So you find yourself in South Korea and don't know what to eat, or maybe you are planning your trip and want to plan out your meals before you arrive - no judgement.
First, you will need to know that people think of food a little different in South Korea. For example, I had this exchange with a street vendor, in Korean;
Me: Hi, what type of kimbap is this?
Man: It's vegetable kimbap.
Me: Great, one please.
I unwrap it to find not only that this kimbap contains ham but it also contains fish cake. This is an experience many people cite, including my vegetarian friends much to their lamentation. It seems, based on our experience, that ham is not considered meat. Nor is it fully understood yet, what vegetarian (and vegan) eating requirements. Restrictive diets are relatively new to this land so if you are; vegetarian, vegan, gluten/dairy intolerant, do your research and know what foods you can eat. You may find that whilst you are told there is no fish in something, the entire dish may have been prepared with fish broth - the connection is seldom made.
All that aside, South Korea has some seriously amazing culinary offerings and I have come to love, nay crave, many dishes on this list. Without further ado, here is what, I consider, to be the 'must eats' of South Korea.
1. Chicken and Beer (Chimek)
It's just chicken and beer right? The truth is Korean fried chicken is so far from what we know. It's batter is light and super crunchy, far from the heavy spiced crust we have come to associate with our chicken fix in the west.
Paired with pickled raddish, fried tteok, and shredded cabbage with fruity mayo, you will wonder why this craze has not picked up around the world. Korean fried chicken and beer is so popular it has it's own word - chi (for chicken) and meck (the korean word for beer) together makes chimek.
Our favourite chicken joint is Chicken Mania. The best offerings; padak (green onions and tangy wasabi-esque sauce) and yangnyeom (sweet spicy sauce). The miraculous thing about Korean chicken is, the fact that it remains crunchy regardless of being heaped with amazing sauces.
Expect to pay around W16,000 per plate of chicken, one plate can serve two people. Prices can vary depending on selection and the chicken shop, and whether you select boneless or not.
2. Yukgaejang (육개장)
This is my personal favourite dish. A combination of warming, spiced broth, fall apart beef brisket, thick stems of leeks, lashings of gosari (fernbrake), coupled with steaming rice to soak it all up.It is absolute heaven in the winter time.
Yukgaejang is a cheap meal, I usually pay between W5,000 - W7,000 for a bowl and it comes with rice. Any more than this and it should be overflowing with meat and pretty special to be worth the price.
This is probably the dish you associate with Korea, after all it is listed as it's national dish. Usually it is a bowl of rice, presented with assorted vegetables, gim (dried seaweed), an uncooked egg (to be mixed in) and gochujang (spicy red pepper sauce).
It comes in a number of different varieties, including; with meat, without, with seafood, and hot stone bowl bibimbap (dolsot bibimbap). Dolsot its a great way to enjoy bibimbap, wait a couple of minutes, once it reaches your table, to allow the rice on the bottom to get crunchy, adding a great new texture to the meal.
A bowl of bibimbap should set you back no more than W6,000 for the standard or dolsot. If you add meat, or seafood expect to pay more. For the Jeonju bibimbap experience expect to pay W12,000.
4. Hotteok (호떡) Exploring the streets in Seoul on a cold winters night, or any night, cannot be complete without one of these steaming pockets of deliciousness. It is a circular disk of dough cooked, generally on a flat top. The generally come in two variations; yachae (vegetable with noodles) and sweet (honey, cinnamon and sometimes nuts).
My favourite vegetable hotteok can be found near Namdaemun markets, just look for a long line. They are cheap, filling and tasty. Usually costing no more than W2,000, for a big one.
5. Gimbap/Kimbap (김밥) South Korea's answer to the sandwich. Kimbap, or gimbap, is a ubiquitous snack or meal that is found on most streets and in all markets. It is similar to sushi, however there is no uncooked fish, it almost always contains some sort of cooked meat and fresh vegetable combination.
Regardless of the filling you select, the insides are wrapped within a healthy slather or white rice and wrapped up in a sheet of dried seaweed (gim). My favourite kimbap creations arel tonkatsu - crumbed pork cutlet, and spicy pork - spicy pork and stacks of salad.
Gimbap is cheap and cheerful, depending on the size of the roll it could set you back anywhere between W500 - W3,500 per roll.
6. Korean BBQ
Korean BBQ is becoming quite famous around the world. Usually it is pork, but I'm not a big pork fan so I tend to lean towards the all you can eat BBQ joints. Now, when I first moved to South Korea I was stunned at the price of meat so I really cannot fathom how these all you can eat places can keep in profit given the meat prices.
That aside my favourite BBQ place is Dino Meat. You will find this chain around one hour from Seoul in a number of locations. The real draw card for me is the amount of beef on offer. The cuts are good, and the meat is great quality.
It's a great way to meet up with friends, share a drink and chat. The beauty of Korean BBQ is that you grill the meat directly in front of you at a circular BBQ in the middle of the table. This allows you to select whatever meat your party desires and cook it just the way you like.
An all you can eat session will set you back around W17,000 per person. Once you see that one steak in Korea can cost upwards of W30,000 you will see the value.
7. Jimdak (젬닥) I like to think of Jimdak as a treasure chest. It is usually served in a deep dish swimming in dark sauce. is a mix of braised chicken, vegetables, noodles and dumplings - the whole thing can be covered in cheese, if that's your thing.
The sauce is slightly sweet and a little spicy, depending on your preferences. It also can contain tteok, a chewy pillowy rice cake.
8. Convenience store food (and crazy spicy ramen)
I will miss the affordable food that is both tasty and quick - and widely available in all cities around Korea. Low on money - grab a kimbap from the GS25. It may not be the best one you will ever have, maybe it will, but it's cheap. There are a great range of ready to go meals, snacks, and instant ramen available from any number of South Korea's convenience chains.
A 'kimbap triangle' can cost between W500-W2,000 depending on size and filling. A kimbap roll can set you back between W800 - W2,500 depending on size (the most expensive is the jumbo tonkatsu which is suprisingly delicious). You can also pick up lunch boxes for around W3,000.
9. Banchan (반찬) You will quickly come to love banchan, the Korean word for side dishes. Each restaurant has their own and even if they have the same dish it will always taste different. Banchan usually come in the guise of vegetable dishes, and sometimes steamed egg is served (this is great).
South Korea's most famous side dish is kimchi, pickled and fermented radish. Some people love it, some hate it. If you don't like one, keep trying it, there are over 100 different varieties of the pungent pickle
The best thing about it is that it is FREE! So worry not when food you have not ordered is placed in front of you. It's banchan, if you get through it all you can always ask for more 'toh chu say oh'.
10. Dakgalbi (닭갈비)
Another incredibly famous dish in South Korea is Dakgalbi. Originating from Chuncheon, an hour inland from Seoul via the ITX. This dish contains chicken, leek, potato and tteok - all smothered in a fire red sauce. It is cooked in a bull pan in the centre of the table, right before your eyes. It is served with perilla leaves, to wrap the meat in.
To eat the best version of this dish head to Chuncheon. We have written a blog about there, here, helping you to find the best place to eat.
Whether it is a snack or a meal South Korean food is quite unique. It can be wonderfully spicy, comforting, and a world of different textures. So get out there and enjoy it all.