Our favourite food in Korea: 15 Top Korean dishes you need to try

Futuristic yet steeped in tradition, South Korea has many alluring features. One of the things that the majority of people will recognize worldwide is Korean cuisine. You can enjoy Korean food in many western countries, but there’s nothing like trying some of the best Korean dishes in their country of origin. Both historical and cultural changes shaped Korean cuisine into what it is today. Food remains a significant part of the national identity. For visitors, there’s much more to discover than kimchi. From bibimpap to the gogigui, let’s explore the top Korean dishes every traveller has to try during their time in the country!

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Food in Korea

An essential part of Korean cuisine is not just the food – it’s the whole experience. Korean meals are known for their versatility. Everything comes with side dishes called banchan. Moreover, you won’t see courses in traditional Korean establishments. From soups and mains to sweeter things, everything arrives at the same time. Korean dining is more laid back and less formal than in Japan, and the flavours and textures are often sharper and chewier. Since you can experience all four seasons in Korea, expect some seasonality in the food, too. For example, in the colder months, you’ll see a lot of highly nutritious and fermented foods. Kimchi may be the most well-known fermented Korean dish – you’ll discover that Koreans love to ferment many things beyond vegetables since fermenting is a long-running tradition in Korea. Rice plays a big part in all meals. It’s a staple ingredient in South Korea. So is garlic – unless it’s a sweet dish, garlic will likely be added. When it comes to meat, expect to see pork belly and thinly sliced beef sirloin. Some foods incorporate raw beef and egg. One thing you won’t see used in Korean cooking a lot is dairy.

Photo: 지원 이

1. Kimchi

It’s impossible to imagine South Korean food without kimchi, a quintessential part of Korean cuisine. Highly popular in western countries as well, kimchi is the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about Korean food. This popular side dish is known not just for its spicy flavour but also for its high nutritional value. While there are many variations of kimchi in Korea, they all consist of fermented vegetables. The most popular variation has napa cabbage, radish, ginger, chopped green onions, and garlic, all mixed in with chilli and salt before being left to ferment. Kimchi-making tradition dates back a couple of thousand years, which makes it a culturally significant dish in Korea. Commercially made kimchi is, of course, popular but Koreans love to keep the tradition of making kimchi at home very much alive. You’ll find that kimchi is served with all meals and sometimes used as a main component for various other dishes like kimchi stew or kimchi pancakes.

Kimchi | Photo: Chengzhu

The ingredients of Kimchi | Photo: Y. J.

Mr. Hudson highlight image

Kimchi may be the most well-known fermented Korean dish – you’ll discover that Koreans love to ferment many things beyond vegetables since fermenting is a long-running tradition in Korea

2. Bibimbap

You’ve probably heard of bibimbap, a staple traditional Korean dish that, just like kimchi, includes many variations and endless possibilities. A one-bowl wonder considered comfort food for many westerners tastes best when enjoyed in its country of origin. The name translates to “mixed rice”. The dish consists of steamed rice topped with assorted vegetables, and quite often beef and a raw or fried egg. Highly customizable, the bibimbap will usually include vegetables in at least five colours. That’s done not only for aesthetics but also for nutritional value. Furthermore, the five vegetables symbolize the five elements of life. The key to eating bibimbap? Mix it all together and enjoy!

Bibimbap | Photo: Vicky N.G

Photo: Jakob Jin

3. Tteokbokki

The first time you see tteokbokki, you may not quite understand what it is. Almost resembling pasta in red sauce, tteokbokki consists of boiled cylinder-shaped rice cakes called garaetteok, made from non-glutinous rice flour, cooked in red spicy sauce often paired with fish cakes, boiled eggs, and spring onions. It is a popular traditional Korean street food – you’ll see it everywhere in South Korea’s capital Seoul. While the red chilli sauce is the most common, you’ll find that there are several variations of this dish ­with curry, cream, or the dark brown jajang sauce. Due to the ease of preparation, it’s also a popular dish that can be quickly put together at home.

Tteokbokki | Photo: Marcin Skalij

4. Korean Barbecue (Gogigui)

Korean cuisine is not just about the food, it’s about the whole experience. Sharing plays a huge role, and that’s where Korean barbecue comes in. Also known as gogigui, it’s a real treat for any meat lover. Gogigui includes a gas or charcoal grill at the centre of the table, and everyone can enjoy grilling their own food, which includes various marinated meat cuts. The meat will always come with plentiful side dishes, including kimchi, of course. Short ribs or galbi and thin slices of sirloin or ribeye, known as bulgogi, are particularly popular and will often be marinated in a soy-based marinade with a touch of sweetness and the nutty flavour of sesame oil.

Photo: Yosoo Ha

5. Naengmyeon (Cold Noodles)

If you visit South Korea in summer, what can be better than enjoying a refreshing bowl of naengmyeon? This cold noodle soup is both refreshing and filling. It features handmade noodles and toppings like thinly sliced cucumbers, boiled eggs, and pickled Korean radishes. Boiled beef or chicken adds some protein and additional flavour to the refreshing broth. In fact, there are two variations of this popular Korean dish – mul naengmyeon and bibim. While the former is more like a soup, the latter includes cold noodles in a spicy red sauce.

Photo: SSW

Photo: Mart Production

6. Bulgogi

Bulgogi is a popular Korean dish that originated in the Northern parts of the Korean Peninsula but is now highly popular in South Korea as well as overseas. Bulgogi is made from thinly sliced sirloin that is then marinated and cooked with onions and peppers over charcoal. The marinade not only tenderizes the meat but also adds a distinct flavour that comes from soy sauce, sesame oil, black pepper, onions, garlic, ginger and sugar or honey. When in South Korea, you’ll find bulgogi everywhere, from street food vendors to upscale restaurants. In fact, bulgogi is even incorporated into fast foods in South Korea, when the burger patty is marinated in bulgogi marinade before cooking. And just like many Korean dishes, bulgogi is another one that has many variations like bulgogi stew or ttukbaegi bulgogi, when the meat is cooked in a clay pot and then served in a flavoursome broth.

Photo: Nikki

Photo: Peter Biela

7. Jjajangmyeon (Noodles with black bean sauce)

Jjajangmyeon is a popular Korean-Chinese dish that many Koreans have at least once a week, and it’s easy to see why – the handmade wheat noodles covered in a thick sauce with pork and vegetables are hearty and oh so delicious! The dark sauce is both sweet and strong, with a slightly fermented flavour that’s not uncommon in Korean cuisine. Originating in China, it’s said that the dish transformed over time to be a better fit with the taste preferences in Korea. While the version with pork is the most popular, just like with many other popular dishes, jjajangmyeon also has other variations, like samseon jjajang with seafood.

Photo: Ruth Georgiev

Photo: Lawrence Lim

8. Korean stew (jjigae)

Ask Koreans what their comfort food is and expect to hear the word jjigae more than once. Jjigae, or Korean stew, is a staple in Korean cuisine, and since it has so many variations, you can try a different version almost every day during your time in South Korea. A traditional way of serving jjigae is by placing a communal dish in the middle of the table for sharing. The word that precedes jjigae will typically imply what the main ingredients are. For example, kimchi jjigae is rather self-explanatory. Sundubu jjigae is a soft tofu stew. Then there’s budae jjigae which translates to “army base stew”. It’s a dish that emerged shortly after the Korean War featuring ingredients that seem surprising at first but make sense once you understand the origin of this dish. Ham, sausage, spam, and baked beans – ingredients found in U.S. military bases after the war – made it into the Korean stew alongside kimchi and the spicy gochujang paste to create a hearty meal.

Photo: Markus Winkler

9. Samgyeopsal

Korean or not, most people will name pork belly as the tastiest part of pork. Samgyeopsal is a Korean dish that’s all about this indulgent ingredient. The name of the dish translates to “three layers” of the meat. Cooked on a grill at the table, it is often accompanied by soju, a clear alcoholic drink served in small shot-like glasses. The experience of sharing this meal creates a lovely social atmosphere making this dish so popular among younger working adults in the capital city of Seoul. The sizzling pork belly strips are served with crunchy lettuce, perilla leaves, kimchi, and sliced onions with a dipping sauce made from sesame oil and either soybean paste doenjang or red chilli paste gochujang with salt and pepper.

Samgyeopsal | Photo: Clint Bustrillos

Photo: Amanda Lim

Mr. Hudson highlight image

The sizzling pork belly strips are served with crunchy lettuce, perilla leaves, kimchi, and sliced onions with a dipping sauce

10. Samgyetang (Ginseng chicken soup)

Wherever you’re from, chicken soup is universal comfort food. The warm broth is not only healthy but also warms your body and soul. The Korean version of chicken soup is samgyetang. This ginseng chicken soup, unlike its western counterparts, features a small whole young chicken instead of chicken pieces, filled with garlic, ginseng, rice, and jujube red dates. Another interesting fact is that this soup is a signature dish during the hot summer months, not winter. Perhaps that’s the case because people in Korea believe that summer is the best time to replenish your body with energy and nutrients. Even if you’re not a fan of chicken soup, this one is a must-try – ginseng adds a signature aromatic flavour to this dish.

Samgyetang | Photo: 애나 김

11. Hotteok (Korean Sweet Pancakes)

Who doesn’t love pancakes? Hotteok is popular Korean street food, often eaten as a snack. The best part? The pancakes are filled with sweet sugar syrup with a strong hint of cinnamon that makes these crispy snacks even more indulgent. Mostly eaten in the winter months, hotteok is another Korean-Chinese fusion dish believed to be brought to Korea by Chinese merchants. The key to eating hotteok is being patient. As tempting as the freshly made Korean pancakes are, you’ll want to wait for quite a bit for them to cool down to avoid burning your tongue with the hot filling. An ingredient you’ll often see added to the filling is peanuts, but nowadays there are, of course, many variations of this street food snack.

Hotteok | Photo: 예슬 김

Seoul | Photo: Ethan Brooke

12. Nakji Bokkeum (Spicy Stir Fried Octopus)

Koreans love seafood. Since South Korea is surrounded by water, seafood is an essential part of Korean cuisine. Not only do Koreans add seafood to many dishes and side dishes, but some recipes are also solely seafood-based. Like nakji bokkeum. This octopus stir fry is a relatively new addition to Korean cuisine as it only dates back several decades. Chopped long arm octopus is stir-fried together with onions, spring onions, carrots, and cabbage before being tossed in a marinade made from the red pepper paste gochujang and soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and salt. The result is a spicy yet sweet caramelized dish where the tender octopus plays the main part. You can eat this dish with rice or as an addition to soups and Korean stews.

13. Haemul Pajeon (Korean Seafood Pancake)

If someone told you that haemul pajeon is a Korean pancake and you ordered it without digging a little deeper, you might be a little surprised by what arrived in front of you. Westerners normally associate pancakes with something sweet, but this dish is actually a seafood pancake that resembles a Spanish omelette more than it does a pancake. Nevertheless, it’s a dish you absolutely must try. This savoury pancake is made from rice and egg batter mixed with seafood and green onions. The result is a crispy, chewy, and utterly delightful dish that will please any seafood lover. Squid, clams, oysters, and shrimp are only some of the seafood ingredients you might find in haemul pajeon. Traditionally, this dish is paired with a soy-based sauce and Makgeolli, a traditional rice wine.

Haemul Pajeon | Photo: Sharon Ang

14. Soondae (Korean Blood Sausage)

Many cultures across the globe have their own version of blood sausage, and when in South Korea, you are bound to find it too. Soondae is a popular street food that may not fit everyone’s taste and preferences, but if you’re ready to give it a go, it’s truly worth it. A traditional way of making this dish is by combining transparent noodles, vegetables, and pig’s blood before stuffing this mixture in pig intestines and steaming it. The ingredients may vary since each province has a slightly different way of preparing this dish. The same goes for accompaniments and dipping sauces – they range from lungs and liver on the side to red chilli and fermented shrimp sauces.

Photo: CJ Dayrit

Photo: Cottonbro

15. Seolleongtang (Ox Bone Soup)

A Korean household staple that’s particularly popular during the colder winter months, seolleongtang is a soup prepared by boiling ox bones for at least a few hours, but ideally, almost a whole day, to achieve a milky appearance and rich flavour. Typically, ox marrow bones are used to make this soup. These bones are known for their fantastic flavour and nutritional value. The bones are cooked with aromatics like onion, garlic, and the white part of spring onions. Considered a mild soup, it doesn’t have strong and spicy flavours as some other soups and stews have, but it’s not uncommon to eat kimchi as a side dish with seolleongtang.

Photo: Mike Swigunski

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