South Korean food culture has suddenly taken over every trendy food scene in many cities around the world. You may have noticed a few more pop up in your neighborhood in the past few years. Much of this has been down to the immense popularity of Korean American chef David Chang of Momofuku. Then came another famous Korean: Kpop star Psy, with his (let’s be honest here) one hit wonder “Oppa Gangnam Style” This opened the floodgates to more Korean TV dramas and music videos in the US and the rest of the world. Through this, many people have found themselves exploring Korean food in ways they never had before. No longer is it a poor man’s Japanese, Korean food is standing firmly on its own two feet and gaining a cult like following. I myself am obsessed with it, which is exactly why I booked a 3 weeks trip to Korea in 2019. My waistline hates me, but my heart is in love with everything South Korean puts on the table. Check out these 5 unique & delicious Korean food experiences you must try in South Korea!
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5 unique and tasty Korean food experiences you must try in South Korea
If sizzling street food is what gets your mouth salivating then you need to get yourself to Gwanjang Markets for dinner. Stroll through the bustling markets around 6pm to beat the crowds. Even then you will hear street food sellers calling for you to have a seat “Hurry, hurry! My food is the best, please, sit down” Plastic chairs and wooden benches adorn every food stall, allowing you watch on as the chefs create the food they have worked their whole life perfecting.
Cho Yonsoon has the most famous stall in Gwangjang markets. Her ever smiling face will be familiar to you if you watched her story on Netflix Street Food. Yonsoon was the face of the South Korea episode in season 1, her story was one of pain and redemption.
While she may not have a Michelin star, business is booming thanks to the show. Her fresh cut noodles are infamous with locals and tourists alike. Service is fast and unbelievably friendly.
Be sure to order a noodle soup and a side of Kimchi dumplings, they are delicious.
It is at Gwangjang markets in Seoul that you will also find another famous Korean dish. San-nakji. While the sight of small octopus pieces moving on your plate might out some people off, it must be stressed that the octopus is dead. The nerve activity in the octopus’ tentacles make the pieces move posthumously on the plate whilst served. Be sure to order this after you have at least sampled a few glasses of soju for courage. 6 people a year on average, die from eating “live” octopus. So chew carefully!
Korean bbq food
Unless you are a vegan, you will no doubt be trying Korean bbq while you are visiting South Korea. Bbq is best with a charcoal grilling station, it adds smokiness to your meat and helps with the Maillard reaction. You want those little pieces of charred meat and caramelized sauce from the marinade because it adds flavour.
Many Korean BBQ places will cook the meat for you when they see that you are a tourist. If you aren’t very confident, I suggest allowing them, especially the first time. They will show you how to dip the meat into the ssamjang (a slightly spicy dark red paste sauce) and wrap it in a perilla leaf to eat.
Splurge and order the Korean Beef called Hanwoo. It’s sublime, a good cut will be expensive, trailing only behind a cut of Kobe beef, but of so worth it.
Because of the high price of beef in Korea, many BBQ places will focus on selling pork cuts, in particular pork belly. It’s a high fat content cut of meat, which locals devour.
It is also worth trying their seasonal mushroom selection. These often vary month to month and also between restaurants.But, king oyster mushrooms are usually available all year round and are delicious dipped in the sesame oil and salt.
Along with the meat you order for the bbq, you will also be given an array of banchan. These side dishes can be simple or elaborate. Many banchan dishes are various types of pickled vegetables such as radishes or cabbage (the infamous kimchi) or cold noodles. It’s worth noting that in South Korea banchan is free and replenished if you want more, unlike in the US. I think I ate my weight in free kimchi several times!
Cooking classes in South Korea
What better way to know a culture than through sharing food and cooking together. There are many cooking classes available to book online (Mine was through airbnb experiences if you use their affiliates?) And the beauty of this one, was that the class was held in their home.
I’d recommend booking into a cooking class with a market tour as soon as you arrive in South Korea. The teacher will be able to explain all of the ingredients as you walk through the market which will help you when you are in restaurants. It’s always more enjoyable to know what you are ordering!
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We strolled through a quiet and very suburban market in Seoul selecting ingredients for the class. In the class we made vegetable japchae, a sweet potato cold noodle dish along with kimchi pancakes. One to other attendees asked to make Gamjatang, a dish I had never heard of, but it was a delicious meat stew. Sitting down to enjoy all of the delicious food, plus extra barchan dishes that were pre-made, was a real treat.
The cooking class gave use more insight into the daily life of a local Korean. From buying the produce to creating the dishes, it was a great foodie experience that you just don’t experience in a restaurant. After the class we received a copy of all of the dishes we made so we can recreate them after our vacation for years to come.
The Noryangjin fish markets in Seoul are a must see foodie destination. While in many food markets around the world have their fish on ice. Here in Noryangjin fish markets, most of the fish is very much alive and swimming in tanks.
To ensure your fish is as fresh as possible it is killed and filleted in the market. The fishmonger can prepare your fish into sashimi to takeaway. Or you can take your fish upstairs to one of the restaurants where you pay for them to cook it for you.
Fish purchased at the markets is much cheaper than a normal restaurant even when you factor in the cooking costs upstairs. Expect to pay $10-$20 for cooking your dish, depending on how are wanting it served.
A simple grilled fish fillet with rice will only cost a few dollars.
Don’t like fish? Try a king crab or octopus! They have sea cucumbers and snails for the truely adventurous eaters out there.
If your just wanting a snack, there are deep fried shrimp for sale on the second floor. The stall is just opposite the escalators and the knife shop. An assortment of high end Japanese and Korean knives are available for purchase here along with various accessories such as knife rolls. Korean knives are a great practical souvenir for any chef friends you might have. Or for yourself!
If buying your fish downstairs is a little too daunting for you, there are items for purchase at the restaurants upstairs too. I opted to eat at the sushi restaurant so I could enjoy a cold beer with my sashimi, and sit down. The sushi restaurant also had a whole tune being carved up next door with was incredible to see. The quality of the tuna available there was phenomenal and well worth it, especially if you haven’t eaten at Tsukiji fish markets in Tokyo.
A word of warning, wear shoes. The floors are wet so your feet will get dirty if you wear sandals or anything else.
Temple stay with a monk chef
If you are a foodie fan who has watched episodes of the Netflix series Chefs Table, you may recognize Jeong Kwan. She is also known as the monk chef, however, ask if she considers herself a chef, she will laugh and say no.
Baeksangya temple in the southern region of South Korea will host hungry travelers for a weekend temple stay.
While there you will learn more about buddhism and interact with an English speaking monk, Hyo Myeong Sunim. Sunim (which actually just means “monk” and his preferred term) actually studied in the US and New Zealand before returning to South Korea. He will guide you around the temple and teach you about the culture.
But the pièce de résistance and the main reason every food loving visitor to South Korea wants to visit the temple is to attend one of Jeong Kwan’s cooking classes. For as famous as she is, the monk chef will still hold a weekly cooking demonstration for guests who want to learn.
It truly is a treat. Jeong Kwan doesn’t speak English, so a translator is available the entire time. Every ingredient is spoken about and explained. From how it is grown in the garden just outside, to how it is harvested and prepared.
Temple food is a very special thing to try while you are in South Korea. It is a sublime experience as all of the food is prepared with utmost care and respect for each ingredient. Interestingly, they do not use garlic or onions when cooking temple food. Jeong Kwan makes all of her own syrup flavors vinegars and pickles.
After the class is over, the students are able to sample around 15 different dishes. Vegans and vegetarians will rejoice! Everything is vegan friendly, as all Korean temple food is.
South Korea is an absolute food lovers haven. There is something there for everyone. Just make sure you come here hungry, because you won’t want to miss out on any of the delights! Let us know what your favorite Korean dish is below.
This is a guest post by Rachel from the blog Roundtheworldrachel.com
Author’s bio: Rachel from Roundtheworldrachel.com is a superyacht chef and world traveller with over under 100 countries under her belt. She has essentially been countryless for the past 5 years while travelling on yachts. She blogs about food and adventures and likes to show the local side of the destinations she travels. You can follow her adventures on Facebook.
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