As much as I love food around the rest of Asia, I find myself craving my favorite Korean flavors more and more often.
Just the other day, we were at dinner with another traveler we’d just met. When he found out we spent a year teaching English in South Korea, the conversation quickly turned to food. “What’s your favorite Korean dish?” he asked innocently, not knowing what he was in for.
I started reciting a long list, making noises that may have sounded to an eavesdropper as if I was reading a romance novel. So there I was, eating a perfectly delicious meal in India, and dreaming instead about Korean food.
Before moving to South Korea, we didn’t know much about this country’s cuisine, but man oh man, did we learn!
We’re going to share with you some of our favorite Korean foods (some popular dishes and some lesser known ones), partly to inform others who, like us, don’t know much about this cuisine. The other reason for this article for the unadulterated pleasure of lusting over these descriptions and pictures until we find a Korean restaurant where we can indulge.
The kimchi cravings are real, guys. And it’s becoming quite the problem.
1. Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) - Korean Barbecue
Let's start with one of the most well-known meals in Korea, samgyepsal (also called Korean barbecue). Patrons will order either pork or beef and immediately be served enough side dishes to fill your table. You'll man the grill and cook the meat to your liking. When ready, grab a lettuce leaf, fill with grilled garlic, pickled onions, kimchi, hot peppers (or any other side dish) and a few cuts of meat. Wrap it all up, eat and enjoy. Wash it down with cold Hite beer or soju.
Try this at home: For a spin on the original, one of our favorite food bloggers we follow, Pinch of Yum, has a mouthwatering Korean BBQ Steak Bowls with Spicy Sesame Dressing recipe that you'll have to try!
2. Jjim dak (찜닭)
Stir together flat noodles, hunks of chicken, potatoes, peppers, a finger-licking sauce, and you have one of the tastiest Korean meals ever made. Add cheese and you're in heaven. This dish is famous in the historic city of Andong, where was created. Jaws Jjim Dak was one of our favorite chains that serves only this meal.
3. Kimchi - (김치)
Most people immediately picture of kimchi when they think of Korean cuisine. And it's no wonder why. This staple food is served with every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner all year round. Kimchi is a fermented vegetable showered with many different spices. The most typical vegetable is cabbage, but there is also cubed radish, green bean, cucumber and hundreds more. Depending on which region of Korea you are in, kimchi is prepared differently. For a really unique experience, take a kimchi-making class in Korea. Read more about our Korean cooking class here.
4. Bulgogi (불고기)
Ok, vegetarians look away, because this one is for the meat lovers only. Bulgogi is a pile of marinated beef grilled right at your table with mixed vegetables. Watch the meat cook as you salivate, and when ready pick a piece off the grill and dip it in the accompanying sauce. Bulgogi restaurants are sprinkled in every city, but the best one we found was Sandeomi Bulgogi (산더미 불고기) translated "Mountainous Bulgogi". It is located in the Hongdae neighborhood in Seoul.
5. Bibimbap (비빔밥)
Bibimbap translates to "mixed rice", and is a great "beginner" meal to Korean cuisine. This dish was actually one our very first dishes in Korea, and we've loved it ever since. Ingredients can vary, but typically, you will receive a bowl with mushrooms, carrots, greens, radishes, bean sprouts, (some other Korean root vegetables that don't translate to English), and gochujang (chili pepper paste). And sometimes a fried egg will be the cherry on top. Just add as much rice as you want, mix thoroughly and enjoy. This is a great option for vegetarians! (Tip: Mix this dish with your chopsticks, but eat it with a spoon. Koreans will laugh at you if you attempt to pile it into your mouth with chopsticks)
6. Kimbap (김밥)
When you pack food for a picnic in North America, you immediately think: sandwiches, fruit and trail mix. In Korea, you think: kimbap. These easily portable rolls are referred to as the "sushi of Korea", but they are actually more different than alike. Yes, it's in a roll and yes, it has seaweed and rice, but kimbab is lighter and can come in many different varieties like shrimp and bulgolgi.
7. Dak Galbi (닭갈비) - Stir-fried Marinated Chicken
If you walk into a restaurant and there are skillet-sized holes in every table, you've entered a dak galbi shop and you’re in for a spicy treat. Cooked right in front of you, the waiter stir fries chicken, green onions, mushrooms, cabbage, dumplings and a heap of galbi sauce. As the ingredients mix, take in the sizzling sight and smells. When finished, the waiter turns off the burner and you can eat it straight out of the hot pan... or be more civilized and pile some on a plate. Your choice.
8. Kimchi Jjigae (김치찌개) - Kimchi Stew
Kimchi Jjigae is a traditional Korean stew made of (you guessed it) kimchi and many other vegetables. It can come with meat or tofu or noodles. Caution: It can get spicy, but dayummmm, it's good.
9. Jajangmyeon (자장면) - Black Noodles
Inspired by a Chinese dish, these noodles are topped with a black bean sauce, diced pork, and mixed vegetables. It's always served hot, perfect for a cold Korean winter day. This was a popular dish served at our school lunches, and was all the teacher's favorite day.
10. Hotteok (호떡)
Savory, sweet, crunchy and delicious. If you see one of these stands, GET ONE! You will not regret it! They are typically only 1,000 or 2,000 won, and will make your day. Seriously, wait for this description... It is a dough ball stuffed with cinnamon and sugar, flattened and fried, and then cut open only to stuff it again this time with more cinnamon, sugar, and mixed nuts. The best place to find this tasty street food is in BIFF square in Busan.
11. Dubu Buchim (두부부침) - Fried Tofu
I get it: tofu isn't all that appealing to many people. However, I believe that dubu buchim could change even the most picky eater's mind. This is served as side dish and is very easy to make at home. In fact, we made it ourselves many times. Simply fry slices of tofu, mix in green onions and garlic and top with a soy sauce reduction (made with sugar, black pepper and sesame oil). Bonus: add spicy chili peppers and sesame seeds!
14. Pajeon (파전) - Korean Savory Pancakes
No, you won’t have these in the morning with syrup, but more likely as a side dish at lunch. Sautéed veggies with a savory batter and formed into bite size flat cakes, makes it easy to eat half a dozen in one sitting. (Pictured on the left side, with Dubu Buchim on the right)
12. Patbingsu (팥빙수) - Shaved Ice Dessert
If I were to open any kind of Korean restaurant back home, I would open with a patbingsu (or bingsu for short) shop. Bingsu is a giant bowl of shaved ice (or frozen milk) with a variety of toppings. It typically comes with a small shot glass of condensed milk to pour over the ice shavings, creating a melt in your mouth experience. Our favorites are strawberry and mango with cheesecake.
13. Peanut Rice Cake
Rice cakes are given out for celebrations big and small. When I see them being passed out, I quietly sigh to myself and regrettably accept (because it would be rude otherwise). Some are good... and other, well, not so much. Some have whole grains of rice in them or have beans intermixed. Not my favorite thing. One of my favorite types has peanut sauce (kind of like peanut butter) stuffed inside. If and when you get a choice of rice cakes, seek out the peanut one (the colorful bunch on the right side of the picture).
15. Maxim Instant Coffee
Coming to Korea, we thought we were not going to be able to find good coffee anywhere. Boy, were we mistaken. There are literally coffee shops on every street, but they tend to be pretty pricey. Many Koreans get by with Maxim instant coffee. There is always a stock pile at school, and before we knew it, we were addicted to the stuff. (My coffee-snob self would be disappointed.)
16. Makgeolli (막걸리) - Rice Wine
Rice wine, traditionally mixed with honey, pairs well with any Korean meal. Find the closest makgeolli house in your town, and try all sorts of flavors, such as pumpkin or strawberry. You can also get the stuff in a can. Look for the white can in the beer section that says "Icing". Our favorite flavor is grapefruit.
One thing only for Adventurous Eaters to try:
Yep, that's a pile of bugs you're looking at. Beondegi is a common snack sold by street vendors, and once you're familiar with it, you can usually smell it a couple blocks away. At first taste, they're salty and crunchy... and then, well, gooey and sort of fishy. I won't go on any further because I am gagging while writing this. Definitely not my kind of snack.