A familiar smell wafted out of the Jamsil Lotte Hotel in summer 2018 as 500 people across South Korea gathered in Seoul to receive one of the highest bragging rights in the local food scene. In the last leg of the competition with 578,000 hopeful applicants, the final contestants challenged their palates in a blind taste test for the accolade in question – a chimmelier (chicken sommelier) certification. That familiar smell? It’s the greasy aroma of a national obsession: KFC – Korean fried chicken.
Often paired with beer (maekju), there’s a special term for eating chicken and drinking beer in combo – chimaek (sometimes spelled 'chimac').
Korean fried chicken lovers could plan a poultry-themed tour of the country, snacking down the famous 'Fried Chicken Alley' in Suwon, tasting Sokcho’s dakgangjeong (sweet, marinated chicken) and munching for a few days at the Daegu Chimac Festival in July. But the easiest way to enjoy the delights of Korean fried chicken is by diving face-first into the crispy deliciousness at one of numerous fried chicken joints in Seoul.
What is Korean fried chicken and where did it come from?
Despite the popularity of fried chicken in South Korea, the dish doesn’t have a particularly long history. It was first introduced during the Korean War by soldiers from the US, who started serving the American version on military bases. Korean fried chicken only became a mainstay of Korean dining in the 1960s and '70s, when a restaurant called the Yeong-yang Centre began serving rotisserie chicken. A handful of franchises followed suit, specialising in the type of crispy fried chicken Koreans are more familiar with today.
In the past two decades, franchises like Kyochon, Bonchon, Goobne and Nene have set up shop in Asia and beyond. Although fried chicken of every type now exists in South Korea, chicken is normally served one of two ways – fried or yangyum (marinated) with a side of pickled radishes. Experts say that the secret to Korean fried chicken is that it’s fried twice, making it extra crispy, while others argue that it’s the marinades, like spicy or soy, that truly define the dish.
Where to eat Korean fried chicken in Seoul
Although there’s rarely unanimity among locals on Seoul's best fried chicken restaurant, Gyeyeolsa is one place that consistently makes everyone's list. Located on the outskirts of the city centre, chicken enthusiasts gladly make the trek to Buam-dong for the large portions of golden-fried chicken and chunky potato wedges. Although there are half a dozen items on the menu, there’s only one simple fried chicken option and it’s served with sweet marinade and a spoonful of dipping salt. Groups of three or more also often order the golbangi-muchim – a spicy dish of moon snails and noodles.
Of all the acclaimed fried chicken restaurants in Seoul, Mirak Chicken likely has the most manic following. Mirak serves three types of fried chicken: crispy, marinated and garlic-topped, and it’s the latter that people obsess over. The garlic-pan chicken comes glazed with sweet, half-roasted pieces of whole garlic presented on a sizzling cast-iron pan. The whole garlic tastes almost raw when you bite into it, but Mirak fans swear by it. Fortunately for alliumphobes, the other two variations are just as delicious. Pair with cold beers and beware the long waits!
Chicken in the Kitchen
Made famous on a local television show for using a fresh batch of oil for every fry, Chicken in the Kitchen is a modern take on the poultry dish done well. Unlike more traditional restaurants that stick to smaller bone-in pieces, Chicken in the Kitchen features larger, juicier cuts more similar in look to American-style fried chicken. Although the eatery does serve several unusual marinades, fans of heat particularly enjoy their red hot chilli pepper chicken coated with sweet marinade and spices and topped with French fries and fried rice cakes. Although beer is served here, the colourful and bright decor gives it a kid-friendly ambience.
One of the most popular fried chicken eateries in Gangnam, Hanshin Chicken is conveniently located across from the Express Bus Terminal. Diners can choose to sit inside near a blaring TV or outside in a 'pocha' – an orange tent reminiscent of old-school Korean watering holes. The crispy fried chicken, with its moist centre and light crunch, is what draws in droves of locals, but Hanshin also has quite an extensive menu of standard pocha items, such as raw seafood, knife-cut noodles and a variety of soups. It’s quite common for diners to ask for a half chicken in combination with one of the other meal options.
One of the best-value joints in Seoul, Ddobagi’s portions can make either a great after-dinner snack shared with friends or a full meal to have on your own. Modestly decorated with black furniture and bright lighting, the Sangsu location is a quintessential chicken hof (meaning beer is served) without any fancy gimmicks. Some fried chicken can taste dry on the inside, but here it's a holy ratio of crispy skin to juicy meat. Most parties order half-and-half combinations, pairing the original fried with soy-marinated or sweet-marinated. Only minutes from the Han River, Ddobagi’s also a great option for making a riverside chimaek picnic.
In a neighbourhood better known for its chic cocktail bars and high-end restaurants, Hanchu (549-9 Gangnam-gu, Sinsa-dong) brings chicken and beer to trendy, younger Koreans. The restaurant is relatively calm during dinner hours, when families and chatty parents gather to eat rather than drink. However, Hanchu comes alive after 10pm, as merrymakers make it a stop on their night out. The bright lights, cheap beers and close-knit tables make it a lively place to meet with friends despite the fact that the fried chicken here can be a bit on the dry side. But devoted fans of Hanchu swear by the chicken here and the trademark accompanying fried hot peppers even more.
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