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Korea: 12 Foods to Try During Your Trip to Korea

Let me begin by saying that no real list can be made of the best Korean dishes. If I listed everything I ate and loved while living in Korea, the list would go on for ages. But, if you’re a first-time traveler to Korea and want to explore some of the best cuisine in the world, here is a list of a few favorites…

1. Samgyeopsal (삼겹살)

What is it? Grilled pork belly BBQ, optionally wrapped and eaten with lettuce, rice, bean sprouts, sauces, and other delicious veggies

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Samgyeopsal, or what you may also lovingly know as “Korean Barbeque,” is hands-down my favorite meal to eat in Korea. Although you may have tried it in your city’s “Koreatown” or a nice restaurant in your area, there is nothing like local, authentic samgyeopsal. You will be able to spot a BBQ restaurant by the tables; they have huge grills in the center and vents hovering over each one. When at the BBQ restaurant, they will give you an option of different cuts of meat, typically priced by person. Samgyeopsal is specifically pork belly. Cooking the meat over the central grill and putting together your favorite wrap of Korean meat is completely up to you. You’re the chef! Make sure you try all of the side combinations and sauces inside your wrap and don’t be afraid to ask for some rice!

Tip: Cook some of the sides (known collectively as “banchan” 반찬) on the grill as well. My personal favorite is adding some grilled kimchi to my wrap.

2. Tteok-bokki (떡볶이)

What is it? Stir fried rice cakes, paired with your choice of meat and/or veggies, and drenched in delicious sauce

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Spicy, well-cooked tteok-bokki is another personal favorite and arguably the food I miss the most living back in the United States. Tteokk is translated into rice cake, which is shaped into cylinders and mixed into a saucy stir fry dish named Tteokbokki. The combination of what can be put into a tteokbokki dish is endless; sweet potatoes, meats, onion, eggs, even cheese. No matter what you choose to have in your dish, make sure to keep your eye out for the spiciness level. This is determined by the Gochujang (고추장), or chili paste. The range of spiciness is pretty wide, and Korea is home to some of the spiciest food in the world. If you’re anything like me, the spicier the better!

3. Bibimbap (비빔밥)

What is it? Basically, a build your own rice bowl optionally topped with a variety of different meats, vegetables, and sauces

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Like Korean BBQ, most people outside of Korea have had their taste of bibimbap. Full of veggies and rice, bibimbap is a wonderful and casual meal to enjoy on a day out. The base is typically rice and, like Korean BBQ, what is placed inside is completely up to you. Some of the options on the table might be seaweed, carrots, meats, egg, radishes, bean sprouts, and sauces of varying spiciness. I loved stopping for this easy, lightweight dish for lunch, because I knew that the veggies would keep me on task the rest of the day. Just be careful what sauce you pick! That’s what will make or break the spiciness scale.

4. Hotteok (호떡)

What is it? A doughy pancake stuffed with brown sugar, honey, and sometimes peanuts or cinnamon

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Found in almost any classic Korean market, this tasty dessert is a delicious, sweet, and cheap treat. Essentially, it is a warm pancake with a brown sugar syrup filling. Perfect for the colder months, but delicious no matter what the weather may be.

5. Naengmyeon (냉면)

What is it? Long, thin buckwheat or sweet potato noodles served in chilled broth, often served with veggies on top

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Naengmyeon is known for being one of the best summertime dishes in Korea. It is a broth dish with long thin noodles, typically made of buckwheat. There are two common types to look out for- mul naengmyeon and bibim naengmyeon. Mul naengmyeon is often served in a clear beef or radish broth, while bibim naengmyeon is often in a red, spicy sauce. Cucumbers, fish, beef, radish, and boiled eggs are common additions to this dish.

6. Fresh Seafood

Like? Octopus, clams, mussels, squid...

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Surrounded by water, Korea is home to plenty of fresh and delicious seafood. Two of the best seafood locations I visited in Korea were the city of Busan, on the southernmost tip of Korea, and the island of Jeju, right off the southern coast. Korea is full of seafood rice rolls, hotpots of fresh shellfish, freshly cut fish, and (famously and controversially) even octopus that is still moving. I highly suggest roaming around the fish markets in seaside cities and tasting as much fresh seafood as possible. Make sure to stop by the surrounding restaurants to try the spicy dishes and cuts that are local to the region.

Have you heard of Haenyeo’s?

Haenyeo’s (해녀) are the female divers off of Jeju Island that have taken on the roll of bringing in fish and food to their villages for centuries. This rich and beautiful history is still a staple of the island and, in certain locations, you can go watch them out at work. If you have time, I highly suggest visiting the Haenyeo Museum (해녀박물관):

7. Fried Chicken

What is it? Chicken, fried and smothered with a variety of sauces

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Yes. You read that correctly. Listen, I have had my fair share of fried chicken. Living in both Chicago and South Carolina, I have taste-tested a wide variety. Korean Fried Chicken is a whole different breed of fried chicken. With a huge variety of flavors and styles, their beer and chicken combos (affectionately labeled “Chi-Maek” by the younger crowd) have become a classic stop on a night out drinking. Most places sell soy sauce, regular, and spicy varieties. Some of the best fried chicken I have ever eaten was smothered in gravy and onions, called “Snow Chicken,” which, as I type, still sounds like a stomach ache waiting to happen. Let me tell you, one well worth it.

8. Soju (소주)

What is it? Rice based liquor containing anywhere from 16.8% to 53% alcohol by volume depending on the type

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If there is one thing that I hope you’ve picked up from this article, it’s that Korean cuisine loves variety. Always looking for the next hottest flavor or combination, most good foods can be found in dozens of flavors. Soju is similar. Soju is the traditional alcoholic beverage you can find almost anywhere in Korea. Typically rice or sweet potato based and high in alcohol content, a typical bottle can be split amongst you and some friends (unless you are looking for a long night out). Soju is served out of the bottle into shot glasses, with each bottle generally holding 7 shots. There are many traditional and cultural rules surrounding the drinking of Soju, so keep an eye out when sitting down for some food and drinks with friends.

Some quick rules to drink by…

  • Always eat and drink together; many believe these two things go hand and hand

  • Avoid serving yourself first, and always ask others if they would like their glass filled first

  • The oldest, most senior person at the table generally pours the first shot

  • If a senior is pouring you a shot, hold the shot glass with two hands and turn your head to the side when you take it, to show respect. If you are pouring someone senior a shot, also pour with two hands.

  • If you are the senior, feel free to use only one hand throughout (and try not to abuse your power!)

9. Mandu (만두)

What is it? Korean dumplings

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Dumplings can be found around the world in many cultures, each providing a different take on this familiar food. Mandu is Korea’s version of the dumpling, full of meat and veggies to your liking, and fried or steamed depending on preference. Mandu soup is also a common dish in Korea, traditionally eaten on New Years, but enjoyed year-round by visitors.

Fun fact: It is said that the prettier a dumpling you can create, the more beautiful your children will be (my poor future children…).

10. Cafe Drinks & Treats

What is it? Coffees of all flavors and towering desserts of all kinds. Make sure to try Bingsu (빙수), a tradition dessert consisting of ice shavings and added flavors, topped with fruits, classic Korean red beans, and cream (see bottom right photo above)

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How many coffee shops did I visit during my time in Korea? Hundreds. I truly tried to visit as many different shops as possible. Since the millennia, coffee shops have become a hip trend amongst Koreans, leading to hundreds being opened on different floors of buildings all around the many cities of Korea. Novelty shops, game shops, beautiful crisp wooden shops - any kind of theme you can imagine. Pictured is some coffee from the famous lamb-themed coffee shop (yes, with real lambs present) and the poop-themed coffee shop, both located in Seoul. Even in the less touristy city I resided in, Daejeon, plenty of coffee shops could be found in my area, giving me the opportunity to try lattes of all flavors (green tea, sweet potato, beet, blueberry, etc.) and famous towering desserts of all kinds. A must try Korean dessert: Bingsu. This traditional dish has been transformed over the years, but typically consists of shaved ice topped with various fruits and flavors. Enjoy!

11. Citrus from Jeju

What is it? Tangerines and citrus fruits of different varieties, such as Hallabong, Putgyul, Citrus Kiyomi, and more...

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If you take a trip to the beautiful island off of Korea called Jeju, you will find the smell of citrus and salt water in the air. For this reason, Jeju Island is a popular honeymooning spot and a great place to relax and have some fresh fruit. Drive and wander around Jeju, and you will find fields upon fields of citrus trees growing beautiful fruit throughout their growing season.

Fun fact: The majority of Korea’s citrus is grown and imported from Jeju Island. Dol Hareubangs (large statues carved from the islands volcanic rock) can be found around the island and are thought to provide protection and fertility-and hopefully an abundant growing season!

12. Street Food

What is it? Fish cakes, Korean pancakes, seaweed wraps, blood sausage, corndogs, octopus, rice cakes, and all the fried food you could ever imagine

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Korea thrives on street food. What I love about Korea is how delicious, clean, and safe all of their street food is. Some classics are odeng (오뎅, fish cakes), pajeon (파전, Korean pancakes), gimbap (김밥, seaweed rice wraps), sundae (순대, blood sausage), gamja hot dogs (corndogs), octopus, rice cakes, and any sort of twigim (튀김, deep-fried food) you can imagine. Make your way to the area of Myeongdong (명동) in Seoul and you will find busy streets and twisting alleys lined with obscure and delicious street food beyond your wildest dreams.

What's your favorite Korean food? Let me know!

Any other suggestions? Let us know!

Written by Emi Lungmus

Edited by Anna McCarthy

Photos by Emi Lungmus


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