South Korea is a country known for its variety and unique approach to food. If you have ever watched a Korean drama or movie you would have seen a scene with someone or a group of people eating happily. Food is more than just food for Koreans, they refer to it as a way to ask someone’s well-being. Koreans like to ask ‘have you eaten?’ (밥 먹었어요? – Bap meogeoseoyo?) in a similar way as they would ask ‘how are you?’ Here are 20 of the best Korean food to try while in South Korea.
- 1 Bibimbap (mixed rice – 비빔밥)
- 2 Japchae (stir-fried noodles – 잡채)
- 3 Haemul-pajeon (seafood vegetable pancake – 해물파전)
- 4 Dakgangjeong or Chimaek (치맥)
- 5 Hotteok (sweet pancakes)
- 6 Bulgogi (marinated beef barbecue – 불고기)
- 7 Tteokbokki (spicy rice cake – 떡볶이)
- 8 Kimpab (김밥)
- 9 Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles – 냉면)
- 10 Seolleongtang (ox bone soup – 설렁탕)
- 11 Kimchi (fermented vegetables – 김치)
- 12 Jjajangmyeon (짜장면)
- 13 Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup – 삼계탕)
- 14 Twigim
- 15 Mandu (Korean dumplings – 김치만두)
- 16 Bindaetteok (Mung bean pancake – 빈대떡)
- 17 Makgeolli (rice wine)
- 18 Banchan (side dishes – 반찬)
- 19 Binggrae (Banana Milk – 빙그레)
- 20 Bingsu (shaved ice – 빙수)
- 21 Bonus – Street Food
Bibimbap (mixed rice – 비빔밥)
This dish is a classic and fortunately you don’t have to travel to South Korea to have a taste of it, as it can easily be found globally. Having said that, nothing compares to the real Korean taste. The literal translation of this dish is “mixed rice” because to eat this dish you have to mix all the ingredients. It’s a warm, healthy and comforting bowl of rice on which you have sauteed vegetables, beef, fried or raw eggs, carrots, mushrooms and a dash of chilli paste (Gochujang). It is usually served in a hot stone bowl called dolsot, accompanied by banchan (small side dishes). The dish varies according to the vegetables or seafood you put in it.
Japchae (stir-fried noodles – 잡채)
Japchae is a side dish of glass noodles made of sweet potato and sautéed vegetables. Most recipes have a mixture of mushrooms, carrots, leeks, spinach and onions cooked in sesame oil. It’s delicious and not too greasy.
Haemul-pajeon (seafood vegetable pancake – 해물파전)
Haemul -pajeon which means pancake in Korean is prepared with chives, seafood, shellfish and eggs mixed with flour batter and then pan-fried. The name differs depending on the ingredients. Aside from the seafood pajeon, you can have kimchi jeon and the simple spring onion pajeon. The pancake comes pre-sliced into bite sized pieces that you dip in the accompanying light soy sauce. One word: delicious!
Dakgangjeong or Chimaek (치맥)
I’m sure you know KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) but do you know KFC (Korean Fried Chicken)? I can guarantee that once you try Korean chicken, you will never go back to KFC. Popular both in Seoul and Busan, the dish also known as “chikin” is sold everywhere and eaten anywhere. It’s actually a popular food to have delivered, especially with an accompanying cold beer. Chimaek, a combination of the words “chicken” and “maekju (beer)” fits very well with Korean drinking and social culture. The favourite location to enjoy them is none other than the bank of the River Han in Seoul. Groups of friends gather in the park to enjoy this simple yet delicious combination.
Hotteok (sweet pancakes)
Hotteok is the iconic dessert for anyone craving something a little sweet. This pancake-looking treat is stuffed with a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon and crushed nuts, it can be found in most street food markets and stalls. Once fried, the filling transforms into a delicious syrup, while the exterior gets crispy. It is delicious and addictive, by far my favourite street food treat.
Bulgogi (marinated beef barbecue – 불고기)
Tteokbokki (spicy rice cake – 떡볶이)
The tteokbokki, also spelt ddukbokki, is a common food popular with pojangmacha (street vendors). The iconic orange-red snack is made of boiled slices of rice cake (tteok), fish cake and vegetables served with spicy gochujang chilli sauce. The dish is so loved that there is a street in Seoul devoted to it.
The Korean version of sushi is the perfect food for people looking for something cheap and quick to eat on the go. It’s no wonder it’s found in most picnic boxes. Kimbap or gimbap is a treat containing rice, meat or omelette wrapped in dried seaweed. They come in different fillings and can be found anywhere from street-food stalls to convenience stores and many Korean restaurants. I love the shrimp and tuna versions.
Naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles – 냉면)
This dish is typically made of cold buckwheat noodles is a summer dish. Noodles are served with vegetables, meat and an egg in a tangy icy broth (with big chunks of ice). The dish comes in two varieties: mul naengmyeon or bibim naegmyeon, without broth. It’s a very “interesting” dish that might not be everyone’s taste.
Seolleongtang (ox bone soup – 설렁탕)
The ox bone soup is a typical Seoul dish recognisable by its milky white colour. The beef is cooked for hours so the meat literally melts in your mouth when you bite into it. The broth is served with noodles, scallions and lots of meat. The seasoning of the meat is done at the table depending on personal taste by adding salt, black pepper, red pepper, chopped garlic or chopped onions. It’s perfect for a cold winter day.
Kimchi (fermented vegetables – 김치)
Kimchi is the national dish of Korea. The fermented cabbage is used as the base for many dishes such as kimchi stew and even as a garnish for Kimbap (Korean sushi). Kimchi is such an important dish in Korea that it is consumed at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Jjajangmyeon is a Chinese dish adapted to suit Korean taste. The difference between the Chinese and Korean lies in the sauce, the later being sweeter since they add caramel. The tick noodles with black sauce are very popular with the locals who eat the dish every chance they get. Along with chicken, it’s one of the most popular delivery food.
Samgyetang (ginseng chicken soup – 삼계탕)
Apparently, Koreans love eating boiling hot dishes in summer, so don’t be surprised to see samgyetang, Korea’s take on the chicken soup. The soup usually has a whole chicken made with glutinous rice, garlic, scallions, Korean jujube, Korean ginseng, and spices. It seems a lot but the portions of chicken are not that massive. If the dish is appreciated in summer, I can only imagine how it will be on a cold winter day: comforting and heart-warming!
This is another popular street food found in Seoul and very similar to Japanese tempura. Twigim is vegetables like sweet potatoes, peppers, shrimp covered in batter and deep-fried. It’s yummy and cheap.
Mandu (Korean dumplings – 김치만두)
Mandu are dumplings stuffed with various fillings including beef, kimchi, tofu and pork. We stumbled upon a restaurant which speciality was made soup. The stimming bowl with the juicy dumplings were definitely a nice discovery.
Bindaetteok (Mung bean pancake – 빈대떡)
As you can see from the list, Korean love their pancakes! These pancakes are made from ground mung beans, kimchi and green onions deep fried and served in a dipping sauce. Again, it’s not very healthy but is oh so yummy!
Makgeolli (rice wine)
Most people know soju and are less familiar with makgeolli. Unless you have already travelled, lived in the Land of the Morning Calm or have Korean friends, it is unlikely you know this rice wine. The light and sweet taste makes it easy to drink. Beware, if you are lightweight, you might end up tipsy just after a few sips. My friend found herself with a bad hangover the following day.
Banchan (side dishes – 반찬)
Banchan which literally translates to sides dishes are small plates served with main dishes in Korean restaurants. They are not appetisers but small dishes that compliment each main dish. Since they are not listed on the menu, banchan differ depending on the day and restaurant. There are usually placed in the middle of the table to be shared.
Binggrae (Banana Milk – 빙그레)
While planning my trip to South Korea, there was one drink that I was looking forward to. I had seen in several dramas the yellow drink and wanted to find out why it was so popular. It wasn’t difficult to find the banana drink since every convenience store seem to have shelves full of them. There are available in various flavours (strawberry, vanilla, matcha green tea, coffee etc…) The banana milk is definitely something to try while in South Korea.
Bingsu (shaved ice – 빙수)
The bingsu is the most loved summer treat in Korea. The dessert is made of sweet red beans served on a bed of shaved ice and topped with various fillings. These can be condensed milk, syrup, ice cream, cut fresh fruits and even corn flakes. Come summer, every cafes, fast food restaurants and bakeries will be selling this sweet dessert. I have tried the Japanese version and both are equally sweet and delicious.
Bonus – Street Food
What is your favourite Korean food? Do you have any dishes you love that I didn’t mention? Comment below and let me know!