The must try food on a trip to South Korea
Boasting one of the most unique of all Asian cuisines, South Korea is an enticing destination for the keen foodie. Wedged between two culinary powerhouses, China and Japan, Korean cuisine is often overlooked, but its popularity is growing. While many are likely to have sampled, or at least heard of, bibimbap and kimchi, there are many delicacies which are still relatively unknown outside the Korean community. We are firm believers that the best way to understand a nation’s culture is through its food. So, if you find yourself asking the question: What should I eat in South Korea? We are delighted to give the lowdown on the best food, including many lesser known dishes, you must try in South Korea.
Korean cuisine traditionally would be served as several meat and vegetable side dishes (banchan) served with rice. Without a doubt the most important side dish is kimchi, a traditional fermented dish made of vegetables (commonly Chinese cabbage) with gochujang - hot pepper paste. Gochujang is an almost ubiquitous ingredient throughout Korean cuisine, which gives many Korean dishes its red colour and fiery spiciness.
There are a plethora of stews (jiggae) in Korean cuisine and are a must try in South Korea, especially if you visit in the winter. Gochujang plays a key role in several jjigaes and these strikingly red stews are an excellent antidote to Korea’s bitterly cold winter. Kimchi Jjigae is a kimchi stew with a choice of meat and is the go-to comfort food for those suffering from a mild-cold. A modern offshoot of this humble recipe is the Budae jjigae which is a legacy of the American led intervention during the Korean War. Budae means army base in Korean and during the war American soldiers would usually donate non-native ingredients such as spam, hot dogs, baked beans, and American cheese slices to the local population. Budae jjigae is essentially kimchi stew with the addition of these non-native ingredients. An excellent vegetarian option is the soft tofu stew (pictured above), sundubu jjigae, a dish made with freshly curdled soft tofu, vegetables, and optional seafood.
As well as stews there is a large variety of broths (guk/tang) within Korean cuisine. Seaweed soup, miyeokguk, is a popular side dish and is traditionally consumed by Koreans after giving birth. Miyeokguk is known for its health-giving nutrients but also eaten on birthdays in celebration of one’s mother. Gamjatang (pictured above) is a hearty broth made with slow-cooked pig spine and potatoes and was historically a meal to feed labourers. The dish is often eaten communally and is well known for its restorative powers of curing a hangover and falls within the haejang category of soups and stews - haejang literally means ‘release oneself of a hangover.’ Gamjatang can be found throughout Korea but the best can be found in Seoul, as it is a staple for many of the city’s office workers.
Korean barbeque is the ultimate Korean dining experience and has steadily grown in popularity internationally, a Korean barbeque restaurant can be found in most UK cities these days. The barbeque involves grilling meat, typically beef, pork or chicken on charcoal grills built into the centre of the dining table. The meat is often accompanied by a large selection of banchan side dishes. Bulgogi, marinated thinly sliced sirloin or tenderloin, and galbi, marinated beef short ribs, are two of the most popular cuts. Once the meat is cooked it is common practice to combine the meat and preferred sides in a lettuce leaf to make a small parcel to be eaten in one go. A particular favourite in the Bamboo office is dakgalbi, chicken marinated in a spicy gochujang sauce and grilled with sweet potatoes, cabbage and other ingredients. Dakgalbi originated in Chuncheon and a pit-stop for lunch here is highly recommend for those making the journey between Seoul and Seoraksan National Park.
A wide selection of wonderful street food is available in South Korea’s many markets. The best-known market for street food in South Korea is Gwangjang Market in Seoul, although there are plenty of smaller options dotted around South Korea’s capital. Busan is famous for its sea food and some of the freshest and finest can be found at Jalgachi market. A South Korean street food staple which is enjoyed by all sections of society, from school students to businessmen, is Tteokbokki (pictured above)– pronounced dok-bo-ki. The dish is made from small sized cylinder-shaped rice cakes, eomuk (fish cake), boiled eggs and scallions. It is common for the dish to be seasoned with a spicy gouchujang sauce, giving the dish its deep red colour, but it can be prepared at a range of spice levels.
One of South Korea's most popular winter street foods is Bungeoppang. This tasty snack is sold at street stalls throughout the country during winter and is grilled on an appliance like a waffle iron but with a fish-shaped mold. Traditionally the fish-shaped pastry is stuffed with sweetened red bean paste, but modern iterations can be filled with pastry cream, chocolate, and other sweet fillings, it is the perfect antidote to the often sub-zero temperatures of Korea’s winter.
There are several dishes Koreans traditionally turn to when in need of comfort. A favourite to lift the gloom of a rainy day is pajeon (pictured above). This pancake dish is traditionally made from a batter of eggs, wheat flour, rice flour, scallions and can include various other ingredients such as, seafood, kimchi, and meat. It is common to wash the meal down with bowls of alcoholic makgeolli, a milky, off-white and lightly sparkling traditional rice wine.
Fried chicken is a comfort food enjoyed all over the world, but the secret is slowly coming out that Koreans have become the undisputed masters of this delicacy. While a relatively modern addition to Korean cuisine, the Koreans have taken it to their hearts. Korean fried chicken differs from typical fried chicken because it is fried twice resulting in the skin becoming crunchier and less greasy. It is popular for friends and work colleagues to meet for fried chicken and beer and has even resulted in the creation of a new portmanteau word in the South Korean vocabulary: chimaek – Chi for Chicken and Maek for Maekju, Korean for beer.
We hope you find this guide useful when deciding what food to try in South Korea. The above is just the tip of the iceberg for some of the delicious dishes that make up Korean cuisine. Our Highlights of South Korea tour provides a comprehensive introduction to this fascinating country. For those with an interest in discovering more about Korea’s food scene our Taste of South Korea itinerary is a great place to start.