One of my favourite things about living in South Korea was being exposed to new cuisine that was entirely foreign to my taste palate. Aside from Bulgogi beef at Korean BBQ, I had never ventured out of my comfort zone to try all of the spices and flavours Korea has to offer.
From spicy and savory to sweet and tangy, Korean cuisine is a celebration of taste and texture. If you find yourself in this vibrant country, make sure to embark on a culinary adventure by trying these top 10 must-try foods.
1. Kimchi (김치):
Of course kimchi is at the very top of my list because this is the first thing I tried in South Korea. Kimchi is an iconic staple in Korean households and consists of fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or radishes, seasoned with chili pepper, garlic, ginger, and other flavorful ingredients. Kimchi is not just a side dish; it’s a cultural phenomenon that you can add to every meal, adding a burst of flavor and a touch of spice.
2. Bibimbap (비빔밥):
Bibimbap, meaning “mixed rice,” is a colorful and nutritious dish that showcases the beauty of Korean ingredients. A bowl of steamed rice is topped with an assortment of vegetables, meat (usually beef), a fried egg, and a dollop of spicy gochujang (red chili paste). The key is to mix everything together before biting into this blend of flavors and textures.
3. Korean BBQ (고기구이):
Now, even outside of South Korea, Korean BBQ is a very popular dining experience like no other. This is where you cook your own meat at your table, whether it’s succulent beef, pork, chicken, or seafood. Grilling your own food is interactive, fun and tastes amazing fresh off the grill. You get a variety of different foods and a great experience.
4. Tteokbokki (떡볶이):
Tteokbokki is a popular street food that’s both sweet and spicy. It’s chewy and squishy rice cakes swimming in a thick, fiery gochujang-based sauce. Often served with fish cakes and boiled eggs, this dish offers a delightful contrast of textures and flavors.
5. Japchae (잡채):
Japchae is a savory and slightly sweet dish made with stir-fried glass noodles, vegetables, and occasionally beef. The noodles are seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil, they go amazingly with Korean BBQ.
6. Pajeon (파전):
When I heard of a Korean Pancake, Pajeon is not what I was expecting in the slightest. This is a savory pancake filled with vegetables and sometimes seafood, such as shrimp and squid. The crispy exterior and tender interior make it a popular choice, especially on rainy days when it’s often enjoyed with a bowl of hot soy sauce for dipping.
7. Doenjang Jjigae(된장찌개찌개):
Doenjang Jjigae easily became one of my favourite Korean dishes. This hot and bubbling stew features tofu, vegetables like potatoes, mushroom and zucchini, beef or pork (beef for me), and soybean paste. This stew is perfect on a cold winter day and I adopted the Korean habit of drinking soup with a bowl of rice (sal 쌀) on the side.
8. Banchan (반찬):
Banchan refers to a variety of small side dishes served in Korean cuisine. This includes everything from kimchi to pickled vegetables, dried fish, and more. These little bites complement the main course and contribute to the communal dining experience that is so integral to Korean culture.
9. Jajangmyeon (자장면)
If you love noodles, look no further. Jajangmyeon is a Korean-Chinese fusion dish, where thick handmade noodles are covered in a black bean sauce, often with beef or pork and vegetables.
It’s also usually eaten by singles on Black Day, which takes places each year on April 14th. Those who do not receive gifts during Valentine’s Day wear black attire and gather to consume black-coloured food such as jajangmyeon.
10. Korean Fried Chicken (치킨)
You absolutely cannot visit Korea without trying the fried chicken. Whatever technique the Koreans discovered when it comes to frying chicken is absolute magic. The chicken is tender, juicy and flavourful, while the outside is crispy, crunchy and delicious. In Korea, fried chicken is often paired with beer, similar to wings and beer in North America. You’ll find plenty of Chicken & Beer restaurants and bars in every town.
South Korea’s culinary scene is an exploration of flavors and textures, with each dish telling a story of tradition, culture, and adaptation. From the fiery kick of spicy kimchi to the crunchy delights of Korean Fried Chicken, every bite is an adventure waiting to be savored. So, if you decide to visit or return to the streets of Seoul, or any other Korean city, don’t shy away from trying something new. You’ll never fully immerse yourself in the culture without sipping, slurping and biting your way through all that Korean cuisine has to offer. Your taste buds will thank you.