Strange as it might sound, for many Koreans spice is therapy.
There’s something surprisingly cathartic about feeling like your brain is on fire.
In a country where extreme spice is considered as basic as salt and pepper, a typical response to “I’m so stressed out” is: “Let’s go wolf down something terribly spicy.”
Rating the dishes from one to five, here are the seven steps to be a real Korean spice-eater.
7. Buldak (Fire chicken)
Spice rating: 1/5
This savory barbecued chicken dish covered in chili-loaded sauce became immensely popular a few years ago when the Korean economy was going through a rough patch. (See what we mean about Koreans and spice therapy?)
Buldak sparked off a trend for extraordinarily hot dishes in Korea and it remains popular at many bars — accompanied by a cold beer, of course.
The buldak-beer combo is known as chimaek.
If you want to tone down the heat, order buldak surrounded by a ring of mozzarella cheese to melt away the misery.
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
6. Ddeokbokki (Rice and fish cakes in chili sauce)
Be warned: Ddeokbokki can lure you into a false sense of security.
Courtesy Dongdaemun Yeobkki Ddeokbokki
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 the 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 offers its specialty at various levels of heat.
Not being in the condition to stomach killer spice the day I visited, I urged my companion, Jodie, to order Abiko’s “best of the best” spice level, while I went with the “baby” curry.
One test spoonful of her “best of the best” was enough to make me wince and cough.
Jodie described her experience as “wanting to eat anything and everything to put out the fire.”
We ended up mixing the two dishes to tone it down.
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
4. Maeundae galbijjim (Braised short-rib stew)
Spice rating: 4/5
From an unscientific poll we carried out on the streets of Seoul, Maeundae galbijjim is one of the hottest — in terms of popularity — spicy dishes nowadays.
Forget everything you know about galbijjim, the usually sweet and savory beef short ribs.
The classic Korean dish enters a new era of spiciness at Maeundae (mae-un means “spicy” in Korean so don’t say they didn’t warn you).
One nail-size bite of the rib leaves immense pain on your tongue.
The despair only gets worse as the petite restaurant offers nowhere to hide.
Steamed egg is on the menu to alleviate the spiciness from time to time.
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 consists of stir-fried nakji (octopus) flooded in a generous portion of red pepper sauce.
Rice, beansprouts and sesame oil are on the side to help ease the pain.
Tip from an experienced eater: Don’t pour all the saucy nakji on top of your rice before tasting some. This reckless act will leave your face as red as the dish.
Lee Kang-sun Silbijip, founded over 45 years ago, has four spiciness levels.
The restaurant is in the Mugyo-dong district in Jongno-gu. The area has been synonymous with the classic spicy dish since the ’60s and ’70s.
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
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 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)
Those who finish the Drop-Dead Donkatsu inside 20 minutes get their face on the Wall of Fame.
Jiyeon Lee /CNN
Spice rating: 5/5
The innocent restaurant name, Onnuriye Donkatsu (“Pork Cutlet Around the World”), is deceiving.
This place is actually known for serving the Donkatsu of Death, aka the Drop-Dead Donkatsu, by far the spiciest dish I’ve ever endured.
The pork cutlet is drenched in an ominous dark red sauce made from a rich broth of Asian herbs and what owner Song Jung-won claims is the spiciest chili on earth.
Song keeps the recipe for his over-the-top sauce a close secret.
“I want to make it the utmost difficult challenge for only 0.1 percent of the population,” he says.
“There’s something about the spiciness that draws people to it even though they’re in pain. They usually think ‘how spicy could it possibly be?'”
One thumb-sized slice of the donkatsu was enough to make me give up.
The restaurant dares diners to eat the Drop-Dead Donkatsu within 20 minutes, but be warned: They won’t serve the dish unless you bring a carton of milk with you.
The brave few — and they are few — who complete the challenge get their face on the Wall of Fame.
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
How to handle spicy food
Eat something before the real meal. Just as you are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol when you haven’t eaten, spice can attack an empty stomach.
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 spice 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 spice gets too much, stop. That’s your body telling you it can’t take the heat.
Jiyeon Lee is a freelance journalist based in Seoul. She covers issues ranging from North Korean politics to technology and culture.