Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia. However, few Westerners would fall in love with Korean food at first sight, as it is known for many spicy and fermented dishes. Nevertheless, like all acquired tastes, it is addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan. The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi, typical side dishes include bean sprouts (kongnamul), spinach (shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.
The ubiquitous kimchi (gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and may be a bit of an acquired taste for visitors as it can be quite spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (ggakdugi), cucumbers (oi-sobagi), chives (buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang, a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang, a hot (or not so hot) chilli paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi in the city of Chuncheon on the east coast. See the various city articles for more details.
A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Be aware that eating is deemed a group activity in Korea, and some restaurants may charge a little bit extra or up to double the stipulated price for a lone patron, or on rare occasions, be uneasy with serving them at all.
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
- Bunsik are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
- Kogijip, literally meaning "meat house", are where you'll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
- Hoejip, "raw fish house", serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hoe in Korean, and complementary side dishes. You'll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
- Hansik. The full course Korean meal, short for hanjeongsik, this Korean haute cuisine originated with banquets given at the royal palace. The course starts with a cold appetizer and porridge juk. The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
- Department Stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.
"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi, which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi, which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad (pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (muchae) and some chili-soya paste (ssamjang) and then devoured.All are optional, so be creative.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners, tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon, instead common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap, served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap, sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki, which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups and stews
Soups are known as guk or tang, while jjigae covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (eg. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions jjigae include doenjang jjigae, made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae, made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae is a interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang, a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang, a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang, made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk and the dumpling soup manduguk, but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk, a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans are great noodle lovers too, and the terms kuksu and myeon span a vast variety of types, sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as W3000-4000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon are a Korean speciality, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.
Japchae is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon for example.
Jajangmyeon is the Korean version of the northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic — kind of like a tomatoless spaghetti bolognese. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet.
Finally, u-dong are thick wheat noodles, similar to the Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe, pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang.
Another cooked specialty is haemultang, a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Jeon, jijimi, jijim, bindaetteok and buchimgae are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (pa). Haemul pajeon, which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe. Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. If you ask for "no gogi" they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija, a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared!
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi ("water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables.
On the bright side, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.