The 10 Best Korean Foods to Try in Korea
So you’ve been in Korea a few weeks, and you’re finally tired of barbecue? Next time you’re out ‘n about and don’t know what food to order, try one of these delicious, traditional Korean dishes.
A self-described glutton and foodie, Anthony shares the best food he has found over the last three years of living in South Korea. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, Anthony enjoys catching buses without knowing where they’re going, and stuffing too-big chickens into tiny ovens for Christmas.
Odds are, unless you’re from a large city in the continental US (and have an adventurous appetite) that you’ve never tried Korean food. That’s all right, though, because you’ve probably got some idea of the kind of things they eat: Barbecue, right? And dogs? or is that just North Korea?
The fact is, if you’re in Korea for the first time, and especially if you can’t read the Korean alphabet yet, the sheer number of options is probably overwhelming. Even visiting one of the omnipresent barbecue restaurants can present difficulties: What’s the difference between Galbi (갈비) and Samgyeopsal (삼겹살)? (Answer: the first is rib meat, though without the bone, and the second is pork belly with three stripes of fat.)
To help you sift through the clutter, and to give you a foundation for your own culinary experimentation, here is a (totally subjective) list of the best Korean foods in Korea, and how to order them:
1. Gimbap (김밥)
Literally “laver-rice”, these are like Korean power bars. Grab one from the bus terminal before your long ride, snack on the triangular ones from the corner store, or sit down in any of the restaurants named after this versatile foodstuff to get a fresh one.
- Where to find it: Anywhere, everywhere, but especially at Gimbap Nara (Gimbap Nation/김밥 나라) or Gimbap Cheonguk (Gimbap Heaven/김밥 천국).
- Favorite variety: Yachae (Vegetable/야채) Gimbap for vegetarians; Chamchi (Tuna/참치) Gimbap for everyone else.
2. Bibimbap (비빔밥)
When people try to claim that Korean food is healthy, this is generally what they wave about to distract you from all the Samgyeopsal restaurants. It’s rice with mixed vegetables, mushrooms, and (often) thin slivers of pork. Taste it for flavor, ask for extra sesame oil (Cham Gireum/참기름) if it needs it, and then add loads of gochujang (red pepper paste/고추장) to prove that westerners can eat spicy food too.
- Where to find it: Gimbap Nara and Cheonguk sell very acceptable versions, with the edge maybe going to Nara. Better yet, any restaurant outside of the city will localize it with fresh produce native to the region. The best I ever had was at a goat restaurant down the road from Anapji Pond in Gyeongju, though Koreans will all tell you that Bibimbap from Jeollanam-do (the rural province in the southwest) is the best.
- Favorite variety: Dolsot Bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥), or hot-stone bibimbap, will come to you sizzling in a piping ceramic or stone bowl. If you’re lucky they’ll crack a fresh egg in top for you to mix in and let cook amongst all the food.
3. Gamjatang (감자탕)
In Korean, “gamja” means potato, but the “gamja” in “gamjatang” actually refers to the kind of meat (pork spine) used in this filling stew. It doesn’t really matter, though, because there’s potato in it too. Come those cold winter days (and they are coming, I’m afraid), nothing will make you warmer inside and cheerier out than a good scoop of gamjatang.
- Where to find it: Gamjatang specialty restaurants: look for 감자탕.
- Favorite variety: One hot enough to drive back a Seoul blizzard in February.
4. Jeon (전)
Best known by its most common variety, pajeon (Green onion jeon), it’s also frequently described as Korean pancake. It pairs amazingly with any kind of drink, but especially with Korean makkeolli (막걸리) or dongdongju (동동주).
- Where to find it: Usually near student/drinking areas, or streetside stalls. Find a good jeon and makkeolli bar and make yourself a regular.
- Favorite variety: Pa (green onion), and gamja (potato) are perennial favorites, but if you can find somewhere serving deodeok jeon(더덕전), made from a root found in eastern Gangwon province, then don’t ever leave.
5. Donkas (돈가스)
From Japanese tonkatsu, and before that German schnitzel, it’s a deep-fried piece of breaded pork, covered in a delicious sauce.
- Where to find it: Again, almost everywhere. Kimbab Nara/Cheonguk serves an OK donkas, but you’re better off looking for your local Japanese restaurant: There’ll be Japanese characters in the name; it’ll probably have a lantern outside.
- Favorite variety: It really depends on the restaurant, but my local serves something called Kimchi Nabe, which is donkas in a kimchi soup… mmm.
6. Bo Ssam (보쌈)
Anything with ssam (쌈) in it means a lettuce/leaf wrap, and in this case the bo refers to boiled pork served up on a platter with loads of different kimchis and delicious bits.
- Where to find it: Nolbu Bo Ssam and Halmeoni Bo Ssam (놀부 보쌈/할머니 보쌈) are two chain restaurants throughout the country that pretty much have the market cornered on all your boiled-pork-wrapped-in-leaves needs.
- Favorite variety: Make it as you like: Construct your own wraps and experiment! Don’t forget to add Ssam Jang (wrap paste). (Protip: Take one plain lettuce leaf, add a medium-sized piece of water kimchi (the white one) and a large piece of pork dipped in ssam jang, roll, enjoy.)
7. Kimchi Bokkeumbap (김치볶음밥)
Kimchi fried rice. If you’re having trouble adjusting to Korean foods, give this a try: I know several expats for whom this is the only Korean food they’ll eat.
- Where to find it: Gimbap Cheonguk/Nara, or any local equivalent, like Myeongin Mandu (명인 만두).
- Favorite variety: Add some tuna (chamchi/참치) for added protein. Add cheese for goopy goodness.
8. Naengmyeon (냉면)
Cold noodles. Choose between mulnaengmyeon (물냉면), noodles in an icy broth with mustard and vinegar, and bibimnaengmyeon (비빔냉면), the drier, spicy variety. At the best places they’ll serve it with a plate of spicy pork to mix into the noodles.
- Where to find it: Not really a where but a when: come the first hint of summer heat and you’ll see red flags with the character 냉 above the character 면 on every street corner.
- Favorite variety: Go bibim for the most flavor, so long as you can handle your spicy food.
9. Japchae (잡채)
Originally a court dish exclusively for royalty, it can now be enjoyed by everyone who knows to order it. Glass noodles and julienned vegetables are tossed with thin strips of beef in a subtle sauce.
- Where to find it: Chinese restaurants – they look a lot like Japanese but the Asian characters in the name are more complex.
- Favorite variety: Most Chinese restaurants will do these cool half/half single servings, like half japchae and half jjajangmyeon (a noodle dish with thick black sauce), or half jjambbong and half jjajang. Go with the japchae/jjajang if they offer it.
10. Tangsuyuk (탕수육)
Basically sweet and sour pork, it’s the one Chinese dish you’ll get in Korea that might be vaguely familiar. Always served in party sizes, if you have it delivered the fried pork bits will come separately from the sweet and sour sauce and you get to pour the latter over the former. Great food for your house party: do this instead of that fatty, disappointing fried chicken you’re always getting.
- Where to find it: Like the japchae, at your local Chinese restaurant. Small places with little old ladies are best. Strike up a language-not-withstanding friendship with the cook/owner/manager to get loads of free mandu.
- Favorite variety: The kind that steams, and all your friends dive into at once.
If you want to learn more about Korean food, cooking, and restaurants, check out ZenKimchi as a good place to start.