This spice-filled delight is perfect for a Fall night and an introduction to Korean flavors.
As my friend Jay Kwon, a native of Korea and rabid foodie, says “What’s not to like about any dish covered in cheese”?* And there’s nothing not to like about Buldak. (“Bul” is spicy and “Dak” is chicken in Korean.) This bright red chicken dish with its thick, fragrant sauce is even better when you pull those long strings of mozzarella from the sizzling platter. This recipe for Buldak first caught my eye in the New York Times. It’s the amazingly popular recipe from Emily Kim, a Korean food star whose web name is Maangchi. The YouTube video of Emily making Cheese Buldak has been viewed over 7 million times. Her fans have even subtitled the video into no less than 24 languages. You can see it for yourself in its original English https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9uI1-6Ac6A. Buldak is incredibly easy to make, you just have to find the critical Korean ingredients: Gochujang and Gochugaru. And they are as close as the Internet.
Now about that Mozzarella Cheese…
How, you may well ask, did Mozzarella find its way into what is truly a Korean dish? The simplest answer is Pizza Hut. Cheese was never a force in Korean cooking. Neither was dairy. Before 1980, Koreans consumed just 5 grams of milk and dairy a year, about the weight of a nickel. Then came Pizza Hut. Domino’s and Mr. Pizza quickly followed. 5 years after Pizza Hut’s 1980 arrival in Seoul, dairy consumption rose ten-fold. By 2018, it had grown to 2.5 kilograms to roughly 5.5 lbs. Still, by contrast, Americans consume about 37 pounds of cheese a year per capita. The same inexpensive low-moisture mozzarella pizza topping tops Buldak. Its sweet gooeyness helps temper Buldak’s chicken in spicy red sauce. The sauce is where gochujang, Korea’s red pepper sauce, and gochugaru, dried red peppers, come into play.
The recipe for Buldak can be dated to as recently as 2001.
Korea’s craving for spicy food really took off in the early 2000s. And Buldak became so popular that it spawned entire franchises of Buldak restaurants. For the home cook, once you’ve got a hold of gochujang and gochugaru, Buldak is incredibly easy to make. You make the marinade that will become the sauce, add cut-up boneless chicken breasts or thighs to, then cook it on the stovetop. You finish the dish in the oven, topped with slices of mozzarella, running the skillet beneath a broiler. Garnished with scallions, the dish is ready to serve straight from the skillet. Serve it with rice or Korean rice cakes purchased with your gochujang and gochugaru. And a side of Kimchi is also a great accompaniment. Here’s the recipe and another Korean favorite to make.
*Jay says the dish can also be topped with eggs and then broiled just as its cheese-topped version is.
Buldak, Korean Fire Chicken
This bright red chicken dish with its thick, fragrant sauce is even better when you pull those long strings of mozzarella from the sizzling platter.
- ¼ cup gochugaru (Korean red-pepper flakes)
- 2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean red-pepper paste)
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 (1-inch) piece ginger, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1-pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (our preference) or breasts, cut into ¾-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or peanut
- 4 ounces sliced Korean rice cakes (optional)
- 6 to 8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, thinly sliced
- 2 scallions, sliced, for garnish
- Step 1 Combine the gochugaru, gochujang, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, soy sauce and black pepper in a medium bowl and mix well. Add the chicken and stir until it is well coated.
- Step 2 If you’re using the rice cakes, swirl the oil into a large, oven-safe skillet set over medium-high heat and wait for it to shimmer. Add the rice cakes and cook, turning the cakes often, until they are a little crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the rice cakes to a small bowl and set them aside. If you’re not using rice cakes, simply swirl the oil into the pan and move along to the next step.
- Step 3 Add the chicken mixture to the pan along with ¼ cup water. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes, adding the rice cakes halfway through, if using. Meanwhile, heat the broiler in your oven.
- Step 4 Remove the chicken from the heat. Cover the pan with the sliced mozzarella, then slide the pan under the broiler. Cook until the cheese has melted and browned in spots, about 2 minutes. Remove from the oven, and sprinkle with scallions. Serve immediately, with rice.