SEOUL, South Korea — On a frigid winter evening in Seoul, a college student raced out of a popular bistro and vomited near my feet.
The owner, Im Choo-sung, followed him out the door. “Would the kids please throw up in the bathroom?” he announced. “The neighbors get angry at all this.”
The 49-year-old eccentric, who’s recognizable from his appearances on Korean talk shows, then greeted me. “Hey, American,” he said, pointing to a nearby sign. “We had 13 people pass out from our spicy noodle soup last year. They all went to the emergency room.”
That was a frightening introduction to this otherwise inconspicuous hangout, Shingildong Spicy Jjambbong. “You better go buy some milk to protect yourself,” he ordered.
After questioning my hot-food credentials in front of my Korean fiancé, his doubt turned out wise. I vomited in the bathroom after attempting (and failing) to finish the fiery broth, and upon returning to my seat, a girl nearby broke out in tears to her boyfriend.
Since 2002, Choo-sung has achieved notoriety for his masochistic recipe that the Korean press calls one of the spiciest in the country: an exceptionally hot bowl of jjambong, or seafood noodles. Korean pop stars frequent the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, trying out their stomachs of steel for $3.80 a bowl.
It’s one of a handful of hard-core eateries that are trendy among Korean youngsters. Some of them travel for hours across Seoul to satisfy their mean palates, while others come after work for an adventure with their colleagues.
Choo-sung takes pride in his broth, a concoction of the hottest peppers from Korea, India, China and Thailand. He took years to perfect the eclectic mixture, “and it’s started a fad of restaurants pushing the spiciness to as much as possible,” he added.
This particular jjambong isn’t designed not to be tasty, but simply to put spicy fanatics to the test. Customers who finish an entire bowl eat for free, but be warned: even Choo-sung admits to fainting the first time he tried to gulp down his own soup.
Choo-sung came from a life of poverty in the province of North Jeolla, a region that’s less prosperous than other parts of South Korea. After eking out a living as a food stall proprietor in Seoul, he wanted to try something new.
At first, even Korean customers, who were accustomed to piquant flavors, were repulsed by the smell of extreme spiciness. After three years of squalor in his restaurant, the burning taste started catching on, eventually attracting television crews and celebrities.
Palate of fire
Korea is a country where the ability to eat hot foods is a respectable trait, much like Thailand and India.
Many take pride in the prevalence of red pepper pastes and powders, which come from the chilies than Koreans call gochu. They’re lathered on staple dishes such as kimchi and give tartness to their stews, or jjigae.
Ask Koreans where their food came from, and a variety of responses reveals a contentious divide. Even hot peppers are wrapped up in a debate over national origins.
Most scholars agree that Japanese invaders, who originally got the first red peppers from Portuguese traders, brought the peppers to Korea during the Imjin War in 1592. Koreans began fermenting them in the mid-1700s, and possibly earlier, to make gochujang — a gochu paste — and jjigae.
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In 2009, a group of Korean historians challenged that theory. Koreans consumed gochu centuries before the Imjin War, they say, citing evidence in cookbooks as early as 850 AD that include gochu-like peppers — which predated the chili peppers from the New World through Japan — in recipes for stews resembling jjigae.
“These findings are completely opposite to the view that gochujang first came from Japan,” says Jang Dae-ja, a scientist at the Korea Food Research Institute in Seoul.
Nowadays, most Korean meals come with at least one biting dish. “But this stuff kills my stomach,” said one Korean-American customer who took the train for two hours to try a meal. “Koreans can be proud of gochu, but once you throw it together with the rest of the world’s chilies, it’s more like a test of manliness.”