South Korea is an amazing country. A cultural melting pot that’s the result of a number of different influences, from the colonial powers that at one time occupied it to the unique landscape and climate it boasts. It’s the confluence of these factors that have created the customs, attitudes, and food culture that exists there today. And if you haven’t visited Korea yet you should definitely put it on your list.
Traditional Korean Dishes
Korean food is based a lot on grains—in particular rice. From Kimchi fried rice to a sweet rice cake, it’s a cuisine that isn’t afraid of a little spice and uses a lot of fermented ingredients. Fish and seafood also play an important role in Korean food, because of the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula.
Many South Korean dishes have fascinating histories or cultural significance. A lot of the foods here are adopted or adapted from other cultures. We will be highlighting some traditional dishes but also some of those modern takes on Korean Food that have become really popular in the USA.
It is time to start your food journey in Korea. We can’t wait to show you some of our all-time favorite dishes.
1. Bibimbap (Korean Rice Bowl)
Bibimbap is one of the more well-known Korean dishes. You have probably tried it at home but until you have it in Korea, we say you are missing out. Bibimbap is a rice-based dish that can consist of vegetables, a fried egg, and whatever other protein you like.
If you want to make it the traditional way then make sure that each ingredient is sectioned separately in the bowl. Then you can mix them together before eating. The best Bibimbap used vegetables that have been blanched or sautéed with sesame oil and soy sauce, and meat that has been marinated before being cooked. I like the egg to be sunny-side up and then I top it with sesame seeds, spicy sauce, and scallions. Sounds amazing right?
The good thing about this being such a popular Korean dish is that you can get a version with seafood, beef, and tofu—there’s something to suit all tastes! If you visit Korea you will notice that different regions have their own takes on this dish.
2. Bulgogi (marinated beef barbecue)
Bulgogi is a dish you can’t miss if you’re visiting South Korea. Its name means “fire meat” and derives from its method of cooking. Bulgogi is made up of thin-cut slices of beef or pork that have been marinated and grilled on a barbecue.
Bulgogi is one of those simple Korean dishes that you can make at home. The key to a good Bulgogi is definitely the right cut of meat. We like to use top sirloin, but you can use whichever type of beef you like. Make sure to slice it nice and thin, that way it is more tender, then marinate it in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and garlic. When you cook it, you want to hear that sizzle so make sure the grill is really hot.
This dish actually comes from Northern Korea, but today it is popular in South Korea as well. This is a delicious and unpretentious dish that you’ll find in most fast food and BBQ restaurants across South Korea.
3. Korean barbecue (Gogigui )
Speaking of BBQ, we couldn’t do a list of Korean foods without including one of our favorites: Korean Barbecue! Also known as Gogigui, this type of food is as fun to eat as it is delicious.
At Korean Barbecue restaurants, you order your meat, you’re given a selection of veggies, and then you can go to town grilling your own dinner. It’s a super fun way to spend an evening and a very social way of eating.
Now you may think that this sounds a lot like Bulgogi but the difference is that Bulgogi is actually a type of Gogigui. The term Gogigui just refers to the practice of grilling or roasting meat in Korean cuisine.
4. Gimbap: Korean Seaweed Rice Rolls
If you’re a fan of sushi then you’ve got to try gimbap. Gimbap is the Korean take on sushi and it’s most often enjoyed as street food—it’s super affordable so great if you’re traveling on a budget. It can include all sorts of inventive ingredients, including but not limited to beef, cheese, omelet, and even pork belly cutlet.
Another spelling of this dish is “kimbap” with Kim meaning seaweed and bap meaning rice. It was most likely first invented when Korea was under Japanese rule. Although some say it is an adaptation of the traditional dish Bokssam.
Kimchi is another super popular food in South Korea. It is a mix of spiced and fermented vegetables often served as a side dish. It is made of cabbage, carrots green peppers, radish, and spring onions.
We know that it’s been around since ancient times, with written accounts of it appearing as early as the 1st century. Pickling and fermenting were popular methods of preserving foods before the invention of modern appliances such as refrigerators. What’s interesting is that it wasn’t always spicy, the heat was only added after Portuguese traders introduced chilis to the region in the 15th century.
You can make so many different Korean dishes using it. There is kimchi stew (kimchi jjigae), kimchi pancake (kimchi jeon), and kimchi fried rice just to name a few. Make your own Kimchi with this delicious recipe!
6. Saengseon Jjigae (Spicy Fish Stew)
We mentioned above that seafood and fish are major staples of South Korean cuisine, and so are soups and stews. This dish brings together both of these concepts and if you’re visiting South Korea you’ll no doubt see it on menus everywhere.
Saengseon Jjigae is a fish stew that consists usually of white meat fish and often prawns or other shellfish. If you’re a lover of fish then you’ve got to make sure to try this dish!
Making this at home is not that easy, but if you want to give it a try you basically cut the fish into bite-sized pieces, dust in flour, and pan fry until it is crispy.
The broth is made with anchovy paste and kelp in water to make a flavorful stock. Then throw in some spicy chili paste, garlic, soy sauce, and other seasonings, to give it a rich and spicy flavor.
Finally, you combine the stock with whatever vegetables you like and let it simmer until they are cooked. Finally, add in the fish, along with some chopped scallions, and let everything cook together for a few minutes until the flavors have melded together.
7. Sundubu-jjigae (soft tofu stew)
If you’d like to try a Korean stew (or jjigae) but you don’t eat meat or fish, you can always try Sundubu Jjigae, a variation of the traditional stew that is made with tofu. Fish, kimchi, and beef can also be added to this dish if you like.
A Korean main meal will almost always come with some form of jjigae—that’s how much of a staple it is! So if you’re in a restaurant there’s a good chance you’ll get to try it. This dish is thought to date back to ancient times, though recently more modern adaptations have been invented as well.
8. Hotteok (Korean Sweet Pancakes)
From the very savory to the super sweet, Hotteok is a type of pancake oozing with sweet syrup. This is one of the most popular street snacks in South Korea and it’s not hard to see why! It can include additions such as crushed peanuts or cinnamon, and it’s usually eaten during the winter months to heat up cold commuters on chilly mornings.
9. Gilgeori Toast
If you’re looking for some tasty breakfast after you’ve shaken off your jet lag, we’ve got the perfect dish for you. Gilgeori toast is what most young South Koreans will grab for breakfast on their way to work. It’s savory, sweet, filling, and delicious.
Its main ingredients are egg, cabbage, and grated carrots. Ketchup, mayonnaise, and sugar—yes sugar—are other common additions. This popular street food may sound crazy, but somehow, it really works!
10. Tteokbokki (Spicy Rice Cakes)
Another popular Korean street food, Tteokbokki is sliced rice cakes—though not as you know them. Far from the crunchy disks of puffed-up rice, this term conjures up, these rice cakes are soft, cylindrical, and deliciously chewy.
To make Tteokbokki, first, the rice cakes and fish cakes are boiled until they are soft and tender. Then, the red pepper sauce, which is made with gochujang (Korean red pepper paste), garlic, soy sauce, and sugar, is added to the pot. The mixture is simmered until the sauce thickens and coats the rice cakes and fish cakes.
Tteokbokki comes in a number of different varieties, from curry to cream sauce and everything in between. This sweet and spicy dish is probably unlike anything you’ve tried before, but it’s too good to pass up. This dish is particularly popular on the streets of Seoul, so don’t forget to look out if you’re visiting.
11. Soondae (Korean blood sausage)
No, we’re not talking about ice cream and sauce here, so if you see this on a menu in Korea, don’t make this mistake! Sundae is in fact a blood sausage similar to the type you might get in a full Irish breakfast if you’re visiting the emerald isle.
This dish is usually made by steaming cow or pig intestines and stuffing them with various ingredients. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re an adventurous eater it’s definitely one to try.
12. Japchae (Korean Glass Noodles)
This is another dish that exemplifies the South Korean penchant for the combination of sweet and savory. It’s made from glass noodles and often contains mushrooms, carrots, spinach, and other veggies. It was once a dish reserved for royalty, and it’s now common to eat at celebrations such as weddings or birthdays.
There is nothing like a dish of glass noodles stir-fried in sesame oil and garnished with toasted sesame seeds to get your mouth watering. Try making your own at home with this recipe!
13. Gyeranppang (Egg Bread)
If you’re a lover of all things rich, then Gyeranppang is the dish for you. The name of this street snack translates to “egg bread” and that’s exactly what it is.
A light, fluffy, little loaf of sweet-tasting bread that contains a whole egg inside. Common toppings include ham, cheese, or fresh herbs such as parsley.
14. Nakji Bokkeum (Spicy Octopus)
Nakji-Bokkeum is another dish that might be best left to adventurous eaters, and if you’re not a fan of fish, you can probably give it a miss. Still, it’s an exceedingly popular dish in South Korea, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
Nakji-Bokkeum is a spicy dish made from stir-fried octopus. It’s believed to be a relatively recent addition to the South Korean diet, dating back to around the mid-1900s.
15. Yaksik (Sweet Rice)
Finally, we have a sweet dish that’s popular throughout South Korea. Yaksik is made from steamed rice, honey, and dried fruits. It also often includes cinnamon and even soy sauce.
This dish dates back to around the 13th century. Today, it is traditionally served up on Jeongwol Daeboreum, a Korean holiday. It is also enjoyed at weddings.
16. Hangover Stew (Haejangguk)
Haejangguk, also known as Hangover Soup, is a traditional Korean soup that is believed to help cure hangovers. The name Haejangguk translates to “soup to chase a hangover.” The soup is made with pork bones and a variety of vegetables like bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, and radish. The soup also contains a variety of spices and seasonings, like garlic, ginger, and Gochugaru (Korean chili flakes).
I would say you will be hard-pressed to make this at home, but you can give it a try with this recipe.
Haejangguk is usually served with rice, kimchi, and pickled vegetables. If you are in Seoul you will definitely see Koreans eating this after a night of heavy drinking to help alleviate the symptoms of a hangover the next day. Does it work? Let’s just say we believe.
17. Samgyeopsal (Grilled Pork Belly)
Samgyeopsal is a popular Korean dish that consists of grilled pork belly slices. The name “samgyeopsal” translates to “three-layered flesh,” which refers to the three layers of fat and meat on a pork belly. The dish is served with a variety of side dishes, including lettuce leaves, sliced garlic, ssamjang (a spicy soybean paste), and grilled onions.
To make Samgyeopsal, first, a thick cut of pork belly is sliced into thin, bite-sized pieces. Then marinate it in a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, sugar, and sesame oil. Finally, grill it on a hot plate or barbecue until it is cooked through and slightly crispy on the outside.
The final step in this delicious dish is to place it on a lettuce leaf along with some garlic, ssamjang, and grilled onions, wrap it up, and eat it in one bite.
18. Kimchi Fried Rice
Kimchi Fried Rice is a popular Korean dish that is made by stir-frying cooked rice with kimchi and other ingredients. The dish is often served as a quick and easy meal or as a side dish to accompany other Korean dishes.
To make the Fried Rice, first, cooked rice is needed. Leftover rice works well, as it is slightly drier and easier to stir-fry. Kimchi is then chopped into small pieces and mixed with other ingredients such as diced onions, carrots, and green onions.
In a pan or wok, oil is heated over medium-high heat. The kimchi and vegetable mixture is added to the pan and stir-fried until the vegetables are softened. The cooked rice is then added to the pan and stir-fried until it is heated through and coated with the kimchi and vegetable mixture. Some variations of this Fried Rice may include other ingredients such as diced ham, bacon, or tofu.
It is often served with a fried egg on top, which adds a creamy texture to the dish. The dish can also be garnished with additional chopped green onions and sesame seeds for added flavor.
19. Steamed Mandu Dumplings (Jjinmandu)
Jjinmandu is a type of Korean dumpling that is often filled with meat and vegetables. The dumpling is similar to a Chinese-style jiaozi or Japanese-style gyoza but with its own unique flavor and texture.
To make Jjinmandu, first, a filling is prepared by mixing ground pork or beef with vegetables such as garlic, onion, carrot, and green onion. The filling is seasoned with soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, and pepper to taste. Some other types of Jjinmandu may include tofu, kimchi, or other ingredients.
Next, small circles of dumpling wrapper dough are rolled out and filled with the meat and vegetable mixture. The edges of the wrapper are then pinched together to seal the filling inside. The dumplings are then steamed or boiled until they are cooked through and the wrapper is tender.
Jjinmandu is often served with a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. The dish can be enjoyed as a snack or as a main course and is popular throughout Korea.
20. Kimchi Jjigae (Kimchi Stew)
Kimchi Jjigae is a popular Korean stew made with fermented kimchi, pork, tofu, and other vegetables. Kimchi Jjigae is a traditional dish in Korea and is often served as a main course, especially during the winter. The dish has a long history and was first made during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when families would ferment their own kimchi in large earthenware jars called Onggi.
To make Kimchi Jjigae, first, the kimchi is chopped into small pieces and added to a pot along with sliced pork and tofu. Other vegetables like onion, garlic, and green onions are also added, along with some water or broth. The stew is simmered until the pork is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. The resulting dish is hearty and warming, with a tangy and spicy flavor from the fermented kimchi.
21. Korean Fried Chicken
Korean fried chicken, also known as KFC, is a popular Korean dish that consists of fried chicken coated in a crispy, crunchy batter and typically served with a spicy or sweet sauce. The difference between Korean fried chicken and other types of fried chicken is the use of a double-frying technique that creates an extra-crispy exterior while keeping the meat juicy and tender on the inside.
Once the chicken is fully cooked and crispy, it is typically served with a sweet and spicy sauce made with Korean chili paste, soy sauce, honey, garlic, and ginger. Korean fried chicken is a popular Korean street food and you can find it almost anywhere in South Korea.
22. Jjajangmyeon (Noodles in Black-Bean Sauce)
Jjajangmyeon is a popular Korean-Chinese dish made with wheat noodles, black bean sauce, and various vegetables like onions, zucchini, and potatoes. The dish has a long history in Korea and was first introduced during the early 20th century by Chinese immigrants who settled in Korea.
To make Jjajangmyeon, first, the black bean sauce is prepared by frying diced pork belly with chopped onions and black bean paste. Vegetables like zucchini and potatoes are then added to the pot and cooked until tender. The resulting sauce is thick and savory with a hint of sweetness.
The wheat noodles are then cooked and served with the black bean sauce on top. The dish is often garnished with sliced cucumber and a drizzle of sesame oil. Jjajangmyeon is popular in Korea because of its rich and savory flavor and satisfying texture.
23. Samgyetang (Chicken Ginseng Soup)
Samgyetang is a traditional Korean soup made with a whole young chicken, ginseng, jujubes, and other medicinal herbs. The dish is often eaten during the summer months in Korea and is believed to have health benefits like boosting the immune system and increasing stamina.
So, how do you make Samgyetang? First, a whole young chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice and various herbs like ginseng, jujubes, and garlic. The chicken is then boiled in a pot with water until it is fully cooked and the broth is rich and flavorful.
The resulting soup is thick and hearty, with a delicate flavor from the herbs and tender meat from the chicken. Samgyetang is a popular dish in Korea and is often served in Korean restaurants and as a part of traditional Korean cuisine.
Our Favorite South Korean Cuisine
South Korea is a fascinating and culturally rich country and Korean food does an amazing job of reflecting this. There are so many different dishes to try, and the above represent just a few of our favorites. If you’re looking for more travel tips, don’t forget to check out the rest of our posts now!