South Korean cuisine is often characterised as savory, hearty, nutritious, and spicy. But dig a little deeper and there is so much more to uncover in the vast, incredibly unique culinary landscape that Korean food has to offer.
From mouth-watering stews to marinated meat grilled right on your table, there is a diversity even within such a clearly defined cuisine that makes South Korean food some of the best in the world.
Much of the South Korean cuisine has evolved over the years, with many core elements influenced by the cuisines of China, Mongolia, and Japan. Newer Korean foods have taken on a life of their own, however, as we see more innovative dishes making a claim for inclusion in what constitutes traditional South Korean cuisine.
By travelling across South Korea from the capital, Seoul, to more remote regions, we have covered the 15 absolute best Korean foods you must try. Of course, not everyone can travel there for the food alone. So we have taken the liberty of providing our favorite recipes for each dish for you to make at home if you wish.
Here are the absolute best dishes of South Korea to try:
Kimchi is first in line because it is one of the most recognized South Korean foods in the world. It has over 100 variations based on flavors used when fermenting.
The most common main ingredient is Napa cabbage, although a variety of other vegetables can also be used. It can be enjoyed on its own or accompanied by white rice. It can also be added to soups, rice cakes, and porridges.
Kimchi is made by preserving the cabbage in a bed of ginger, garlic, scallion, and pepper. It can be spicy or not-so-spicy. If you want spicy, you will find plenty in the region of Gyeongsang while the mildly spiced variation can be enjoyed in the region of Hwanghae-do.
Visit any street in South Korea and you will find Kimbap or Gimbap. This is sushi, the Korean way. It comprises of rice, stir-fried vegetables, spinach, and meat. You will be presented with well-wrapped sushi in a seaweed roll that is cut into bite-size pieces. It is accompanied by kimchi on the side.
Seolleongtang (ox bone soup) is a simple yet delicious soup that is prepared with beef bones, black pepper, garlic, and scallions. You may also find a few strips of meat thrown in. It is accompanied with noodles or rice.
Samgyeopsal comprises of thin strips of pork that are prepared right in front of you. There is no marinating involved, just a dip in seasoning, a dash of sesame oil, and thrown in a lettuce wrap with a bit of onion and garlic. Green chili peppers, button mushrooms, and kimchi are also often thrown in.
Bibimbap comprises of a variety of vegetables, kimchi, and meat. It may be topped off with a sunny side up egg. There are variations to Bibimbap, there is the hot version and the cold one.
The hot one is known as Dolsot Bibimbap and is served scorching hot in an earthenware pot. Once on your table, you will need to immediately mix it to avoid scorched rice at the bottom! Conversely, the cold version is served in a metal box.
Bulgogi comprises of grilled marinated beef normally wrapped in lettuce. It can be flavored with sliced onions and garlic. Traditionally, it is enjoyed with ssamjang, a thick, red paste that is on the spicy side.
Korean Fried Chicken
Korean fried chicken is a world away from the American classic and is prepared with a coating of sweet and spicy sauce. For a spicy kick, some green pepper may be thrown into the coating.
The chicken is then double fried to ensure you enjoy a crispy, crunchy outer skin with a juicy middle. Korean fried chicken is generally washed down with beer.
Steamed Mandu Dumplings (Jjin Mandu)
Korean dumplings resemble their Japanese or Chinese counterparts. The dumplings comprise of different stuffing in a noodle-like wrap. Stuffing may include pork, carrots, mung bean noodles, cabbage, and onions. This delicious goodness is steamed to perfection before being served.
Tteokbokki is a delicious street food dish, widely available at virtually every street corner in Seoul. This dish comprises of fish cakes and rice cakes.
The rice cakes are steamed and sliced and served with the fish cakes on a bed of scallions and a sweet and spicy chilli paste sauce. Other ingredients such as black soybean may be thrown into the mix.
Samgyetang is best enjoyed in the hot summer months as the Koreans believe that hot soup will help preserve your health. The chicken is thrown into a flavorful mix of ginseng, sweet rice, and garlic. It is typically washed down with a glass of insamju (ginseng wine).
Japchae is not your ordinary noodle dish. It is a delectable blend of noodles, mushrooms, beef, sesame oil, and a variety of vegetables. The noodles themselves are made with sweet potato hence the orange/brown color. The noodles have a slightly chewy texture and are sweet and flavorful.
Another thing that sets the Japchae apart from other Asian noodle dishes is that it is not floating in the soup. This is no surprise as the Koreans look down on having to have your bowl so close to your mouth as you eat!
Sundubu-jjigae is a traditional tofu dish that comprises of the dubu (tofu), a blend of vegetables, seafood, chili paste (gochujang), and pork or beef. There are different variations of Sundubu-jjigae depending on the chef and the region. Traditionally though, a raw egg will be thrown into the mix for added flavor.
It is served with a side of pickled vegetables or steamed rice. It is best served hot which is why it will be presented in a traditional earthenware pot.
Hotteok is another common street food found in Seoul. It comprises of your traditional pancake ingredients but what sets it apart are the filings.
Different fillings can be added to this delicious dish, and although it is inspired by the Chinese, it is rarely filled with meat as is common with the Chinese variety. Instead, most Koreans prefer to indulge their sweet tooth with sweet fillings.
Kong-guksu is an acquired taste enjoyed by vegetarians, since it is one of the rare dishes that doesn’t involve meat! It is a mixture of noodles and soybeans which is served in a bed of savory soy milk. Kong means soybean while guksu means noodles. This highly nutritious dish is normally enjoyed in the summer.
Patbingsu is a mouth-watering blend of condensed milk and ice shavings. The Koreans are not shy about portions so you should expect to be presented with a mountain of ice shavings. To top it off, some red beans (bingsu) and chopped fruits are added to the mix.
The huge bowl it comes with may have your eyes popping out but after one bite, you will want to hold onto the bowl for dear life!
South Korea is blessed with a rich cuisine and there are so many dishes to explore throughout the country. It is without a doubt one of the best foodie destinations on earth and, if you’re serious about food, it should be the trip of a lifetime!