When friends and family visit us in Korea we make sure they try everything on this list. To us, these Korean foods have become strong symbols of Korea. I’m not for a minute saying that these five iconic Korean foods are the only foods you should try but if you’re new to Korean food or short on time, then this is the perfect starting point. They are easy to find, even if you’re visiting Korea for the first time. I hope you try them all!
There is probably nothing more quintessentially Korean than kimchi. It’s served with every meal, included in many soups and stews and when served with rice, it can be a complete meal. Happily, for the traveler, kimchi is served at almost every restaurant and with every meal in Korea. Simply order anything and a small dish of kimchi will come along with it. That’s the magic of Korean side dishes! In my opinion all kimchi tastes great, but there’s a whole world of flavors, quality and types of kimchi to be explored. However, for the first-time kimchi eater, you’re looking for a red colored cabbage in a side dish. Dig in and enjoy!
- Korean BBQ
The western influence is strong, but Korean BBQ retains a uniquely Korean way of preparing and eating. To get the full Korean experience, you need to know how to eat it right.
You’ll be served a basket of lettuce leaves, take one or two leaves, spread on some ssamjang (the earthy red sauce that will always be served with BBQ) and then add a few pieces of BBQ meat. Next, gather up the leaves to make a little parcel and eat the whole thing in one go. No little bites, just one incredible mouthful! The combinations of flavors and textures is out of this world!
To find a BBQ place look for restaurants with grill plates set into the table with extractor vents above – that’s a clear sign you’ll be eating BBQ. Next choose your type of meat. Most Korean BBQ restaurants will only serve one variety. Pork is the most popular by far, followed by beef, then chicken with the occasional place serving duck. You can tell which meat is served by the picture of the animal on the front of the restaurant. If you look like you don’t know what you’re doing, the staff will always come and help you cook the meat. Even if you do know what you’re doing, they will often still take care of the cooking for you!
2b. Soju – not a food, but so very Korean!
It’s customary to enjoy Soju – Korea’s national drink with Korean BBQ. You’ll see the green colored beer shaped bottles everywhere. Don’t be fooled by the beer bottle shape, think more like vodka – ideally consumed in shots, or mixed with beer to make a Soju cocktail. There’s many a tale of the unsuspecting tourist consuming large quantities of Soju and waking up with the hangover to end all hangovers – but not to worry, Korean’s have a cue for that – Haejang-guk or hangover soup, but that’s another article for another day.
The most important thing to know about bibimbap is that there are two main types. Plain bibimbap and dol sot (stone pot) bibimbap. By far my favorite is dol sot bibimbap. Dol sot bibimbap will be served to you sizzling hot. While you eat your bibimbap the sesame oil layered underneath the rice and the heat of the hot stone pot crisp up the rice giving you a delicious layer of golden crispy rice at the bottom – it’s heavenly!
In case you haven’t heard about bibimbap before, it’s a beautiful dish consisting of a layer of rice topped with neatly arranged, colorful vegetables. The dish is topped with an egg (can be anywhere from raw to well done) and a dollop of gochujung, Korea’s famous spicy and sweet red pepper paste.
Bibim translates to ‘mixed’; so that’s what you need to do. Get your spoon and chopsticks and thoroughly mix all the ingredients until every vegetable and every grain of rice is coated in the red pepper sauce. Of course, if you’ve ordered the stone pot version, don’t forget to leave a small layer of rice untouched so it will go crispy while you eat – it’s very important!
Bibimbap is best eaten in the small local Korean cafes doted all around most neighbourhoods. Just walk in and ask for bibimbap or dol sot bibimbap. If they don’t have it (uncommon but possible) just move on down the street to the next Korean café you come to. You can watch a video I made on finding, ordering and eating bibimbap here.
- Mandu, Korean for dumplings
The plentiful supply of freshly steamed mandu is by far one of my family’s favorite things about Korea. Many streets feature steaming round metal pots indicating that freshly cooked dumplings are awaiting the hungry shopper. The most common fillings are pork, pork and kimchi and shrimp with pork. It’s hard to find any other fillings, but who cares, they taste amazing! The kimchi adds a bit of a kick but is usually not too spicy.
You will always be served a little dish of mandu dipping sauce which is a mix of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sugar and some green onions. I suspect this simple sauce has been perfected over generations because it compliments the dumplings so perfectly.
Head to any food market in Korea and you’ll find steaming pots of cylinder-shaped rice cakes cooked in a sweet and spicy red pepper sauce. Tteokbokki is the perfect street food on a cold, wintry day, but still worth a try any time of the year! Tteokbokki is often served with sliced fish cake which gives the whole dish a non-distinct fishy flavor. If you’re not a fan of fish, try to find it served with out the fish cake.
The English version of the word looks a bit scary, but it’s said something like tok-bok-e.
This list is just the tip of the culinary iceberg of Korean food. I hope you can find all five of these iconic Korean foods when you visit Korean and enjoy them as much as we do.