Traditional food from Korea is known for its rich flavors and healthy ingredients. Since the rise of Korea Wave in the 1990s, there has been phenomenal global interest in everything Korean.
And while Korean society presents a high-tech vibe to the rest of the world, Korean cuisine has actually remained relatively traditional for centuries until today. Korean food is still very authentic, although some modern chefs have introduced fusion and international dishes into the local food culture of South Korea.
Here are some of the most iconic dishes that you should definitely try while visiting South Korea. I will also give an introduction to the local cuisine and what you can expect as well as talking more about the differences between North Korean food and South Korean food.
Bibimbap is a famous Korean rice meal that comprises rice and a variety of ingredients such as different sauteed vegetables, raw or fried eggs, sliced meat, toasted seaweed flakes and different sauces such as chili pepper paste and fermented soybean paste.
Instead of being fried up like fried rice, all the ingredients are mixed up with the rice in a big bowl before eating. Of course, the ingredients will vary depending on the chef who prepares it but the concept of this rice meal has always been kept simple and true to its Korean taste.
Kimchi is probably one of the most well-known Korean foods in the world. It is a staple in Korean cuisine and this spicy side dish is a mix of fermented napa cabbage and radish, seasoned with ingredients such as spring onions, garlic, ginger, Jeotgal (a popular Korean seafood-based condiment) and chili powder.
Kimchi is often noted for its health benefits because it is an excellent source of fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamin K and C. Furthermore, since Kimchi is fermented, it has the natural probiotic qualities that are fabulous for easing digestive issues.
Bulgogi is a Korean specialty barbecued beef that uses thinly sliced pieces of meat grilled with garlic and onions to add flavor. Before the meat is grilled, it is usually marinated in a sweet soy sauce with lots of garlic and sesame oil to ensure that the taste is greatly enhanced.
Traditionally the grilled meat is wrapped in lettuce with Ssamjang, a Korean spicy paste, before eating. Sirloin, rib eye or brisket are the usual cuts of beef used for this Korean dish.
Much like China’s Jiaozi and Japan’s Gyoza, Korean Mandu is a similar dumpling that is filled with delicious ingredients. This dish can be served as a side dish or as main.
Mandu can be steamed, boiled, pan-fried, or deep-fried, and there are different variations of these Mandu in different parts of South Korea. Some of the common ingredients used in Mandu include beef or pork fillings, onions, cabbage, carrots, and mung bean noodles.
There are also vegetarian ones that are light and healthy. A popular choice of Mandu dish is the Tteok Mandu Guk, a rice cake soup with Mandu that is prepared with beef or anchovy broth and served with traditional rice cake.
Jjajangmyeon is a noodle dish cooked in Chunjang, a black bean sauce, then tossed with a mixture of diced pork, onions, cabbage, zucchini, and potatoes. At times, a seafood option can be found too.
This dish became popular in Incheon back in 1905 when it became a favorite amongst visiting merchants and workers at the port of Incheon. Today, Jjajangmyeon can be found in many local restaurants and eateries in South Korea. It is still considered a comfort food that is eaten on a regular basis.
Budae Jjigae, also known as army stew, is a hot pot dish created with surplus foods left behind by the American military during the Korean War. Don’t be surprised to see a mix of ingredients such as spam, ham, sausages, baked beans, and kimchi in the spicy stew!
Although the dish was introduced during the period of poverty, it continued to be popular today. In fact, many restaurants even specialized in Budae Jjigae. It is also a dish that is great for group gatherings because the stew is usually served in a 12-inch pot, packed with loads of ingredients and served over a flame.
“Tteok” is the Korean word for rice cake and “bokki” means fried, so Tteokbokki literally translates to “stir-fried rice cake”, and it is a popular street food that can be found anywhere in South Korea.
Tteokbokki is usually cooked to a chewy texture and seasoned to create a spicy and slightly sweet taste. This red and spicy dish was introduced after the Korean War in 1953 and since then it has been a popular dish because of its rich taste and economical pricing.
Samgyetang, the classic Korea Ginseng chicken soup, is a dish that you will find on most menus in South Korea. The broth is usually boiled with a whole chicken stuffed with garlic, rice, jujube, and ginseng, then left to boil for hours before being served.
This traditional soup is extremely flavourful and is primarily consumed for healthful reasons. Considering the popularity of ginseng in South Korea, it is no wonder that Samgytang is one of the most sought-after soup dishes in the country.
Sundae is blood sausage made of sticky rice and pig’s blood stuffed into intestines and steamed to perfection. This dish has been featured in many weird food lists, and it may not be everyone’s favorite, however, Sundae remains a popular street food in both North and South Korea that is worth a try.
There are different variations of Sundae that use squid and other-protein-rich ingredients. The most popular variety is mixing pork blood with cellophane noodles and glutinous rice. Sundae is often eaten with pork broth and spicy Korean bean paste.
Doenjang Jjigae is a traditional Korean stew that is made with fermented soybean paste and simple ingredients such as vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, seafood, and meat.
Often mixed with a small amount of spicy chili paste, this stew dish is extremely rich in taste and its simplicity also made it one of the most-popular stew that can be served anytime in the day.
In recent years, studies have also shown that Doenjang Jjigae is a good source of essential amino acids, minerals, and vitamins. It also provides positive health benefits such as building stronger antimutagenic and anti-cancer possibilities.
Naengmyeon is Korean’s cold noodles that are served in a variety of styles. It is a favorite noodle dish during hot summers because it is so cooling and refreshing.
There are two main types of naengmyeon – Mul Naengmyeon is cold noodles served in a clear, refreshing beef broth that is savory and slightly sweet, and Bibim Naengmyeon is noodles mixed in a red, spicy sauce.
Despite the variety, what makes a good Naengmyeon dish lies in the noodle texture which is supposed to be soft and chewy after cooking. These handmade noodles are usually made from the flour and starch of buckwheat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, arrowroot, and kudzu.
Japchae is Korean for “mixed vegetables”, however, the main ingredient of this classic dish is sweet potato noodles (dangmyeon), also known as glass noodles. Japchae is commonly served as a side dish or on rice to complete a meal.
This is a sweet and savory dish of stir-fried glass noodles with meat and an assortment of vegetables such as mushrooms, carrots, cucumber, onions, and mushrooms, topped with sesame seeds.
Japchae was once regarded as a royal dish and today it is one of the most popular traditional dishes that is often served during festive seasons and special occasions such as weddings, and birthdays.
Seolleongtang is another classic Korean broth that is made of ox bones. The soup usually comprises ox leg bones and briskets that are boiled for several hours to create a rich and creamy white broth that is considered a household staple during the winter months.
Because of prolonged boiling, the broth has a thick texture and is high in protein and calcium, therefore making it a great dish for health. Perhaps this is the reason why Seolleongtang is eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and throughout the year.
The broth is usually served without seasoning so that salt and pepper can be added at the table to suit personal taste.
Pajeon, savory pancake
Pajeon refers to Korean savory pancakes made with scallion. The primary ingredients include egg batter, wheat flour, rice flour, scallions, and options of beef, pork, and kimchi.
Seafood pajeon, also known as Haemul Pajeon, with oysters, shrimps, squids, clams and other seafood options is a popular Pajeon variety in South Korean.
Dongrae Pajeon which is made from a batter of rice flour, glutinous rice flour, eggs, and Korean red chili paste is another favorite option that goes as far back as the Joseon era.
Dak-galbi, a spicy stir-fried chicken dish, is a popular comfort food from Korea that is marinated in a gochujang-based sauce (a fermented Korean chili paste) before cooking. Ingredients such as sweet potatoes, cabbage, perilla leaves, scallions, and Korean rice cakes are also highlights in the dish.
The Dak Galbi dish first gained popularity in Chuncheon in the 1960s when there was a demand for cheaper food after the Korean War. The chicken dish quickly became the most delightful comfort food for many in the region.
More about Korean Food
Food is a very big part of the local culture in South Korea and it’s a great opportunity for people to socialize, especially while enjoying a Korean barbeque.
Rice and noodles are definitely the two major staple foods in South Korea as well as Kimchi. Historically, various kinds of grains played a big role when rice was still too expensive for common folks.
As for meats, beef and chicken have long been the two major sources of protein although pork has been eaten since antiquity as well. Fish and Seafood are popular as well with various dishes to choose from, especially in the coastal cities.
North Korean food vs South Korean food
The North Korean cuisine shares a lot of dishes with South Korea despite the two countries being separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Some dishes that are popular in both the north and south are Kimchi, Kimbap, Mandu, Sundae, Noodle dishes, and Rice dishes.
The biggest difference is that North Korean dishes are typically simpler than the South Korean dishes, and there are fewer regional dishes to choose between. With that said, there are many similarities as well due to the countries’ joint history.
What is your favorite food from Korea? Leave a comment below!