People say that you need to experience a country’s food to truly understand its culture. This is particularly true about South Korean food. With their bold flavours and unique tastes, Korean dishes have become a global sensation over the past few years. While you will get Korean food in most places around the world, it’s always at its most authentic when you try it locally.
Korean food has been greatly influenced by the Japanese who colonised the region for a time, and by the Chinese, but has since evolved into something quite distinct from the various other cuisines of the region. While rice remains a staple, as do chopsticks (often made with metal though, rather than wood), the food is made unique by the side dishes accompanying it, such as the now-famous kimchi. Beef is a very popular delicacy and is a common ingredient in the equally popular and ubiquitous Korean barbeques.
Korean cuisine may seem complicated, especially with the innumerable side dishes, but it need not be so. Korean dishes often feature a well-balanced mix of meat, veggies, rice, and spice. So, if you’re wondering what to eat in Korea, we’ve got you covered.
Here Is Some Delicious South Korean Food You Must Eat
1Try The Iconic Spicy And Salty Kimchi
One of the most famous of all Korean dishes, kimchi is an institution in itself. It dates back to the era of the Three Kingdoms of Korea (37 BCE‒7 CE) and was an ideal method to preserve the lifespan of the vegetables. This side dish is made with fermented cabbage, along with various other vegetables, all seasoned with onion, garlic, ginger and chilli. Spicy, salty, and a little sour, it is served with almost every meal of the day. While you will find kimchi in a lot of supermarkets today, try to get it at an authentic Korean restaurant for a more fresh taste. It’s an excellent option for vegetarians/vegans.
2Have The Sweet And Creamy Soup That Is Hobakjuk
Juk refers to any kind of porridge in Korean, and this version is made with sweet pumpkin and glutinous rice flour. Smooth and naturally sweet Korean cheese pumpkins called cheongdung-hobak are generally used to make this popular breakfast dish. Hobakjuk can either be eaten hot or cold and is also served to the unwell or elderly. This is a popular autumn or winter dish that can be found throughout the country, though you’ll find the most variety in Seoul. It’s usually both vegan and gluten-free (though other variations may exist).
3A Quick Favourite For The Time-Starved—Bibimbap
This traditional Korean food has existed for centuries and is said to have originated with early rural Koreans mixing leftovers in a bowl when they didn’t have time for a formal meal. Bibimbap literally means “mixed rice”, and this Korean dish includes a variety of ingredients. Everything from namul (seasoned and sautéed vegetables), to slices of meat, soy sauce, fried eggs, and gochujang (red chilli paste) can be used. While the ingredients may vary, it is important to have at least five colours (black, white, red/orange, yellow, and green—each with a specific symbolic meaning) in the bowl; so look out for this when you try this dish! The cities of Jeonju, Jinju and Tongyeong are especially famous for their version of bibimbap.
Also Read: Breakfast Dishes From Around The World
4Devour The Juicy And Tender Grilled Samgyeopsal At A Barbeque
Literally meaning “three-layered meat” samgyeobsal, or grilled pork belly, is a type of gui (grilled dish) found in most Korean barbeques. The meat is usually neither marinated or seasoned, but is accompanied by leafy vegetables, pickles, and dipping sauces. It is among the most popular Korean meat dishes along with galbi (marinated beef or pork short ribs) and bulgolgi (shaved tenderloin). Every year, 3 March is celebrated as “Samgyeopsal Day” in South Korea and it’s the best time to try all kinds of variations of this dish at restaurants across the country.
5Get A Taste Of The Royal Life With Japchae
Japchae originates from Korean royal cuisine once served in palaces and courts. It was first made in the early 17th century for King Gwanghaegun, and slowly adopted by the common people. This sweet and savoury dish of glass noodles (called dangmyeon) and vegetables, is stir-fried with meat and soy sauce and is extremely popular. It’s commonly found at celebrations and holidays (as it’s easy to prepare in bulk), so try to wrangle an invitation to try some when you visit! Japchae is often served as a side dish, but other ingredients, such as mushrooms and extra beef can be added to it to make it a more substantial meal.
6Want To Combat A Hot Korean Summer? Try Cold Bingsu
This Korean dish dates back to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) when there was a government office in charge of sharing the ice with fellow officials to mix with fruit. Bingsu, or patbingsu, has long been a popular way to combat hot Korean summers. Sweetened shaved ice is topped with anything from fruits to green tea, along with condensed milk and sweet red bean paste. You must try patbingsu at one of the many fast-food restaurants and cafes in South Korea.
Also Read: 11 Must-Try Ice Creams From Around The World
7For A Quick Snack Have Some Gimbap
Often called the Korean version of sushi, gimbap is a seaweed and rice roll, seasoned with rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, sugar, and salt (unlike Japanese sushi which only has vinegar, and is eaten with wasabi and pickled ginger). The rice, and fillings like meat and vegetables, are rolled in gim or edible seaweed. Gimbap is said to have been introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation. Today, it is a popular, light, and inexpensive snack found throughout the country. Special variations can be found at the seaside city of Chungmu and Gwangjang Market in Seoul.
8If You’re Looking For A Festive Sweet Treat, Eat Songpyeon
This traditional Korean food is a type of tteok, or small rice cake, that dates back to the Goryeo period (918–1392). The half-moon shaped cakes are made of rice flour dough and contain sweet or semi-sweet fillings of either soybean, cowpeas, chestnuts, jujubes, dates, red beans, sesame seeds or honey. They’re steamed over pine needles that give them a distinctive taste. Songpyeon is traditionally associated with the Korean autumn harvest festival Chuseok, which is also the best time to try them. There are numerous regional varieties, such as those from the Chungcheong Province (filled with dried pumpkin), the Gangwon Province (made with potato starch and acorn powder) and the Jeju Province (where the filling is traditionally sweetened peas).
9If You Want Some Korean Street Food, Try Dukbokki
Also known as tteokbokki, this popular dish is made with spicy cylindrical rice cakes (garaetteok), which are seasoned. The cylindrical rice cakes are mixed with triangular fish cakes and boiled eggs and served with vegetables and a sweet red chilli sauce. It is a very popular Korean street food item and can be found in street corners across South Korea, especially in the Sindang region of Seoul.
10The Fluffy Haemul Pajeon Is A Pancake-Lover’s Dream
Haemul pajeon is a version of the pajeon (a pancake-like Korean dish made with onions, eggs, and rice flour) which also has seafood. Oysters, shrimp, and squid are often used in both the batter and as a topping. It can be eaten as both an appetizer and a main dish and is extremely popular in Seoul. Other versions of the pajeon include beef, pork, kimchi, and shellfish as toppings.
11If You Prefer Your Pancakes Sweet And Gooey, Try Hotteok
Hotteok is a sweet pancake filled with melted brown sugar, cinnamon and honey. The dish is said to have come from Chinese merchants who immigrated to Korea in the late 19th century. It is best eaten just off the grill, and its crunchy exterior and soft interior make it a winter favourite. You can also get hotteok in various other flavours, such as peanut, green tea, pink bokbunja (Korean raspberries), corn, and many more. It’s also an extremely popular Korean street food item, especially in winter. Try the delicious version in the Insadong area of Seoul.
12Have The Delicately Flavoured Noodle Soup That’s Naengmyeon
Naengmyeon has been around since medieval times. While it was originally a delicacy in northern Korea, it spread to the south after the Korean War. In this cold Korean noodle dish, buckwheat noodles are cooked and then plunged into icy water before being drained. Beef broth (with ice cubes), and cucumbers, slices of beef, a hard-boiled egg, and sesame seeds are added. It’s perfect to cool off with during the humid South Korean summer. While you might not be able to try this dish in the North Korean cities of Pyongyang and Hamhung where it’s said to have originated, you must have the unique version from the South Jeolla Province of South Korea, which is served with beef broth and red chilli paste.
So, Is South Korean Food For You?
There are many other delicious Korean dishes to try, such as mandu (pork dumplings), or haejangguk (beef soup). Even though Korean cuisine features a lot of meat, there are plenty of options for both non-vegetarians and vegetarians. Despite being largely based on rice and vegetables, the dishes feature a wide range of options. From street food to erstwhile royal cuisine, you’re sure to find something to suit your taste, whatever they may be. In general, food in South Korea is quite budget-friendly, as you can get excellent stapes, such as soups and stews, even at the smallest convenience store.
Just a few things to keep in mind though—while there are loads of chillies used in South Korean food, it’s surprisingly not all that spicy. It also has lots of seafood on offer, and fish products are widely used even in other food; so those with seafood allergies should be extra vigilant.