Eric and I were first introduced to Duk Bok Gi by a Korean friend in Pittsburgh. The dish is made with thick rice noodles and a chilli sauce. It is apparently considered more of a street vendor type of food in Korea, meant to be eaten on a cold day. A local Pittsburgh restaurant offered it on the menu and we became hooked after Ye Jeong first ordered it for us. Later, she made it for us at home and it became one of our favorite Korean dishes, even though we struggled to remember what it was called.
After moving to Sydney, we discovered a mecca of good Korean restaurants. (At least, we think they are good. If you ask a Korean, they will sniff and tell you that it tastes better at home.) But we found that only a couple of the restaurants serve Duk Bok Gi. It seems that its street food reputation makes it too pedestrian for some of the restaurants. Requests for it will be met with a polite look of disdain. So we are happy to order it when we can.
Duk Bok Gi is a very simple dish. The thick noodles, also called rice sticks, have a wonderful dense, chewy texture that makes the dish so satisfying. The chilli sauce is a deep red color with a slight sweet smokiness and plenty of heat. This comes from the Korean chilli paste, go chu zang. It has a similarity in flavor to good hot hungarian paprika. To this is added vegetables like red and green pepper, broccoli, carrots, cabbage and onion. Also strips of fish cake, which have a rubbery, scrambled egg texture. Sometimes it also has some fresh seafood mixed in, like squid, which makes a great complement.
I always keep my eyes open in the asian markets for the noodles and chilli, but never seem to see it mixed in among other chinese, japanese, vietnamese and thai ingredients that are more familiar. Last week Eric and I took a new route home and we passed a shop that was clearly a Korean market. It was tiny, with tons of merchandise and impossibly narrow aisles. We spotted the rice sticks and figured out, by process of elimination, which package had chilli paste inside. The only clue was the image of a red chilli pepper on the front.
So I attempted the dish at home a couple nights later using a couple of recipes I found on the internet and improvising a little. The packet of noodles (I believe this is the duk part) was vacuum packed and a rock-hard mass. I heated the noodles in boiling water until they came unstuck and heated through, though I probably didn’t take them out soon enough, as they got a bit soft on the outside. One of the recipes called for sauteeing the noodles in a frying pan with oil. Maybe I’ll try that instead next time, if I can figure out how to get them separated first.
Ingredients for the meal
In a separate pan I sauteed some pork loin. This was my improvisation, simply because we didn’t find the fish cake and I wasn’t going through the rigamarole of finding fresh squid (and figuring out how to cook that properly as well!) and I was planning the dish being a one-pot dinner. (Korean readers are probably shuddering in horror.) To this I added the sauce mixture: 2 tablespoons of the go chu zang chilli paste. Although this didn’t look like much, it was more than enough heat for half a pound of noodles, as I later discovered. I added a couple teaspoons each of soy sauce and sugar (and later added a little more sugar, to help tone down the heat a bit) and a dash of sesame oil. I completely forgot to add the sesame seeds and garlic that the recipe also called for (I guess I was overwhelmed by the newness of it all).
Cooking in the Pork with the Chilli Paste and Rice Noodles
That’s where the recipes left me hanging. In the restaurants, the sauce is always a thin liquid, and what I had in the pan was a thick paste. There was no indication for any kind of broth, so I just gradually added some of the water left over after I drained the boiling noodles. This got me the right amount of liquid, but I think the starch in the water thickened the sauce too much and gave it kind of a glazed consistency.
Adding in the Red and Green Peppers
I then tossed in cubes of red and green pepper and spring onion. When these were heated through and just becoming cooked, I turned off the heat and spooned the mixture into bowls. Verdict: it was pretty good! Not outstanding, but certainly an edible and even satisfying meal. I think I’ll make some refinements next time, like not forgetting the garlic and sesame seeds and thinning the sauce with plain water or broth. That might get it a little closer to being “authentic”. And maybe someday Eric and I will wander the streets of Seoul on a cold day and get of taste of what it’s really supposed to be.
Spicy Duk Bok Gi ready to serve
We were wandering around this afternoon (yet another rainy afternoon in Sydney) and tried to go to one of our favourite Korean places. It was closed (I guess we usually go on Saturday). We decided to walk a little further into Chinatown and grab lunch at another old favourite we knew would be open – since it seems to always be open, no matter what time of day or night we show up. Haymarket Chinese is a place we discovered soon after we moved to Sydney, and it serves reliable, authentic Chinese food. It’s a modest restaurant, down the block from a couple of the big, popular Chinese banquet restaurants, so it probably gets overlooked by most people. Usually we are among very few Gwai Lo’s in the place, so we figure we must be on to the real deal.
The small kitchen in front where they make the noodle dishes
We often order the same thing when we go, since we’ve found a few dishes we especially like (ginger braised fish, mmm). Today we decided to go off the beaten path entirely. We got two pork dishes, which could not have been more different. So that made it interesting. We also ordered some unfamiliar doughnut-like things we saw people at other tables eating. The waiter told us they went with Congee. We ordered some (without the congee) and they were the first to arrive at the table. They were crisp, deep-fried deliciousness, and we had to control ourselves not to eat them all before the rest of the meal arrived. (We noticed everyone else was using them to dip into the congee and absorb the broth.) In Cantonese they are called “Yau Ja Gwai” (油炸鬼), which loosely translates into “oil-fried ghost, or devil”.
Yau Ja Gwai, a type of fried donut, usually eaten with Congee
The first dish out was pork ribs with bitter melon, served on a bed of stir-fried egg noodles. The pork was meaty and moist and redolent of 5-spice. The bitter melon was, well, bitter. The whole thing was a nice combination of flavors and texture.
Pork Ribs with Bitter Mellon over Fried Noodles
Next out was steamed greens with oyster sauce. There’s just something about the way that the Chinese prepare fresh greens that makes them seem so elegant and flavorful. I actually find myself craving greens like this. The presentation is also lovely, the way they are trimmed to precise lengths and stacked like logs.
Steamed Vegetables in Oyster Sauce
Last out was the second pork dish, this one minced pork with eggplant and red chilli served in a sizzling clay pot. This was easily the best dish. The eggplant was sweet and tender and savoury from the pork mince, with a spicy edge from the chillis that caught the back of your throat and made your nose run. Eric’s not even an eggplant fan and he loved it.
Eggplant with Minced Pork and Chilli Hot Pot
When we placed the order, we feared we had ordered too much. But we did a pretty good job polishing everything off. Delicious.
Haymarket Chinese Restaurant
Sussex St, Sydney