Korean cuisine is incredibly complicated. The choices go far beyond the typical bulgogi (marinated stir-fried beef), kimchi (salty & spicy fermented cabbage), and KFC (Korean Fried Chicken). Many of the domestically most popular Korean dishes can still only be found if you travel to Korea at the right time of year. These days there’s a large number of Korean dishes which are popular year-round, especially since the advent of refrigeration. But beyond those main meals, Koreans take the seasonality of foods very seriously. There are also certain korean foods you must try while in Korea.
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- 1 About Korean Food & Seasonality
About Korean Food & Seasonality
Other than importing some basics like onions, carrots, and spinach during the winter, Koreans tend to enjoy dishes made with fresh fruits in the spring and summer, and fermented vegetables with meat in the cooler months. Even in terms of drinks, lattes and americanos are by far the most popular in the winter, while fruit lattes and fruit-ades come out in droves as “specials” in the spring and summer.
In small towns like the one I live in, supporting local markets and farms is a source of national pride. Similar to neighboring Japan, each city and region of Korea is known for a specific food or foods. For example, my province of Gangwon is known for potatoes, while the island of Jeju is known for peanuts. When people visit Jeju Island, they specifically seek out peanut ice cream and peanut candies, because they were raised with that association of one place with one specific food. This carries over to other foods and contexts, as well.
For example there are foods like abalone, which people only eat in the context of festivals or other outdoor events (of which Korea has a lot). Luckily, most of these special Korean dishes are easy to find, if you know where to look. So here I’ve compiled my top ten must-try Korean dishes for first time visitors to Korea.
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1. Samgyetang (삼계탕)
Samgyetang is one of my favorite Korean foods, and widely thought to be one of the healthiest dishes you can eat. It’s basically Korean chicken soup, all homey slow-cooked broth and tender meat. The broth in the original version is clear, but there’s a pretty popular variation made with poison oak. The main reason people order it is for the chicken, however, which is small but served whole, so you pick off the meat as you eat it. Inside the bird is a soft mix of rice and a small amount of ginseng, jujubes, and ginko beans; you eat these with the meat & soup after dipping it in the salt served on the side, mixing up the flavors as you see fit. I put samgyetang at number one because it’s inevitably good for whatever ails you: bad weather, long day at work, terrible breakup, the flu, etc.
How Much It Is: ~₩10000 per bird
Where To Try It: at a restaurant specializing in the dish, as it takes hours to prepare each one
When To Try It: for lunch or dinner in the middle of winter
2. Coal Barbeque (숯불고기)
Korean barbeque has blown up in popularity in recent years, and with good reason. What makes Korean barbeque different is that here they have a grill set up in the middle of the table and bring out meat for you to cook yourself. In the case of coal barbeque, they have a small pit in the middle of the table where they come over with burning hot coals, place them in the pit, cover it with a grill, leaving you to your meal. As with all proper Korean meals, barbeque is also served with all types of side dishes, called banchan, which are eaten with the meat and change up the flavor so that you can customize your meal. The really traditional restaurants serve you while sitting on the floor, but in big cities it’s easy to find places with raised seating. For Koreans some of the most popular types of meat are samgyupsal (삼겹살), pork belly; galbi (갈비), ribs, usually of the pork variety; and hanu (한우), domestic Korean beef with marbling resembling that of Kobe beef from Japan.
How Much It Is: ₩8000-12000 per serving
Where To Try It: anywhere
When To Try It: it’s usually lunch or dinner food, eaten in groups
3. Fresh Seafood (신선한 해물)
Fresh seafood is one of the perks of being located on a peninsula. I’d recommend trying seafood in one of the three major destinations in Korea, in particular on the beautiful island of Jeju, where you’re never more than an hour from the coast. Many traditional Korean dishes already incorporate seafood, often in a dried form or in the broth of soups, but the real treat is trying fish caught fresh that morning. I’d recommend trying a fish stew or some boiled crab, and even sannakji (“live” octopus) if you’re feeling very adventurous.
How Much It Is: ₩10000 and up; varies a lot
Where To Try It: Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul, Jagalchi Fish Market in Busan, or at basically any restaurant on Jeju
When To Try It: warmer months, like March to October
4. Bindaeddeok (빈대떡)
Translated as “mung bean pancakes,” the name may not be appetising, but these harder-to-find Korean pancakes are absolutely delicious. But before you pull out any maple syrup, Korean pancakes are a savory meal, usually eaten as a snack while drinking. The typical Korean pancakes, pajeon, are made with potato and rice flour, lending a glutinous texture everywhere that didn’t have direct contact with the frying oil. But bindaeddeok is a heartier and somewhat healthier version of the typical pancakes, usually also containing kimchi, pork, and fresh mung bean sprouts. Unlike typical jeon, bindaeddeok are also usually consumed with Korean rice wine (makgeolli) rather than straight liquor (soju), savored rather than gulped down.
How Much It Is: ~₩8000
Where To Try It: Gwangjang Market (광장시장) in Seoul, at “Bindaeddeok Sunhuine” (look for or ask around for “빈대떡 순희네,” and double check they didn’t just take you to their friend’s place)
When To Try It: at lunch or dinner time with friends, over a bottle of makgeolli
5. Dolsot Bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥)
One of the very few vegan-friendly dishes in Korean cuisine, bibimbap means “mixed rice.” It’s basically a bed of cooked white rice topped with various vegetables and a spoonful of hot pepper paste, marinated beef and boiled egg optional. The “dolsot” part of the dish is actually a reference to the sizzling hot stone bowl in which the meal is served. The heat of the stone cooks the bottom layer of rice until it’s crispy, adding a beautiful textural element to it all. Koreans tend to have bibimbap earlier in the day since it’s not heavy, but it’s still filling enough to keep you fueled for the day.
How Much It Is: ₩7000-10000 depending on how fancy the restaurant is
Where To Try It: Jeonju is famous for it, but you can find good versions in the Insadong neighborhood of Seoul
When To Try It: brunch or lunchtime
6. Various Street Sweets
Korea has a lot of street foods, like most other Asian countries, but their desserts department is a bit lacking. So this is when we turn to street sweets. Most of these eats are rice flour-based breads of some kind, but there are exceptions, like goon goguma (군고구마), grilled sweet potato. My favorite is hoddeok (호떡), a thick and crispy rice cake filled with gooey cinnamon sugar & sesame seeds, but my friends really like bungeobbang (붕어빵), a fish-shaped sweet bread filled with red bean paste. These street sweets are most common in the wintertime, as in the warmer months the fruits-on-a-stick vendors come out in droves, and are also worth a second look.
How Much It Is: ₩1500-3000 depending on the sweet
Where To Try It: along the main road in small towns, and around the markets in bigger cities
When To Try It: all day long, and late into the night
7. Odeng & Ddeokbokki (오뎅 & 떡볶이)
Fish cakes & spicy rice cakes is the most common translation for each of these street eats, but it’s a stretch to call either of these foods “cakes.” Odeng is a long, spongey fish-based snack served on these massive skewers stuck in a vat of boiling broth. Ddeokbokki is a dish of small, chewy rice cakes served in a spicy, fishy sauce, and eaten with a toothpick. Even in the smallest of towns you can buy a few skewers of odeng and a little paper tray of ddeokbokki for cheap, making it a common afternoon snack. Note that odeng is actually the Japanese word for fish cakes, so you may also this snack advertised as “eomuk” (어묵) and ddeokbokki.
How Much It Is: ~₩3000 for both, but a little more in touristy neighborhoods
Where To Try It: anywhere, but especially around the biggest markets in the cities & the main downtown area in small towns. Bbalgan Odeng (빨간오뎅) is a popular fast food place which serves a good version of this.
When To Try It: as an afternoon or evening snack
8. Sun Dubu Jjigae (순두부 찌개)
“Sun dubu” means handmade or fresh tofu, while jjigae is a type of stew served in a sizzling hot stone bowl. And I do mean hot. The soft tofu curds float in a thin red broth colored by the heat of gochujang, Korean hot pepper paste. This is a stew most often served by itself as the centerpiece of a meal, while its counterpart of dubu jjigae is most commonly eaten after barbeque. While Koreans agree that the best place to try this stew is in Soon Dubu Village in Gangneung, the city where the 2018 Olympics were held, you can find great spots all over Seoul as well. I’ve found that people either love or hate the combination of soft, creamy tofu and spicy broth, so approach with caution!
How Much It Is: ₩5000-7000
Where To Try It: Soon Dubu Village in Gangneung
When To Try It: dinnertime, preferably with friends
9. Cold Noodles (물 냉면)
There are various types of cold noodles, called naengmyeon (냉면), which are often served after barbeque as an accompaniment to the oily meat. The bowls actually have ice in them, in a bid to keep the noodles consistently cold, so the flavor of the broth is strongest right after they’re served. My favorite variety of cold noodles is by far mul naengmyeon, which are made with buckwheat flour & served without hot pepper, making it a little sweeter than other types. All naengmyeon are served with two sauces, which I always forego, but I’d recommend trying with a bite or two to see if you like them.
How Much It Is: ~₩6000
Where To Try It: in a barbeque restaurant
When To Try It: in the dead of summer, accompanied by the leftover (still hot) pieces of meat from your barbeque
10. Fruit Bingsu (과일빙수)
Bingsu can be found across East Asia in its various forms, and is basically a fancy version of shaved ice. The most popular and “original” type of Korean bingsu is pat bingsu (팥빙수), which is just shaved ice topped with milk, sweetened condensed milk, and red bean paste. Along with most of my expat friends, I’m not a huge fan of red bean. So I always indulge in fruit bingsu when they’re in season; there are now a variety of types of ice you can find across Korean cities, but the traditional style is still my favorite. To give you an idea of what fruits to expect when, fruit seasons usually last six to eight weeks & begin in March with strawberries. They continue in order with plums, peaches, pears, and grapes (and those are just the most common flavors you can find bingsu in).
How Much It Is: ~₩7000-15000 depending on intricacy
Where To Try It: in a dessert cafe
When To Try It: in the evenings during warmer months (from March to October)
This is a guest post by Max of Damecacao.com
Author’s Bio: Max is unabashedly in love with food. Through her podcast & website, she helps you find & eat the best chocolate around the world. She recognizes chocolate bars like teens recognize Kardashians.