When you think of South Korea perhaps the 2018 winter olympics or a crazy dictator to the north comes to mind. You’re not wrong in thinking this, but what you’re missing is the world of delicious eats originating on that little peninsula. Move over China, there’s a new Asian culinary sensation in town.
South Korea has a distinguished array of foods that differ from other countries throughout Asia. While not as commercialized as Chinese food or sushi from Japan, South Korea has some absolutely mouth watering dishes that you must try whether you’re planning a visit to explore this beautiful land or have a Korean restaurant in the neighbourhood.
Korean dishes are not only delicious but are also very nutritious, and as a result the South Korean diet is a very healthy one. If you visit, you’ll notice the generally thin and healthy looking population. The typical diet is based around the Asian staples of rice and noodles – as you might imagine. Fish, meats, and endless amounts of side dishes derived from vegetables, spices and oils compliment these mains and will open up your culinary world. Well, let’s get to it.
1. Korean Ramen [Iamyeon] 라면
As a canadian, my memories of ramen are ‘Mr Noodles’ which you’d break up in the bag, mix with the seasoning salt and eat raw as a child, or the stereotypical college student diet. In Korea, ramen is much, much more than that. Ramen is a way of life out here and a huge staple of their diet. The options at the grocery store are endless and there are restaurants dedicated solely to various ramen dishes.
2. Kimchi 김치
If you know anything of Korea, you’ve probably heard of Kimchi. The unofficial national side dish of Korea. It’s a strong, bitter and sometimes spicy concoction of cabbage, sauces, spices and various fish or shrimp juices that have been fermented. Definitely an acquired taste, but incredibly healthy.
Kimchi making is a long praised tradition that generally takes place near the beginning of winter where families will get together for the weekend and make enough Kimchi to last them the year. It’s passed on from mother to daughter in law, and each batch is often fermented below the topsoil in the back yard.
3. Korean Barbeque [Samgyeupsal] 삼겹살
One of the better known dishes and an absolute must try. Korean Barbeque consists of various types of raw meat that you cook yourself over a barbeque that is in the middle of your table. It comes with a table covering amount of side dishes which can include – but is not limited to; pickled radish, onions, hot sauces, oils, bean sprouts, lettuce wraps, soups, rice and more.
This meal is a serious experience. You can choose all kinds of different side foods to add to your lettuce wrap. There’s nothing better than cooking the food yourself over the grill while you munch on side dishes. For a truly Korean experience you can chase each mouthfull with Soju (Korean Rice Alcohol) that packs a punch so enjoy and make your meal an event.
4. Gimbap 김밥
Gimbap is Korea’s take on sushi. I’m told by local Koreans it was adapted from sushi when the Japanese came over in the past. It’s wrapped in seaweed and rice similarly to Sushi but consists of different insides. More common ingredients include egg, ham, meats and mayo.
They typically come rolled like sushi but you can also get little triangles or squares of pre made gimbap pieces sold at convenience stores with more common meats. These are a delicious snack and great for on the go. They usually cost about a dollar and are a great on the go snack.
5. Bibimbap 비빔밥
Bibimbap is a bowl of vegetables, rice and sometimes an egg or beef. I like to think of it as a Korean buddha bowl. Insanely delicious and totally filling. For the best Bibimbap in the country visit the city of Jeonju which is famous for its bibimbap. I can attest to this claim. No bibimbap I’ve tried comes close to the bowl I had in Jeonju.
6. Korean Fried Chicken 닭 튀김
I know you’re probably thinking that you could have just stayed in North America and hit up KFC or Popeyes if wanted some fried chicken. But I’ve got to say, Korea puts a delicious spin on this comfort food and I can’t get enough. They double fry the chicken here making it extra crispy and flavorful. My go-to sauce is called ‘Yum-Yum Sauce’ which is red in color and consists of a mix of sweet, spicy and savory.
7. Hangover Soup [Haejang-Guk] 헤 장군
Hangover Soup in Korean literally means ‘soup to chase a hangover’. In South Korea it’s no wonder they created this dish. Koreans drink more per week per person than any other country in Asia. Yeah, you thought Thailand was wild?
It consists of cabbage, vegetables and meat in a heavy beef broth. Delicious, and it actually works. One summer day I found myself drinking all day and through the night. To end if off, I skipped pizza or a burger for some Haejang-Guk and the next day went hiking when I was expecting to be bed ridden.
8. Seafood [haemul] 해물
Korea being a peninsula, there’s a lot of ocean all around. So seafood is a large part of their diet. Get red lobster out of your mind right now, and think whole fish cooked in a pan with skin, bone, head and all. Octopus, eel, and molluscs are also all very popular options here. My personal favorite is the live octopus. They take it straight from the fish tank, chop it quickly, garnish and send out to you. Some places even chop it in front of you. It takes a lot like chicken in my opinion – save for the consistency. But don’t forget to eat quickly, the active suckers can get caught in your throat!
9. Raw Beef Dish [Yuk Hoe] 괭이
Korean summers are deadly hot and humid. After walking for more than a few minutes outside in between June and September, a hot bowl of ramen sounds like torture. So A famous summer dish is cold noodles. Usually made from buckwheat, the noodles are served in a bowl with pickled water, vegetables and various meats or sometimes a hardboiled egg. Currently my favorite meal is to order cold noodles alongside Korean BBQ.
11. Spicy Chicken Stir Fry [Dak Galbi] 다크 갈비
Another one of my personal favorites, but not overly abundant within Korea is Dak Galbi. This is a stir fry of chicken pieces, cabbage, spicy red sauce, rice cakes and sweet potato chunks alongside the standard mix of vegetables. It comes in large pan that is placed in the middle of the table. In most cases you can order ‘Cheesy Dak Galbi’. Where one half of the large pan is littered with cheese, which eventually melts into owey gooey goodness. This dish is served with many sides and lettuce wraps similar to barbeque.
Well, there you have it! Although these 11 Korean dishes only scratch the surface on the array of options you can find in South Korea. From conventional by western terms to truly outlandish, there so many diverse foods to try. The great thing is that they are all full of flavor and generally quite healthy. Eating in Korea is more than just utility, it’s an enjoyable event to be shared by many. Just don’t forget the Soju!
Love Korean food? Have a dish that we missed that you think everyone should try? Loved one of Colby’s recommendations! Comment and share ;D