Spicy Korean Chicken Stew (Dak Dori Tang)
There’s a dish like this in every culture: chicken curries, coq au vin, chicken paprikas, tagine chicken, red-braised chicken, chicken mole. The list is endless. You braise some chicken with tasty stuff. Scoop it ’til the last drop. Feel better. Sleep better. Be a better person. You know the deal.
Now that it’s been chilly pretty consistently in New York City (which means, of course, no wildcard highs in the 70s for a couple weeks), it’s time to cozy up to slow-cooking routines. Stews, soups, and something-in-betweens are convenient weekend projects to feed you throughout the week. I was looking for something a little more exciting this time around, which could keep me entertained each time it would be reheated. It’d have to be less-familiar, and really flavorful. An intensely red, brothy Korean stew, or jigae, sounded right to me.
This type of dish is homestyle Korean cooking — no fancy barbecue. I’ve never made a version of this stew with chicken before, but had tried it not too long ago on an outing with friends. Instantly soothing, the milder taste of chicken (compared with seafood, kimchi, or hearty chunks of pork shoulder in other jigae) really allowed me to enjoy the rich flavor of the gochujang chili paste, and the dried red pepper flakes. This dish often includes peeled chunks of potato and carrot, which absorb all those flavors from the broth. It’s earthy and inviting, and no, it’s not knock-your-socks-off spicy, as its deep red color might suggest. (Or it doesn’t have to be unless you want it to.)
You gotta have ‘em. I wasn’t in the mood for schlepping all the way to an Asian grocery, but fortunately in New York City, there’s a Korean-owned deli or produce market in just about every neighborhood, on every block. I went into mine with this hunch, but fell short of finding the chili powder on the shelves. So I asked the lady who owned the shop if they sold Korean chili powder. “Korean chili powder? How much do you need?” she responded without missing a beat. The store didn’t sell it, but she ended up giving me a knotted plastic bag of Korean chili powder from her own stash in the basement. Even refused to allow me to pay for it. I’m not saying everyone will have this kind of luck when hunting down ingredients, but one home cook to another is a pretty good way to go. As I was leaving, she asked me what I was making with the powder and I told her jigae. Tofu? she asked. Actually, not this time.
Once you’ve secured both your Korean chili flakes and another essential ingredient, the gochujang chili paste (made with fermented bean paste and slightly sweet), it’s just chicken, and a few homely vegetables. I’ve added a small amount of chopped green pepper and scallion to this recipe, which almost melt into the dish once fully cooked. The chicken will reach that stage of falling off the bone with the slightest touch, so that you could eat the stew with only a spoon. It might seem tempting to opt for boneless cuts of chicken instead of bone-in for ease of eating, but whole, bony chicken pieces add much more flavor to the broth. I’ll let you decide which pieces of the bird to use for yours.
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid or Dutch oven. Once oil is hot, arrange the chicken pieces in the pot and let sit for 10 seconds or so before turning to lightly brown the undersides. Increase heat to encourage a gentle browning or reduce if the chicken is sticking too much. After just 1-2 minutes, the pieces should be whitish and hopefully a little golden-brown on their skins but far from cooked. Remove from pot with tongs and transfer to a dish.
Mix the gochujang chili paste with about 1/4 cup of the water until thoroughly blended and smooth.
Heat the same pan over a medium flame and add a small amount of vegetable oil if it appears very dry. Once oil is just hot, add the scallion, chopped pepper, grated garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, 1-2 minutes until very fragrant. Pour the rice wine into the pan and bring to a boil while scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits. Return the chicken pieces to the pan. Pour in the the water-diluted chili paste, the chili powder, and the remaining water. Bring mixture just to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Drop in the potatoes and carrots, followed by a few pinches of salt, and try to ensure that all the chicken and vegetable pieces are mostly submerged in the liquid. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 – 2 hours. Add salt to taste. Serve with or without rice.