One of my favorite parts of going somewhere new is getting to taste all the different foods and is usually one of the first things I google when doing research about a place. I believe meals are a good way to experience a culture, especially in Korea, because they are such a social experience. This is one of my favorite parts about eating here. Most barbecue or stews are eaten from a shared grill or pot. Overall, dishes are usually meant to be shared with each other rather than being individual.
Korea is known for their spicy foods. It is common for a Korean person to ask visitors if they like spicy food or if they think Korean food is spicy. If you are worried about the food being too spicy, many dishes can be adjusted by asking your waiter!
Here are some of what I believe to be must try dishes:
Kimchi – 김치
I would say one of the most famous Korean foods is kimchi. It is a staple of the Korean diet and eaten with almost every meal. Many people here believe it is not a meal unless there is kimchi. There are many different types of kimchi. The most popular and recognized is made from fermented Napa cabbages or radishes, and includes various seasoning, such as red pepper powder, scallions, salted shrimp, garlic, and ginger. Traditionally it was put in pots and stored underground to ferment, but now you can buy specialty refrigerators that are specifically for kimchi. The older the kimchi is, the more sour it becomes – which is my favorite!
In addition to Kimchi, Korea is also known for their barbecue. At most barbecue places, your group will sit in front of a grill and cook the meat yourself. The most popular types of meat to eat are:
Gamjatang – 감자탕
Gamjatang is my favorite food in Korea. It is a spicy stew made with the spine from pork and usually contains potatoes, onions, glass noodles, and perilla leaves. When served, the waiter will bring the stew partially cooked, and you boil it for a few minutes until the potatoes are tender. When eating, pull the meat off the bone and place the bones in the trash can provided.
Dakgalbi – 닭갈비
Dakgalbi is a popular dish among foreigners in Korea. It is stir-fried marinated chicken (usually a red pepper sauce) with green onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, rice cake, and perilla leaves. Usually a waiter will cook this for you. After eating, it is common to make fried rice in the same pan.
Budae-Jjigae – 부대찌개
Budae-Jjigae is an interesting dish that dates back to the Korean war. The name translates to army base stew. After the war, food was scarce in Korea, so it was common for individuals to smuggle canned meats and hotdogs from nearby American army bases. Koreans would then combine these with their own local vegetables and seasonings to make a spicy stew. Nowadays it is common for it to have spam, hot dogs, kimchi, tofu, baked beans, green onions, mushrooms, and sometimes a slice of American cheese. Originally when I heard of this dish, I turned my nose up to the idea of it, but eventually my friends and I went to try and it turned out to be really delicious…. just probably not the healthiest thing you could eat.
Bibimbap - 비빔밥
Bibimbap is a rice dish that is served with various vegetables, egg, and red pepper paste that you mix together. It can be served cold or in a hot stone pot.
Mul Naengmyeon – 물냉면
Mul naengmyeon is a cold noodle dish that originates from North Korea, but is now popular throughout Korea. The noodles long and chewy and placed in a tangy icy broth with a boiled egg, sliced cucumbers, and radishes or pears. When served, you are given scissors to cut the noodles and some mustard and vinegar to season the broth. It is common for Koreans to eat this after having barbecue.
Bingsu - 빙수
Bingsu is a shaved ice dessert. The most traditional is shaved ice with red beans and is drizzled with condensed milk. Nowadays you can find many varieties made with fresh fruit, cookies, chocolate, cheese cake, or brownies. When made with fresh fruit, it is a nice and refreshing, especially in summer.
If you’re really daring:
Sannakji – 산낙지
Sannakji is raw octopus that is served immediately after being chopped alive and then lightly covered in sesame oil. It is still moving while you eat it, making for a very interesting experience as it wriggles in your mouth and you can feel it suction to your tongue and throat.
Photos and blog post courtesy of Kristen Lefebvre