Nonhyun neighborhood.  Sadly though, we agreed to go early and beat the crowd – long before the working girls would be arriving.

Where the magic happens

We took a cab to the restaurant and the driver knew the place by name, no directions required.  Even at 9:00 the place was slammed. My two friends and I waited for nearly an hour to get inside but once seated service was quick.  The waitress brought out a propane-powered mini-grill with a pot of bone-in chicken feet sitting in a red liquid along with onions, peppers and various other veggies.  닭발 come served in a number of ways:  some are boneless, others bone-in; some you cook over coals right at your table; others, like ours, are stewed and simmered.  No matter where you order them, chicken feet are notoriously spicy so we ordered up a plum-flavored juice that would take the edge off and allow me to keep trucking through the heat.

To keep the flames at bay

I took a quick look around the restaurant.  Surely there were prostitutes finishing up the afternoon shift that might come rolling in.  I couldn’t tell so I turned my attention back to the pot of feet, now simmering and ready to go.  I spooned up some of the sauce first for a taste.  Honestly, if you had given me a straw I would have drained the whole pot of red, meaty, spicy goodness right there.  But I’m a classy guy, so I held back and moved on to the feet themselves.  Trying to eat these things gracefully is a lost cause.  They have lots of cartilage and joints that make it nearly impossible to separate the meat with chopsticks alone.  Most efficient solution?  Pop the whole foot in your mouth and spit the bones out like sunflower seeds.

It’s not a pretty food.  You might imagine the foot to be tough – and not cooked properly it can be.  Not these, though.  Once separated from the bone, it was some of the most tender chicken I’ve ever had.  The feet had soaked up the flavors from the sauce perfectly and I began a rhythmic, systematic attack on the pot.  Chew, spit bones, swig plum juice, repeat.  Things are kind of a blur from here.  The girls kept talking to each other which was fine for me.  Less distraction as I worked and built my pile of bones, stopping to giggle occasionally, thinking of a coop full of footless, paraplegic chickens.

I snapped out of this fugue state when the waitress had the audacity to take the pot of feet away before I was finished.  My heart began to race, but she came back quickly with the feet in a separate bowl and fried rice in the original pot, cooked up in the red sauce.  My god it just kept getting better, but I slowed down a bit to join the conversation.  We chatted and worked our way through the rice and remaining feet.  That’s when the girls dropped the bomb on me.  That in my haste, facilitated by that damn plum juice, I had eaten far more of these than the average human stomach can handle.  Why the hell hadn’t they warned me sooner?  Had they heard the Legend of the Thunder Dome and assumed I’d be fine?  Or did it just amuse them to see that look of panic on my face?  I’m betting on the latter.  I began to sweat a bit, wondering where the closest serviceable bathroom might be.  No need to freak out though.  Just breathe deep – no signs of trouble just yet.  Only a food baby resting happily, if a bit uncomfortably in my mid-section.

The minutes tick by ever so slowly but I realize that my stomach does indeed deserve its title of Thunder Dome.  I stretch out in the cab on the way home, with nothing but fond memories of the meal – the warnings merely a false alarm.

This is a food worth trying – if you can pace yourself, of course.  As I’ve said, I’ve been underwhelmed in the past by 닭발, but done right they’re incredible.  Don’t be put off by their extra-terrestrial appearance and come armed with something to put out the flames on your tongue.

3 Responses to “#5: 닭발 (Dak Bal)”

  1. Your mother March 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Well-written, but I am not moved to learn to cook chicken feet; however,I like the pictures of the food and the venue, but I want pictures of the blogger, please. That pile of bones reminded me of the pile of rib bones that Bob swears were BEHIND me the first time he smoked babyback ribs….there ARE a few sauce stains on the back wall of the dining room…

  2. Eva March 15, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Yum I love chicken feet. I had it once at our chicken joint and thing was so spicy I had a stomachache for three days. Not gonna lie but every time I have chicken feet, I think fondly of you! 🙂

  3. Michael- Adrian Lucas April 12, 2011 at 7:40 am #

    What Style! What Grace! Hunter S. on Yardbird! Entertaining! Had to link you over at our place!
    http://lifeinkorea.kr/hot/hot.php?code=hot&pageNum=2&subNum=1 Hope you don’t mind


    Michael- Adrian

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