South Korea food is deeply rooted in tradition and culture, and it has gained international popularity for its unique flavours and diverse dishes. The cuisine strongly emphasises fresh ingredients, balance, and presentation. It is a delightful blend of flavours, textures, and colours, offering a fantastic culinary experience for locals and visitors alike. Exploring the various dishes and dining customs can be an enjoyable and enlightening aspect of your trip to South Korea.
If you’re visiting this beautiful country, here are some must-try foods to savour:
Bibimbap is one of South Korea’s most beloved and iconic dishes, and its name translates to “mixed rice” or “mixed meal” in Korean. It is a colourful and nutritious dish that features a harmonious blend of various ingredients, all arranged beautifully on top of a bed of steamed rice. The beauty of bibimbap lies in the act of mixing all the ingredients together just before eating. Once served, you use your chopsticks to thoroughly mix the vegetables, meat, and egg with the rice and gochujang. This blending of flavours and textures results in a satisfying and flavorful meal that represents the essence of Korean cuisine. It is not only delicious but also provides a balanced combination of nutrients, making it a healthy and fulfilling choice. It’s a dish that is deeply ingrained in Korean culture and can be found in various settings, from traditional restaurants to street food stalls.
Bibimbap, a vibrant and enticing dish hailing from South Korea, is a true culinary masterpiece that tantalizes both the taste buds and the eyes. Translating to “mixed rice,” bibimbap offers a delightful symphony of flavours, textures, and colours artfully arranged on a bed of steamed white rice. The dish’s allure lies in its harmonious combination of fresh and cooked vegetables, each meticulously prepared and individually placed atop the rice. Tender spinach, crunchy bean sprouts, julienned carrots, succulent mushrooms, and earthy fern brake (go sari) grace the bowl, creating a mosaic of greens and browns. This vegetable array is complemented by a protein of choice, traditionally beef marinated in sweet and savoury bulgogi sauce, though chicken, pork, tofu, or seafood are equally inviting options.
Kimchi is a traditional South Korea side dish made from fermented vegetables, most commonly Napa cabbage and radishes, although there are many regional and seasonal variations of this dish. It holds a central place in Korean cuisine and culture, and its popularity has spread worldwide due to its unique flavours and health benefits. The taste of kimchi can range from mild to extremely spicy, and there are countless variations that incorporate different vegetables and seasonings. Some popular variations include baechu kimchi (cabbage kimchi), kkakdugi (radish kimchi), and oi sobagi (stuffed cucumber kimchi).
It offers numerous health benefits. As a fermented food, it promotes gut health and aids in digestion. It is also rich in vitamins A and C, as well as minerals like calcium and iron. The spiciness of gochugaru is believed to stimulate metabolism and improve blood circulation. It is deeply ingrained in Korean culture and plays a significant role in various traditions and celebrations. It is often served as a side dish during meals, and the sight of rows of kimchi-filled jars during the kimjang (kimchi-making) season is a cultural symbol of togetherness and community.
A delicious stir-fried glass noodle dish made from sweet potato starch, mixed with various vegetables and sometimes meat, seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil. Japchae, also spelt as “chapchae,” is a popular Korean dish known for its delightful and harmonious blend of flavours and textures. It is a stir-fried noodle dish made with sweet potato glass noodles, called “dangmyeon,” along with an assortment of colourful vegetables, thinly sliced meat (usually beef), and often seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil.
It is not only a delicious dish but also a visually appealing one. The vibrant colours of the vegetables create an eye-catching array that tempts the appetite. The addition of sesame seeds or thinly sliced egg garnish adds a final touch of flavour and elegance. This is a beloved dish in Korean cuisine and is commonly served at various gatherings and celebrations. It is a versatile dish that can be served as a main course or as a side dish. Its mild and comforting flavours make it appealing to people of all ages, and it has also gained popularity internationally due to its delightful taste and healthy ingredients.
Tteokbokki is a beloved Korean street food and popular snack, known for its spicy, sweet, and chewy qualities. It is made with tteok, which are cylindrical rice cakes that come in various sizes and textures. The primary version of tteokbokki features garaetteok, a soft and cylindrical rice cake that has a satisfyingly chewy texture. It is often enjoyed as a street food, served in small stalls or food trucks throughout Korea. It is typically served in a small bowl or paper cup, making it easy to eat while walking around. The popularity of tteokbokki has led to various adaptations and regional versions, such as cheese tteokbokki, which includes melted cheese as a topping, adding a creamy element to the dish.
Beyond its street food status, tteokbokki is also a popular comfort food and is commonly served in Korean restaurants and homes. It is a dish that evokes feelings of nostalgia for many Koreans, as it is often associated with childhood memories of snacking on this tasty treat with friends and family. The combination of spicy, sweet, and chewy flavors, along with its accessibility and affordability, has made tteokbokki a beloved and iconic dish that represents the vibrancy and zest of Korean cuisine. Whether you’re a local or a traveler, trying tteokbokki is a must to experience the unique and delightful flavours of Korea’s street food culture.
Kimbap, also spelt as “gimbap,” is a popular Korean dish that resembles sushi but is distinct in its ingredients and preparation. It is a convenient and portable snack or light meal, often enjoyed on the go, at picnics, or as a lunchbox item. At its core, it consists of steamed white rice seasoned with sesame oil and salt, rolled in dried seaweed sheets known as gim. The rice serves as the base, and various ingredients are placed at the centre before rolling it all together.
It is not only delicious but also versatile, and people can get creative with their fillings, making it suitable for different dietary preferences and tastes. Additionally, it is an excellent option for vegetarians, as there are various plant-based fillings that can be used.
Korean BBQ (Gogi-gui)
Korean BBQ, known as “Gogi-gui” in Korean, is a popular and interactive dining experience that has gained international fame for its delicious grilled meats and unique dining style. It is a beloved culinary tradition in South Korea and an essential part of Korean food culture.
The key feature of Korean BBQ is that diners cook their own meat at the table using built-in grills or charcoal grills. The meal typically begins with an assortment of banchan, which are various side dishes served in small portions. These can include kimchi, pickled vegetables, seasoned greens, and other savory accompaniments that complement the grilled meat.
The main event of Korean BBQ revolves around the meat selection. Some of the most common meats used include:
Bulgogi: Thinly sliced marinated beef, often seasoned with a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, garlic, and sesame oil. Bulgogi is known for its tender texture and rich flavors.
Galbi/Kalbi: Beef short ribs marinated in a savory and slightly sweet sauce. The marinade typically includes soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and sometimes fruit like pear or apple for added tenderness.
Samgyeopsal: Pork belly, served in thick slices that become crispy and flavorful when grilled. It’s a favorite among many Koreans.
Dak-galbi: Marinated chicken, often served with vegetables like cabbage and sweet potatoes.