Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. It can be an acquired taste, with lots of spicy and fermented dishes, but it’s addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chilies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of small side dishes known as banchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi, typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), and small dried fish.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and ranges from mild to roaringly spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chili paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialties, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon.
A common perception among Koreans is that foreigners don’t like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. And while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you’re accustomed to, say, Thai or Mexican food, you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Foreign food restaurants are also popular, albeit usually with a Korean twist. Fried chicken has been adopted and many believe it better than the American original. Pizzas are also ubiquitous although you may wonder quite where the inspirations behind the toppings came from. Vietnamese and Mexican food appeals to Koreans as well. Japanese restaurants of all varieties are very common. Strangely enough, authentic Chinese food is somewhat hard to come by, and Koreans often think of Korean Chinese dishes such as jajangmyeon (자장면, noodles topped with a thick brown sauce, distantly related to a northern Chinese dish) with tangsuyuk (탕수육, sweet and sour pork) as Chinese dining.
Korean utensils (수저 sujeo) consist of a spoon (숟가락 sutgarak) and chopsticks (젓가락 jeotgarak). Unique in Asia, Koreans use chopsticks made of metal, which don’t burn when used over a hot grill and are easier to wash and reuse. Restaurants typically provide stainless steel chopsticks, which unfortunately for the chopstick learner, are very difficult to use! These thin and slippery sticks are not as easy as the wooden or plastic chopsticks but you’ll still manage with some fumbling.
Spoons are used to eat rice, soup, and porridge. (Koreans find it strange that their Asian neighbors eat rice with chopsticks.) Dongaseu (돈가스, Japanese-style tonkatsu or fried pork cutlet) is eaten with a fork and knife. Many Korean restaurants may also offer Western cutlery to a Westerner.
When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you’ll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.
In many traditional households, children were taught that it is impolite to speak during meals. Don’t be surprised if there’s complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.
Some etiquette pointers:
- Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a dish, especially rice. This is only done when honoring the deceased. Similarly, a spoon sticking upright into a bowl of rice is also not a good sign.
- Do not pick up your chopsticks or start eating until the eldest at the table has begun to eat.
- Do not lift any plates or bowls off the table while eating, as Koreans consider this to be rude.
- Do not make noises by hitting your utensils on the food bowls and plates.
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
- Bunsik (분식) are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
- Kogijip (고기집), literally meaning “meat house”, are where you’ll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
- Hoejip (회집), “raw fish house”, serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hwe in Korean, and free side dishes. You’ll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
- Hansik (한식) serve the full-course Korean meal (한정식, hanjeongsik), a Korean haute cuisine that originated with banquets given at the royal palace. Traditionally served all at once, restaurants today will serve courses separately. The meal starts with a cold appetizer and juk (죽, porridge). The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
- Department stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.
Korean barbecue is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners. In Korea, it’s split into bulgogi (불고기, thin cuts of marinated meat), galbi (갈비, ribs, usually unmarinated), and a few other categories. In these, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table, and you cook your choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. A popular way of eating it is to wrap the meat with a lettuce or perilla leaf, adding shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw or cooked garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and ssamjang (쌈장, a sauce made from doenjang, gochujang, and other flavorings) to your liking.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered; it’s much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You’ll rarely see filet mignon; instead, common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dak-galbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it’s best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means “mixed rice”, which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice topped with vegetables and usually shreds of meat and an egg, which you mix up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang, and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed “Korean sushi”. Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or a whole meal depending on your appetite, and they travel well. What differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: gimbap usually uses salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while sushi uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (떡, tteok) in a sweet chili sauce that’s much milder than it looks.
Soups and stews:
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (e.g. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier and thicker while guk/tang are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions of jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang, vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there’s also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae (해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is an interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodles (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chilies, and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it’s often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It’s commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of “eat the heat to beat the heat” tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans love noodles, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types available. They’re often sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as ₩3000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean specialty, originally from the north. The thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice-cold beef broth are a popular summer dish — although it’s traditionally a winter food! They’re also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbecue meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu); the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets. Generally comes in two distinct styles: Pyongyang naengmyeon and Hamhung naengmyeon.
Japchae (잡채) are yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (라면) is Korea’s variant of ramen, often served with — what else? — kimchi. Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ramen. The Shin Ramyun brand of instant noodles are exported to over 100 countries.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) is considered to be Chinese food by Koreans, being somewhat related to northern Chinese zhájiàngmiàn, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic. It’s typically served at (what are liberally described as) Chinese restaurants. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet. A popular combination is jajangmyeon with “Chinese” sweet and sour pork and chicken.
Finally, udong (우동) are thick wheat noodles, akin to Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe (회, pronounced roughly “hweh”) is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), served with spicy cho-gochujang sauce (a mixture of gochujang and vinegar). Chobap (초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. In both dishes, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Whale meat is available in a few restaurants in the cities and at festivals in smaller coastal towns, but is not easy to find and unlike Japan is not considered part of national culture. The city of Pohang has a long history of whaling, and its seafood market still openly offers whale. South Korea has outlawed whaling following the International Whaling Commission international moratorium in 1986, although makes an exception for whales caught by accident during regular fishing. Whale meat sourced from Japan has been sold in some restaurants, which is illegal (although the law is usually ignored). Whale restaurants are easy to identify, with pictures of whales on the outside leaving you in no doubt. If you choose to eat whale then you should understand that the species in question could be endangered and therefore a decision left to your own moral compass.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbecued meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It’s also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. “soon-deh”) are Korean blood sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood. Sundae is very tasty in spicy sauce or soup.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it’s sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (멍게 meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste has been memorably described as “rubber dipped in ammonia”.
Drinkers rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don’t be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings.
The drinking age in South Korea is 19.
Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (호프 hopeu, from German Hof, “yard” or “house”) are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.
Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the “booking” part of the name. It’s basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in ₩200,000-₩500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.
One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to “dress-up” your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your “status” to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don’t be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a “liquor set” than to purchase drinks individually.
On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it’s called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You’re not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others’ glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they’ll return the favor. It’s considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Oftentimes, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20% alcohol by volume). It’s cheaper than any other drink — a 350 mL bottle can cost slightly over ₩3,000 at bars (as little as ₩1,100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. It’s usually made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc., to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
Historically, there were numerous brewers throughout the country until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 1960-’70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country, and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc.) that basically made “chemical soju”. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as “socol” (soju + Coke), ppyong-gari (soju + Pocari Sweat, a Japanese isotonic drink like flavorless Gatorade), so-maek (soju + beer), etc., all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally “cloudy alcohol”. In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar and then alcohol over 3–5 days. Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4–6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.
Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles settle out. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12–15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involve a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite (pronounced like “height”) and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around ₩1,500 per bottle at a supermarket. Hofs serve pints of beer in the ₩2,000-5,000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. You are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of ₩10,000 or so.
Like their Asian neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green tea (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
- boricha (보리차), roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
- insamcha (인삼차), ginseng tea
- oksusucha (옥수수차), roasted corn tea
- yulmucha (율무차), a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job’s tears
Like Chinese and Japanese teas, Korean teas are always drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea is available at Western restaurants and the usual American fast-food chains.
Coffee (커피 keopi) has become widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as ₩300, usually sweet and milky, but there is often a plain option.
Coffee shops can be seen virtually everywhere in the country. There are a large number of Korean chains such as Cafe Bene and Angel in Us. A coffee costs around ₩4,000. It is worth to hunt out independent coffee shops that take great pride in their coffee. Even in small countryside villages, the ubiquitous bread shop Paris Baguette will give you a decent latte for around ₩2,000. Foreign-owned coffee shops such as Starbucks tend to be much less common than their Korean counterparts. Aside from coffee, these cafes will usually sell food such as sandwiches, toasties, paninis and quesadillas as well as sweet options such as bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Korean-style toast, pastries and a wide variety of cakes, some even vegan.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
- Sikhye (식혜), a very sweet, grainy rice drink served cold
- Sujeonggwa (수정과), a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons served cold