Skip to main content

South Korean food: top 10 dishes you need to try on your next visit

South Korean food must tries

When you arrive in Seoul, it won’t take long for you to find out just how intrinsic food is in Korean culture. To give you an idea, when meeting a friend we don’t just ask: “how are you?”, but rather: “have you eaten?”

Almost every form of social gathering is centred around eating. Great news for a foodie! With the country surrounded by sea and mountains we have a huge array of ingredients and dishes fit for every occasion. For example, you’ll always eat miyeokguk (seaweed soup) on your birthday, tteokguk (rice cake soup) on New Year’s and yeot (traditional sweets) before an important exam.

As in many Asian cultures, South Korean food is designed to be shared. Delicious main dishes (barbecues, stews, noodles etc.) will be placed in the middle, accompanied by a table full of free banchan (side dishes). Sounds good? That’s why the country has turned into one of the world’s top foodie destinations. But, before you tuck in, take a read of my top 10 dishes you need to try on your first visit to South Korea…

Tteokbokki 

An all-time favourite for many South Koreans. On every street corner, you’ll find a stand serving up this spicy, filling but affordable snack. In its classic street food form, tteok (chewy rice cakes) and eomuk (fish balls) are simmered in a spicy gochujang (chilli pepper) sauce, but you’ll also find versions made with soy or black bean sauce.

The most popular pairing is with soondae (blood sausage), Korea’s answer to black pudding. Restaurant versions of the dish might be even more luxurious, complete with dumplings, fried vegetables, eggs or noodles. But on a cold winter’s day, there’s nothing better than heading to a tteokbokki stand to warm yourself up. 

Sachal eumshik

Have you seen ‘Chef’s Table’? The Netflix documentary featured the traditional Korean food eaten in Buddhist temples. It’s not just one type of food, but a philosophy and mindset as well. Naturally vegan, all of the dishes are prepared in the least harmful way for all living things and the environment. The ingredients may not be too familiar outside of Asia: bracken, lotus leaf, radish greens.

You will also appreciate glutenous rice, which brings out the flavour of these ingredients. If you fancy a detox during your foodie tour of Korea, why not learn some new recipes, train your mind and find out just how delicious vegan South Korean food can be?

Korean barbecue

Here’s one you’ve probably already heard of. Korean barbecue has grown quite popular in the US and around the world. That being said, what you’ll experience while you’re in South Korea is on another level. The grill will be right in the middle of your table, where you can sample different cuts of beef, pork, duck or seafood.

Samgyopsal (pork belly) is the most popular but my personal favourite is yangnyeom galbi, delicious pork ribs marinated overnight. If you get the chance to visit a seaside town, make sure to try a shellfish BBQ on the beach too. Sides will include pickled onion or spicy scallion salads, and the classic way to enjoy it is by making a ssam (lettuce wrap). Grab a leaf, load it up with your main, rice, sides, sauce and enjoy! 

Korean BBQ

Image source:Jisong Seo

Hangang Ramyeon

We’ve already talked about the importance of Korean street food, and one of the best places to experience it in Seoul is on the Hangang (Han river). Locals will gather in the parks on the riverbanks for picnics while enjoying music, live events or simply the company of friends. While you can even order a delivery (Chicken? Pizza? Jokbal?) direct to your spot in the park, the most common snack of choice is ramyeon.

Yep, instant noodles. If you pop into a convenience store, you can pick from a wide selection and a machine outside will do the rest for you, just add an egg and cook it to perfection. Take it back to your perfect picnic spot and it will feel like you’re camping right in the middle of the city.

Budae Jjigae 

While South Korea has a rich culinary history, some modern dishes have also been influenced by imports from other countries, and most notably the United States. Since playing an important role in the Korean War (1950-53), US troops have had a significant presence in the country, resulting in one of the most interesting fusion dishes.

Budae Jjigae is literally translated as army stew, but also nicknamed ‘Johnson’, perceived as a stereotypical surname for an American GI. It combines a spicy Korean broth of kimchi, tofu, bean sprouts and glass noodles with the most commonly available US Army rations: Spam, frankfurters and baked beans! An unlikely combination, but with a surprisingly delicious result, that remains popular with Koreans and visitors to this day. 

South Korean food must tries

Image source:Jisong Seo

Jeon

Imagine it’s a stormy day, while you’re wrapped up warm inside, with the pitter patter of rain falling on your window. On cosy days like these, there’s one type of food that Koreans will always turn to. Jeon, translated as pancake or more accurately fritter, is a savoury snack made with various fillings like kimchi, seafood, green onions or chives. It’s thought that the sound of frying them in oil reminds you of the rain spitting outside. You don’t need to wait for a rainy day though.

Try them in Seoul’s Gwangjang Market, where nokdu bindaetteok are made with mung bean instead of flour to bring out more flavour, along with chopped pork, kimchi, bean sprouts and herbs. Often eaten on national holidays, they pair perfectly with a pot of Korean makgeoli (rice wine).

Naengmyeon 

‘You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it’ might be the best way to describe naengmyeon. Cold noodles may not sound very appetising, but once you’ve acquired the taste, you can’t live without them. On a hot summer’s day, step into a restaurant for a bowl of buckwheat noodles in an icy broth, often including slices of beef and boiled eggs. Add some vinegar and mustard to bring out a deliciously sour flavour that will dance on your tastebuds and cool you down instantly. Naengmyeon restaurants will usually serve mandu (dumplings) or soy-marinated meats to complete the meal. It is also famous for being a popular dish in North Korea, with some restaurants south of the border specialising in Pyongyang-style naengmyeon.

South Korean food must tries

Image source:Jisong Seo

Chimaek

Chimaek is a portmanteau of chicken and maekju (beer) and it’s definitely a match made in heaven. The classic combo became a part of South Korean pop culture from the 1970s and has become ever more popular since the 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Korea and Japan. Korean-style fried chicken is slightly different to its Kentucky counterpart.

Usually sold as a whole chicken or half, it has a crispier batter doused in a variety of sauces, from spicy to sweet, soy, honey, garlic and onion. Sample each flavour and cleanse your palate in between with the refreshing pickled radish served on the side. Commonly enjoyed at sporting events or the end of a long day at work, once you’ve tried it, you’ll think of Korea over Kentucky every time. 

Haejangguk

Haejangguk or ‘hangover soup’ is a dish custom made as a pick-me-up after a heavy night. Equally enjoyed at the end of an evening or as a rescue remedy for the next day, Koreans swear by this dish, which can be served at any time of day.

There are a few different types, with kongnamul gukbap (beansprout soup) one of the most popular, especially in the city of Jeonju. Made with a base soup of dried pollak, it is deeply nourishing, hydrating, and full of iron. The spicy clear broth includes bean sprouts, green onion, garlic and rice, and pairs really wellwith soju (Korean spirit). 

South Korean food must tries

Image source:Jisong Seo

Yakgwa

What better way to finish than with a dessert? While food trends, like fashion, can change quite rapidly in Seoul, there will always be long-term best-sellers like yakgwa, a traditional cinnamon pie. Generally, traditional Korean desserts are not particularly sweet but this one is an exception, tasting something like a glazed doughnut.

The dough is made of flour, sesame oil, ginger, honey and a bit of alcohol. It is slowly simmered with grain syrup and fried in oil until it turns a golden brown colour. Often coming in the shape of a beautiful flower with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, its familiar taste goes down well with bitter drinks such as a black americano or tea. 

Up next

Stop dreaming and make sh*t happen!