Eating South Korean food in Seoul for the first time was a game-changer.
I’ve been exposed to Korean food since childhood but my experience was limited to the most popular Korean dishes. Before our trips to Korea, all I knew about were bulgogi, galbi, and jap chae. That was it.
Visiting Seoul opened my eyes to a new dimension of Korean cuisine. It was like opening door number two and discovering new and delicious dishes like jokbal, gyeranppang, and ganjang gejang. I was intrigued and excited and curious to try as many South Korean foods as I could.
We’ve been to Korea three times in over four years and have tried many tasty Korean dishes, the best and most interesting of which are listed in this South Korean food guide.
If you’re visiting South Korea and want to experience as wide a range of Korean food as possible, then this article will be very useful to you.
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WHAT IS SOUTH KOREAN FOOD?
Because of Korea’s geographic location in northeast Asia, it experiences four distinct seasons – spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This seasonality plays a significant role in Korean cuisine. Some ingredients taste differently each season, resulting in a variety of flavor variation within recipes.
Commonly used ingredients in South Korean food include sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, gochujang (fermented red chili paste), gochugaru (pepper flakes), doenjang (fermented bean paste), and napa cabbage.
Grains and legumes are an important part of the Korean diet which puts an emphasis on variety and moderation. Many different types of vegetables are used in Korean cooking while beef, chicken, and pork are the proteins of choice.
Because the Korean peninsula is bordered by the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan, fish and shellfish also feature prominently in Korean cuisine.
THE BEST SOUTH KOREAN DISHES
Restaurant food represents traditional Korean dishes you’ll typically need to order at a sit-down restaurant. Street food are dishes often sold by sidewalk vendors while trendy food describes snacks that may be little more than a passing fad. By that, I mean they could be all the rage one year then virtually gone the next.
KOREAN RESTAURANT FOOD
Banchan is the collective term for the family of small side dishes served at the start of a traditional Korean meal. I like to think of them as Korean tapas.
They’re served in small portions and typically consist of fermented, steamed, marinated, or stir-fried vegetables, though some banchan may contain some meat or seafood as well.
The number of banchan served usually increases with the formality of the meal. They’re meant to be consumed with your meal and are usually replenished if the amount served isn’t enough.
Bibimbap is one of the most popular South Korean foods. It literally means “mixed rice” and refers to a bowl of warm white rice topped with gochujang, doenjang, soy sauce, and a variety of sauteed and seasoned vegetables like cucumber, soy bean sprouts, radish, spinach, and mushroom.
A raw or fried egg and sliced meat, typically beef, are often added. The contents are then mixed together thoroughly before being eaten.
You can find different types of bibimbap in Korea, some of the most popular being Jeonju bibimbap, dolsot bibimbap, and Yakcho bibimbap.
Bingsu is a popular South Korean shaved ice dessert. Looking at it, you’d think it’s a recent creation but records show that its earliest forms have existed since the Joseon Dysnasty.
At its core, bingsu consists of shaved ice topped with an endless variety of ingredients like red bean, chopped fruit, green tea, chocolate, and other sweets.
The most traditional versions always contain red bean and are known as patbingsu. Bingsu refers to more modern versions made without red bean.
Bossam refers to a Korean pork dish made with thinly sliced pork boiled in a broth with spices like star anise, ginger, scallion, garlic, doenjang, and soybean paste. Pork shoulder is the cut of choice though pork belly can also be used.
Bossam is served with a variety of sides like sliced raw garlic, kimchi, and saeujeot (salted shrimp). It’s a type of ssam dish, meaning the pork and sides are wrapped together in vegetables like lettuce or perilla leaves before being eaten. Bossam literally means “wrapped” or “packaged”.
Bossam is a popular anju dish, meaning it’s a South Korean food typically consumed with alcohol like soju or beer.
5. Chimaek (Korean Fried Chicken & Beer)
Chimaek is a compound word for chi-cken and maek-ju, the Korean word for “beer”. It’s another popular anju dish that refers to the duo of Korean fried chicken and beer.
Fried chicken dishes became a popular food in Korea around the mid to late 20th century. It was around that time that a new draft beer was also gaining popularity so it became common to combine the two as a single menu item.
Today, fried chicken is one of the most popular foods in Korea, with the term chimaek being coined during the 2002 Korea–Japan World Cup. What makes Korean fried chicken so good is that it’s double-fried, resulting in crunchier and less greasy skin.
Chimaek is a combination that’s become ultra-popular not just in Korea but in many other parts of the world as well, thanks to international chains like Bonchon Chicken.
Chueotang refers to a soup made from pond loach, a type of freshwater mudfish. The fish is boiled in water until tender, then sieved to remove all its bones and skin.
The fish meat is boiled again with beef or chicken broth and seasoned with gochujang, doenjang, grated ginger, and ground black pepper before being served in a soup with vegetables, mushroom, fried tofu, rice, and noodles.
7. Ganjang Gejang
Some people have described ganjang gejang as the ultimate South Korean food. I would agree.
Ganjang gejang refers to a Korean dish of raw crab marinated in soy sauce. To make it, crabs are thoroughly cleaned then put in an earthenware crock where they’re salted for a period of about six hours.
A marinade of soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, scallions, ginger, garlic, and red chili pepper is boiled briefly before being poured over the salted crabs.
An hour later, the marinade is removed, reboiled, and poured over the crabs again in a process that’s repeated several times before the dish is chilled and consumed.
Eaten cold, ganjang gejang is absolutely delicious, especially when paired with steamed white rice.
8. Gogigui (Korean BBQ)
When people think of Korean food, kimchi and barbecue are probably the first things that come to mind. They’re two of the most popular dishes in Korean cuisine.
Gogigui means “meat roast” and refers to the method of grilling meat like beef, pork, or chicken on gas or charcoal grills that are usually built into your dining table.
Different types of meat can be served marinated or unmarinated, some of the most popular being bulgogi (thin marinated slices of beef or pork) and galbi (marinated beef or pork ribs).
Meat, especially beef, is typically expensive in Korea. You usually need to get a minimum of two orders per cut of meat, but they do serve you a lot of banchan to go with your meal.
Gomtang or gomguk refers to a Korean beef bone soup. It’s made by simmering various beef parts like ribs, brisket, oxtail, and ox head or bones over a low flame.
The long simmering process creates a milky broth similar to seolnongtang. Rice is added to the soup and you can season the broth to taste with salt and minced green onion.
Jajangmyeon is one of the most popular examples of Korean-Chinese food. It’s made with thick, handmade (or machine-pulled) wheat noodles topped with a heavy sauce made from fried chunjang (sweet bean sauce), soy sauce, diced pork, and vegetables.
It dates back to the early 20th century and was invented at a Chinese restaurant in Incheon’s Chinatown. Today, that restaurant has been converted into the Jajangmyeon Museum.
Interestingly, jajangmyeon has come to be associated with Black Day, an unofficial holiday celebrated on April 14 by unattached people in Korea. People who don’t receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day drown their sorrows in a black bowl of jajangmyeon.
Like kimchi and bulgogi, japchae is one of the most popular foods in Korean cuisine. It refers to sweet and savory stir-fried glass noodles made with dangmyeon (sweet potato starch cellophane noodles) and topped with assorted vegetables, meat, and mushrooms.
It’s seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil and commonly served as banchan. Japchae was once a royal dish that’s become one of the most popular Korean celebratory dishes, often served on special occasions like weddings, birthdays, and holidays.
By 최광모 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons / Processed in Photoshop and Lightroom
Jjukumi is a spicy Korean dish of stir-fried octopuses marinated in a red chili gochugaru sauce. It refers to both the dish and the species of octopus used in the dish, which is a smaller type of octopus commonly found along the coast of South Korea.
I have a high tolerance for spicy food and I found this dish to be almost too hot to eat. It’s considered spicy even by Korean standards so only try this dish if you have a fondness for spicy food.
Jokbal refers to a Korean dish of pig’s trotters braised in soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and rice wine. Other ingredients like onions, leeks, garlic, cinnamon, and black pepper can also be used.
The trotters are simmered until fork tender before being deboned and cut into thick slices. They’re typically served with saeujeot, cloves of raw peeled garlic, and spicy peppers.
Like bossam, jokbal is a popular anju food often eaten with soju or beer. Pictured below is the same combination platter of jokbal and bossam from the Manjok Ohyang Jokbal restaurant in Seoul. The jokbal is on the left side of the plate.
Kalguksu means “knife noodles” and refers to a Korean noodle dish consisting of handmade, knife-cut wheat flour noodles served in a large bowl with broth and other ingredients. Its name comes from the fact that the noodles aren’t extruded nor spun, but cut.
Kalguksu noodles are made with dough from wheat flour and eggs which is rolled out thinly and cut into long strips. Ingredients like dried anchovies, shellfish, and kelp are simmered for several hours to prepare the broth before the noodles and vegetables are added and boiled together.
Without question, kimchi is the dish that’s most representative of Korean food and culture. It’s what most people think of when they think of Korean cuisine.
Kimchi is a traditional side dish made from salted and fermented vegetables – most commonly cabbage and Korean radishes – and a variety of seasonings like chili powder, scallions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal (salted seafood).
There are hundreds of varieties of kimchi made using different vegetables as the main ingredient. It’s considered a national dish in both North and South Korea.
Makgeolli refers to a Korean alcoholic beverage made from rice or wheat mixed with nuruk, a Korean fermentation starter. It has a milky off-white appearance thanks to a chalky sediment and tastes a little sweet and tangy.
Makgeolli is recognized as the oldest alcoholic beverage in Korea. It was brewed for centuries and was once considered a “farmer’s wine” or rural working-class beverage.
Whether steamed, boiled, pan-fried, or deep-fried, mandu is the general term for Korean dumplings. They’re similar to Japanese gyoza or Chinese jiaozi and typically served with kimchi and a soy-vinegar-chili dipping sauce.
Mandu originated as a dish in Korean royal court cuisine but it’s now widely available throughout the country. You can enjoy different types of mandu at restaurants, street food stalls, supermarkets, and pojangmacha (street food tents).
Pictured below is a bigger type of mandu called wang mandu. Filled with pork and vegetables, it reminded me of a cross between a siopao and a dumpling.
Naengmyeon is a Korean dish of long and thin handmade noodles. It’s typically made from buckwheat though the noodles can be made from various other ingredients as well like potatoes, sweet potatoes, arrowroot starch, and kudzu.
Naengmyeon is originally a North Korean dish that became popular throughout Korea after the Korean War. It’s traditionally served in a large stainless-steel bowl with a tangy iced broth, julienned cucumbers, Korean pear, lightly pickled radish, and either a boiled egg or slices of cold boiled beef (or both).
Traditionally, naengmyeon noodles are eaten without cutting to symblize long life and good health.
19. Nakji Bokkeum
Nakji bokkeum refers to a stir-fried dish made with chopped octopus and vegetables marinated in gochujang, soy sauce, garlic, salt, and sugar. It’s a mildly spicy dish and one of my favorite things to eat in Korean cuisine.
A version of this dish can be made with squid instead of octopus. It’s called ojingeo bokkeum and tastes pretty much the same as nakji bokkeum.
The word Jeon refers to a family of fried Korean dishes coated with wheat flour and egg wash. It can be made with a variety of ingredients like fish, meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetables. In the case of pajeon, the main ingredient is pa or scallions.
Pajeon can be made with a batter of just eggs, wheat flour, rice flour, and scallions, though other ingredients like beef, pork, kimchi, squid, shrimp, and seafood can also be used.
When cooked, it resembles a fried Korean pancake with scallions running through it. It’s usually served with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce.
Samgyetang is one of the more interesting dishes in Korean cuisine. It literally means “ginseng chicken soup” and refers to a hot soup made from a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice and boiled in a broth of Korean ginseng, jujube fruits, garlic, ginger, and various herbs and condiments.
In spite of being a hot soup-like dish, samgyetang is considered a summer food. It’s a medicinal dish that’s believed to cool your body by emitting sweat, and boost your energy by facilitating blood flow in the internal organs. This is founded on the traditional Korean principle of Yi Yeol Chi Yeol, meaning “fighting heat with heat”.
Sannakji refers to the infamous Korean dish of octopus sashimi, perhaps one of the strangest and most controversial dishes in Korean cuisine.
What makes it controversial is the fact that the tentacles are still wriggling, even after it’s been chopped up and served to you. The octopus is already dead but the tentacles continue to move because the ganglia are still intact.
The ganglia enable the arms to operate independently of the octopus and react to stimuli, hence the continued movement. This means that the suction cups still work so you’re advised to chew it well before swallowing.
Like any type of sashimi, sannakji is usually eaten with soy sauce and wasabi. We don’t intend to try it but sannakji can also be served with live whole octopus.
Seolnongtang refers to a traditional Korean soup made with ox bones, brisket, and other cuts of meat. It’s made by boiling beef shank bones for several hours, even up to an entire day, to gradually extract the flavor from the bones.
This slow simmering process turns the broth cloudy and milky white. Brisket and other cuts of beef are then added to the broth along with rice and soft wheat noodles.
Salt, ground black pepper, red pepper, minced garlic, and chopped spring onions are made available on your table so you can season the soup to taste.
24. Sundubu Jjigae
Sundubu jjigae is a type of jjigae or Korean stew made with freshly curdled soft tofu, vegetables, onions, and gochujang or gochugaru. Seafood, meat, and a raw egg can also be added as optional ingredients.
Sundubu jjigae is assembled and cooked directly in a serving earthenware vessel known as a ttukbaegi. It’s typically served at the start of your meal along with a few plates of banchan and steamed white rice.
SOUTH KOREAN STREET FOOD
I didn’t want to start the street food section of this South Korean food guide with something as exotic as beongdegi, but the dishes are listed in alphabetical order so I had no choice!
Beongdegi is stewed silkworm larvae. It isn’t the prettiest Korean food but it actually tastes better than it looks. it’s served boiled or steamed in paper cups and tastes soft, nutty, and very juicy.
I read that beongdegi is a dying street food snack but you may chance upon them at Korean food markets like Nandaemun or Gwangjang Market. We tried it in Jinhae during the Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival.
Bindaetteok refers to a mung bean pancake originally from Pyongan Province. It’s made by grinding soaked mung beans into a batter and adding a filling made with kimchi, fiddlehead fern, mung bean sprouts, scallions, and pork.
The bindaetteok is pan-fried into a round flat shape and served with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, vinegar, water, and ground pine nuts. In Seoul, you’ll find many vendors selling bindaetteok at Gwangjang Market.
27. Crispy Crablets
Crispy crablets are small deep-fried crabs. They’re lightly seasoned and have a texture similar to soft shell crabs.
Dakkochi refers to a delicious Korean street food of grilled chicken and scallion skewers. It’s the most popular type of kkochi or skewered Korean food.
The chicken is cut into thin slices and skewered with scallions before being grilled and brushed with a spicy-sweet red chili sauce.
29. Eomuk / Odeng
Eomuk (or odeng) refers to fishcake in Korean cuisine. It was introduced to Korea during the Japanese occupation and has since become one of the most popular Korean foods.
Eomuk is made with ground white fish and other ingredients like potato starch, sugar, and vegetables. You can enjoy it at restaurants or street food stalls pretty much anywhere in Korea.
Pictured below is a dish called eumok tang, or skewered fishcakes served in broth.
Aside from the skewered version, eomuk is also commonly available in cylindrical form. It’s often filled or mixed with other ingredients like cheese, vegetables, sausage, and tteokbokki.
This was one of my favorite Korean street foods. Gyeranppang means “egg bread” and refers to these fluffy, oblong-shaped loaves of bread made with whole eggs.
An entire egg is cracked into oblong-shaped slots filled with cake batter which is cooked until golden brown. They’re rich and eggy with a slightly crisp, chewy crust.
Common gyeranppang toppings include chopped parsley, cheese, and diced ham, but I prefer them as is. They’re so good.
Hotteok is a sweet Korean pancake filled with a mixture of brown sugar, honey, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon. It’s believed to have been introduced to Korea by Chinese merchants who immigrated to the country in the late 19th century.
To make, handful-sized balls of stiff dough are filled with this sweet mixture and cooked on a greased griddle. A circular tool is used to press them flat while they cook.
32. Lobster Tails
As you can imagine, these lobster tails topped with melted cheese are among the most expensive types of street food you can find in Korea.
Lobster meat is cut into chunks and blowtorched before being sprinkled on top with shredded cheese. The cheese is melted under a Zaigle (infrared grill) and drizzled with a spicy Korean red chili sauce.
33. Mozzarella & Tteokbokki Skewers
This is a type of kkochi made with grilled pieces of mozzarella and tteokbokki. They’re rich, milky, creamy, and chewy. They’re delicious but quite filling.
34. Sausage & Tteokbokki Skewers
There are a few variations of these grilled sausage and tteokbokki skewers. Some have beef while others like this one are made with eomuk wrapped around tteokbokki rice cakes.
35. Scallops with Butter & Cheese
Like the grilled lobster tails, these torched scallops are on the pricey end of Korean street food dishes. The scallops are drizzled with butter and cheese before being set on fire with a blowtorch.
Soondae is a type of Korean blood sausage. They’re made by boiling or steaming cow’s or pig’s intestines stuffed with various ingredients.
They can be made with seafood like squid or Alaskan pollock but the most common variety is made with pig’s intestines filled with dangmyeon, barley, and pork blood.
It’s a popular street food snack in both North and South Korea. In the South, they’re typically eaten with the same gochujang-based sauce used with tteokbokki.
37. Steamed Octopus & Conch
This was another type of kkochi or skewered Korean food often sold in popular tourist areas like Myeongdong and Insadong.
Octopus and conch are cut into bite-sized pieces before being skewered and steamed. They’re typically served with a side of red chili sauce and can be drizzled with bonito flakes.
Tteokbokki is one of the most popular South Korean foods. You can find it pretty much anywhere in Korea, at restaurants, markets, and street food stalls, even at some subway stations.
Tteokbokki is made from soft cylindrical-shaped rice cakes mixed with fish cake and drizzled with a spicy gochujang-based sauce or a non-spicy ganjang-based sauce. It’s widely available on its own as street food or mixed with other Korean dishes like fried chicken or jjukumi.
Twigim is basically Korean-style tempura. It can be made with shrimp, squid, and different types of vegetables.
Shaped like cartoon poop, ddongbbang literally means “poo bread”. It’s a sweet, crisp, and doughy snack filled with a variety of sweet ingredients like warm red bean or chocolate.
We tried the red bean and it was delicious. It was warm and nutty, just like the real thing. Kidding.
I don’t know how this Turkish food became popular in Korea, but you’ll find many of these ice cream stalls in Seoul.
Unlike regular ice cream, Turkish ice cream is made with salep and mastic. Salep is a flour made from the root of the early purple orchid while mastic is a resin that gives the ice cream its characteristic chewiness. The result is a stickier ice cream that doesn’t melt as quickly.
Dondurma is available in multiple flavors and typically served in a cone, but you can find it in other forms as well like this macaron ice cream sandwich.
42. Jipangyi Cane Ice Cream
Jipangyi cane ice cream refers to a Korean street food snack that’s part ice cream cone, part sex toy. This long and phallic j-shaped hollow cone is made with puffed rice or corn and filled with soft serve gelato ice cream.
Jipangyi means “cane” in Korean, hence the shape. It’s a popular snack sold in many tourist areas like Insadong.
43. Schnee Pang
Like dondurma, schnee pang is a foreign snack that’s become popular in Korea. Originally from Germany where it’s called a schneeball, it’s made by cutting strips of rolled out shortcrust dough and arranging them into balls. The ball is then deep-fried and dusted with confectioner’s sugar or coated with other toppings.
Before serving, they put the ball into a paper bag and smash it into bite-sized pieces with a hammer. The cookie comes in many flavors and has a crunchy texture similar to Chinese-American fortune cookies.
44. Tokkebi Hot Dog
A tokkebi hot dog is basically a corn dog coated in chopped up french fries. It’s typically served with mayonnaise, chili sauce, or mustard.
45. Tornado Potato
This corkscrew-like snack is another popular Korean street food. You can think of it as a cross between french fries and potato chips. Some versions even have a hot dog running through the center of the potato spiral.
The first version of this South Korean food guide consisted of twenty Korean foods. Over four years and three trips later, it’s more than doubled to 45.
Needless to say, this is a list I plan on updating and expanding with every return trip to Korea. With so much yet to experience, we want to explore other cities and regions in South Korea to further our knowledge of Korean food.
Now that you know WHAT you should eat in Korea, find out WHERE you should try them by checking out our guide on the best restaurants in Seoul.
Thanks for reading and have a delicious time exploring the cuisine of South Korea!
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