Korean food is gaining popularity outside of Korea, particularly in East Asia and the United States. With plenty of hot and fermented foods, it may be an acquired taste, but if you get accustomed to it, it’s addicting, and Korean cuisine is certainly in a league of its own, combining fiery chillies and huge quantities of garlic with delicate delicacies like raw fish. Although Korean cuisine is low in fat, as shown by the fact that few South Koreans are overweight, individuals on sodium-restricted diets should be aware that Korean cuisine may be salty.
A typical Korean dinner consists of rice, soup, and most likely a fish or meat dish, all of which are accompanied by a wide variety of banchan (side dishes). A simple dinner may just include three kinds of banchan, while a regal feast may have twenty. Bean sprouts (kongnamul), spinach (shigeumchi), tiny dried fish, and other side dishes are common, in addition to kimchi.
The ubiquitous kimchi (gimchi), prepared from fermented cabbage and chile, is served with almost every meal and varies in heat from mild to hot. In addition to cabbage, kimchi may be prepared using white radish (ggakdugi), cucumbers (oi-sobagi), chives (buchu gimchi), or pretty much any pickled vegetable. Kimchi is used to flavor a wide variety of meals, and it is often eaten as a side dish. When traveling overseas, it is not unusual to see Korean visitors with a cache of neatly packed kimchi.
Doenjang, a fermented soybean paste similar to Japanese miso, and gochujang, a hot chilli paste, are two additional condiments present in nearly every meal.
While many of these meals are available across Korea, each city has its own unique specialties, like as Chuncheon’s dakgalbi.
Because Koreans believe that Westerners don’t enjoy spicy cuisine, you may have to spend some time persuading them differently if you truly want to eat anything spicy. Also, although Korean food has the bland-diet Japanese and northern Chinese salivating, if you’re used to Thai or Mexican cuisine, you may be wondering what all the buzz is about.
Restaurants serving foreign cuisine are also popular, but they typically have a Korean touch. Fried Chicken has become popular, and many people think it is superior than the American version. Pizzas are also widely available, but you may question where the ideas for the toppings originated from. Koreans like Vietnamese and Mexican cuisine as well. There are many different types of Japanese restaurants to choose from. Surprisingly, Chinese cuisine is difficult to come by, and Koreans typically associate Chinese dining with Jajangmyeon (thick soy-based noodles with distant Chinese roots) and sweet and sour pork.
Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: unlike the rest of Asia, they prefer metal chopsticks. Restaurants usually offer stainless steel chopsticks, which are notoriously tough to use for chopstick beginners! These thin, slick chopsticks aren’t as simple to use as wooden or plastic chopsticks, but you’ll get by with a little fumbling.
When dining as a group, communal dishes will be put in the middle, and everyone will be able to chopstick anything they like, but individual amounts of rice and soup will still be served. Unless you’re dining on royal cuisine, the majority of meals are served family style.
In many traditional families, children were taught that speaking at meals was rude. If there is total quiet while eating, don’t be startled. Mealtimes are used by people, especially males, to rapidly consume food and move on to other activities. This is due to the fact that most young Korean males must serve in the military and have short mealtimes.
Some tips about etiquette:
Chopsticks should never be left upright in a meal, particularly rice. This is only done when the dead is being remembered. A spoon standing upright in a dish of rice is not a good indication, either.
Do not begin to eat until the oldest at the table has done so.
Lifting plates or bowls off the table while eating is considered impolite among Koreans.
You may consume your rice and soup with your spoon. Koreans often eat their rice with a spoon and their other meals with chopsticks.
Don’t be concerned about whether you’re doing anything correctly or not. Everything will be alright if you utilize your common sense of civility and decent manners.
Chopsticks are not required for all foods, and most Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurants provide knives and forks instead. A westerner may be able to use western silverware in many Korean eateries.
It would be impossible to go hungry in South Korea. There is always someplace to eat no matter where you go. There are a few different types of Korean restaurants:
- Bunsik (분식) are quick-serve snack restaurants that provide inexpensive, delicious cuisine.
- Kogijip (고기집), is a place where you can get grilled meat meals and toppings.
- Hoejip (회집), “raw fish house”, serves fresh fish slices similar to Japanese sashimi, known in Korean as hwe, as well as complementing side dishes. These eateries may usually be found along the beaches of any body of water.
- Hansik (한식). The full course Korean dinner, also known as hanjeongsik, began with feasts held at the royal palace. The meal begins with a chilly appetizer and juk (porridge). Seasoned meat and vegetable dishes may be steamed, boiled, fried, or grilled as the main course. Traditional beverages such as sikhye or sujeonggwa are offered after the meal.
- Department Stores – Food sections at department stores are divided into two categories: a food hall in the basement and full-service restaurants on the upper floors. There are take-out and eat-in sections in the food hall areas. The full-service restaurants are more costly, but they usually feature pictorial menus and a pleasant atmosphere.
Coffee is extremely popular in Korea, and coffee shops can be found almost everywhere (even in small countryside villages). There are both Korean chain and indie coffee shops to choose from. Starbucks and other foreign-owned coffee shops are much less prevalent in Korea than their Korean equivalents. Apart from coffee, these cafés typically offer sandwiches, toasties, paninis, and quesadillas, as well as sweet treats like bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Korean style toast, pastries, and a variety of cakes, some of which are vegan.
“Korean barbecue” is arguably the most popular Korean meal among Westerners, and it is divided in Korea into two types: bulgogi (marinated meat pieces) and galbi (unmarinated ribs). In each, a charcoal brazier is put in the center of the table, and customers grill their preferred meats over it, seasoning it with garlic. The cooked meat from each of these is served with shredded green onion salad (pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (muchae), and chili-soya paste (ssamjang) on a lettuce or perilla leaf, and then eaten. Everything is optional, so be creative.
The price of a barbecue dinner is mainly determined by the kind of meat used. Meat is offered in units at most Korean restaurants that serve it (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most popular cut of meat. It’s considerably less expensive than beef, and customers say it tastes better. Rather than filet mignon, ribs, unsalted pork bacon (samgyeopsal), and chicken stir-fried with vegetables and spicy sauce (dakgalbi) are popular types of meat. Although unmarinated meats are of better quality, it is preferable to stay with marinated meats in less expensive places.
Bibimbap literally translates as “mixed rice,” which is an accurate description. It consists of a bowl of rice with a variety of toppings (vegetables, meat slivers, and an egg), which you mix up with your spoon before adding your desired amount of gochujang (chili sauce) and devouring. Dolsot bibimbap, served in a boiling hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that crisps the rice on the bottom and sides, is very delicious.
Gimbap, often known as “Korean sushi,” is another healthy and delicious alternative. Rice, sesame seeds, a Korean spinach type, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, are all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil, and cut into gimbap. Depending on one’s hunger, a single roll may serve as a snack or a dinner, and they carry nicely. What separates Korean gimbap from Japanese sushi is how the rice is prepared: The rice in Korean gimbap is typically flavored with salt and sesame oil, while the rice in Japanese gimbap is flavored with sugar and vinegar.
Tteokbokki, which resembles a mound of boiling intestines at first glance but is really rice cakes (tteok,) in a sweet chili sauce that is considerably milder than it appears, is more of a snack than a meal.
Soups and stews
Soups are referred to as guk or tang, whereas stews are referred to as jjigae. The distinction is blurry, and certain meals may be referred to as both (for example, the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae is hotter and tang/guk is milder. Both are served with a large amount of white rice on the side.
Doenjang jjigae, prepared with doenjang (Korean miso), veggies, and seafood, and gimchi jjigae, made with — you guessed it — kimchi, are two popular jjigae variations. Sundubu jjigae is made with soft tofu and typically includes minced pork, but there is also a seafood variant called haemul sundubu jjigae that utilizes shrimp, squid, and other seafood instead of meat.
Budae jjigae is a unique kind of Korean fusion cuisine from the city of Uijeongbu, which once housed a US military post. Locals who experimented with American canned foods like as Spam, sausages, and pork and beans attempted incorporating them into jjigae, and although the recipes vary, the majority of them call for a lot of spicy kimchi. Most restaurants will bring you a large pan of stew and set it in the center of the table on a gas burner. Many people prefer to add ramyeon noodle to the stew, although this is optional.
Seolleongtang, a milky white broth made from ox bones and flesh, gamjatang, a potato stew with pig spine and chilies, and doganitang, made from cow knees, are all popular tang soups. Samgyetang (pron. saam-gae-taang), a whole spring chicken filled with ginseng and rice, is one soup worth mentioning. It’s typically a bit pricey due to the ginseng, but the flavor is very moderate. In a kind of “eat the heat to fight the heat” custom, it’s often served in a heated broth just before the hottest portion of summer.
Guk are mostly side dishes, such as seaweed soup miyeokguk and dumpling soup manduguk, although others, such as the frightening-looking pig spine and ox blood soup haejangguk, a favorite hangover cure, are substantial enough to constitute a meal.
Koreans like noodle dishes, and the names kuksu and myeon cover a wide range of options. Fast-food noodle restaurants often sell them for as low as 3000. Korea’s wheat-based noodles are a mainstay.
Naengmyeon is a Korean specialty from the north, consisting of thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and is therefore a popular summer meal – despite the fact that it is usually winter cuisine! They’re also a traditional way to finish a meaty barbecue dinner. The broth (yuksu) is the most important part of the meal, and well-known restaurants’ formulas are typically carefully kept secrets. Pyongyang naengmyeon and Hamhung naengmyeon are the two most common styles.
Japchae () is a fried yam noodle dish with vegetables (usually cabbage, carrots, and onions) and sometimes meat or odeng (fishcake). Mandu() dumplings are also extremely popular, and may be eaten steamed, fried, or boiled in soup to create a complete meal.
Ramyeon is a Korean ramen dish that is often served with kimchi. When compared to Japanese ramyeon, Korean ramyeon is renowned for its overall spiciness. Take, for example, shin ramyeon.
Koreans consider jajangmyeon to be Chinese cuisine, since it is linked to northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce generally including minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic, and commonly served at (what are loosely characterized as) Chinese restaurants. Its sauce includes some caramel, which makes the meal sweet overall. With ‘Chinese’ sweet and sour pork and chicken, this is a popular combo.
Finally, u-dong is a kind of thick wheat noodle that is similar to Japanese udon.
Because Korea is a peninsula, it has a wide variety of seafood (haemul) that may be consumed both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you select your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but depending on what you buy, they may be very costly.
Hoe (pronounced “hweh”) is raw fish prepared in the Korean manner (similar to sashimi), with a spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap is a Korean dish that combines raw fish with vinegared rice, akin to sushi. When ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony portions that aren’t delivered raw are often turned into a delicious but spicy soup known as meuntang.
Haemultang, a fiery red hotpot stew with crab, shrimp, fish, squid, veggies, and noodles, is another prepared speciality.
Whale flesh is sold in a few restaurants in the cities and during festivals in smaller coastal towns, but it is difficult to come by and, unlike Japan, is not considered part of the national tradition. Whaling has a long history in Pohang, and the city’s seafood market still sells whale. Following an international moratorium imposed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, South Korea banned whaling, with the exception of whales killed ‘accidentally’ during routine fishing. The sale of whale meat imported from Japan in certain restaurants, which is legally prohibited, has been a recent controversy (although usually ignored). Whale restaurants are simple to spot since they have images of whales on their exteriors. If you choose to eat whale, be aware that the species in issue may be endangered, and that your choice should be based on your own moral compass.
In Korea, vegetarians will have a difficult time. Meat is defined as the flesh of land animals in much of East Asia, thus seafood is not considered meat. Spam may be mistaken for anything other than meat, so be clear about what you don’t consume. If you request “no gogi,” they will most likely cook the meat as normal and remove the large pieces. Saying you are chaesikjuwija (a person who exclusively eats veggies) is a nice expression. Be ready for inquiries from the server if you do this. It’s generally advisable to have a list of things you do and don’t eat in Korean on a card or piece of paper to show restaurant waiters and chefs; see the Korean phrasebook section on eating: Korean phrases for eating for more information.
Fish stock, particularly myeol-chi (anchovy), is used in most stews instead of beef stock. This will be your bane, so inquire if you’re ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles outside of renowned vegetarian eateries.
Seafood, such as salted small shrimp, will very likely be used in spicy (red) kimchi. You won’t be able to see it since it will vanish into the brine. Mulgimchi (, “water kimchi”) is a vegan version of kimchi that is simply salted in a clear, white broth with a variety of veggies. Kimchi will go you a long way in Korea if you are prepared to consume something flavored with brine shrimp.
Vegans and vegetarians are completely safe in Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which utilize no dairy, egg, or animal products, save maybe honey, as per Buddhist custom. This kind of food has recently become popular, although it may be very costly.
In Korea, there are a growing number of vegetarian restaurants, the most of which are in bigger or medium-sized establishments. Some of them are operated by Hindus or Seventh-Day Adventists.
When you’re out and about, the following vegetarian and vegan dishes are very simple to come by and safe to eat:
- Sidedishes – These are numerous meals that are frequently offered with vegetables as an addition to the main meal in most Korean style restaurants. Please keep in mind that kimchi isn’t generally considered vegetarian.
- Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a wonderful vegan alternative made out of mixed rice and veggies that can be found almost everywhere! Still, be aware that it is sometimes served with ground beef and often with a fried egg.
- Somandu (소만두) are vegetable and glass noodle-filled Korean dumplings (stay clear of almost any other kind of dumpling)
- Japchae (잡채) – Cold noodles in a vegetable soup, sometimes with ice, are known as japchae . In the summer, this dish is fantastic.
- Gimbap (김밥) are Korean sushi rolls made with rice and pickled veggies that are widely available. There are many different kinds, but search for ones that don’t include spam or fishcake in the center.