If you haven’t had Seoul food, you’re in for a treat. When you think of what to eat in Seoul, Korea, there are a few obvious (and well-known, if you’re at all familiar with Korean food) choices.
Number one is Kimchi. Often described as the Korean national dish, this fermented vegetable dish is served as a side with many Korean meals. It’s also found as a primary ingredient, adding a burst of flavor and color in many Korean dishes.
Bibimbap (mixed rice) and Bulgogi (marinated beef barbecue) are arguably the second and third most famous dishes. You’ll find them in any Korean restaurants around the world. But, as you know, we like to look beyond just the internationally popular dishes, and try to search out some local favorites as well. And during a recent visit to Seoul, we did just that!
As part of our quest, we also reached out to a few of our fellow traveler bloggers to suggest their favorite Korean dishes (and where to find them, if possible). From this, we’ve come up with our list of 40+ dishes not to miss in Seoul, Korea.
If Korea has a national dish, it has to be kimchi. The spicy, fermented cabbage is ubiquitous in the food in Seoul and around the country. It’s usually served as a side with your meal, but is also used as ingredient in cooking, as well.
You’ll notice that for this food roundup, a LOT of the color of food is red – thanks to the presence of kimchi and its unique color which comes from the red peppers used in its preparation.
Kimchi is actually a very healthy dish. In addition to being loaded with vitamins like A, B and C, it also contains “good bacteria” similar to yogurt. These probiotics are great for stomach health and also have been found to help prevent cancer.
If you love Kimchi, it’s actually pretty easy to make at home – it just takes a little time. Check out our easy Kimchi Recipe and give it a try!
Translating to “fire meat”, bulgogi is one of the most-loved dishes in South Korea, and it is a must-try when visiting Seoul. Find a restaurant that serves this tasty meal, and get ready for a feast you won’t soon forget!
Extremely thin slices of beef are marinated with a flavorful blend of Asian pear, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil, before being tossed with vegetables like green onions and carrots.
A heaping portion of this marinated meat will be brought to your table and placed on a sizzling-hot grill in front of you where it’ll cook and tempt you with delicious smells.
After a few minutes, your bulgogi will be ready to be enjoyed with rice and banchan (side dishes). Sometimes you’ll be served lettuce or other leafy greens to top with the meat and rice.
Pair the meal with an ice-cold glass of beer or soju, a popular Korean liquor traditionally made from rice.
First, bibimbap is a very pretty dish, made for photographing. The meal is served initially with all the ingredients separated.
A mixture of namul (sautéed and seasoned vegetables), gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce or doenjang (a fermented soybean paste), and a sautéed meat make up top layer. Usually a raw egg is placed in the center.
But don’t just dig in and start to eat it this way. You need to mix everything together first – in fact, the term “bibim” means mixing various ingredients. The second part, “bap” refers to rice.
Bibimbap is typically served in a hot stone bowl with the white rice serving as a base for the toppings. This setup is critical to achieve what we love the best about bibimbap – the scorched, crispy rice at the bottom of the bowl.
This crusty layer is called noo roong ji in Korean. When mixed together with the vegetables, meat and creamy egg, each bite contains a mix of intense flavors and, of course, a bit of that amazing crunchy texture!
Soft Tofu Stew – Sundubu Jjigae (순두부찌개)
Sundubu jjigae is a hearty and comforting dish that can be found in most local diners in Seoul (or all across Korea, really). It’s one of the healthiest dishes in Korean cuisine and, despite its simplicity, is full of flavor.
This stew features silken unpressed tofu in a spicy broth that’s often cooked with seafood like clams and prawns, though non-seafood versions are also available if you’re allergic to seafood. Finally, a raw egg is cracked into the boiling stew to cook while you eat.
When ordering sundubu jjigae at a local diner, you’ll be served the standard small bowl of rice together with the stew, as well as some banchan (side dishes). It’s common for the stew to contain large yet wobbly-soft tofu pieces which you can easily cut or mash into smaller pieces.
If you’re wary of spicy foods, don’t worry – the bright vermilion stew isn’t as spicy as it looks. Try drizzling the soup and some tofu onto your rice, then eating the rice. You might end up enjoying this on cold nights, as I do – the hot spicy stew will warm your belly right up in winter!
Korean BBQ – Gogi-gui (고기구이)
One of the most popular things to eat in Seoul is Korean BBQ or “gogi-gui” as it is known locally. Found throughout the city, Korean BBQ is the method of cooking a variety of meat, mainly pork, beef or chicken on a gas or charcoal fired grill at your table.
The meats are generally prepared in a marinade of spices or can come natural. One of the most popular marinated dishes in Korean BBQ is “bulgogi.” Bulgogi is translated to “fire meat” is thinly sliced pieces of beef sirloin or pork tenderloin. These pieces are grilled and served with a variety of condiments including lettuce leaf, dipping sauces, and of course kimchi.
Throughout Seoul there are a variety of restaurants serving up Korean BBQ including some that are open 24 hours. Don’t be surprised if a server comes to your table to help you grill your meat. It’s not personal, they help everyone. Just part of the service.
For a higher-end Korean BBQ experience, look for Maple Tree House. With three locations around Seoul, the quality of the Korean BBQ at Maple Tree House is unmatched and not to be missed.
Dubu kimchi (두부김치)
This dish combines two of the primary ingredients in Korean cuisine: tofu and kimchi. And, because they’re such staple ingredients, this dish is a typical “ahn-joo” (food that complements alcoholic beverages) – basically, drunk food. It’s a perfect accompaniment to a night of drinking Korean beer or sake.
But, it can also be enjoyed as a meal or snack at any time of the day. The incredibly flavorful mix of kimchi and seasoned pork is well balanced with wholesome tofu. The color contrast is beautiful as well.
You can add whatever amounts of kimchi and tofu you prefer. Although it’s often served with pork, but this can be omitted to make a great vegetarian dish. Dubu kimchi can be served alone or with rice. It goes well with Soju (a vodka-like Korean drink) and Makeoli (milky rice wine).
Black Pig Pork Belly Barbecue
As a Korean, I get asked all the time what the best Korean food one must try in Korea. Unless you are a vegetarian, my answer is always Korean barbecue.
It is a fail-proof dish that universally titillates everyone’s taste buds. It doesn’t matter beef or pork, or which cuts you choose. It’s all tasty! However, crème de la crème is Jeju black pig pork belly barbecue.
The Black pig pork belly is much more succulent and buttery with beautiful marbling than the regular samgyeopsal (pork belly). The sizzling sounds and smoky aroma of crispy grilled black pig samgyeopsal will make you inexorably drool. Opting for this tastiest breed even at a premium is worthwhile.
The best place to try is Jeju where those pigs are raised. However, with an ever-growing demand, it’s not difficult to find it at barbecue joints in Seoul.
A thick slab of the black pig pork belly is first charred in the kitchen to burn off black hair in the skin. (Restaurants tend to leave some to authenticate the breed.) The chunky strip is grilled on the tabletop before getting cut into bite-size pieces.
What’s unique about the black pig pork belly experience is the dipping sauce called meljeot (fermented anchovy sauce). Wrap the dipped piece with lettuce and other vegetables, a.k.a. “ssam.”
Chuncheon dak-galbi (춘천 닭갈비)
Dak-galbi – spicy, stir-fried chicken, is synonymous with the regional capital city of Chuncheon. It also has a place in the country’s history.
The Korean War began with the Battle of Chuncheon, which resulted in the city being essentially destroyed through shelling. After the war, inhabitants relied on chicken farming to make a living.
The story of dak-galbi’s origin says that in the 1960’s, a couple running a popular restaurant specializing in pork ran out of their main ingredient. Due to the many chicken farms in the region, they decided to try a new protein and found chicken cheaper to make their typical stir-fry pork dishes. The dish took off, and soon dozens of restaurants were offering the sweet and spicy stir-fried chicken dishes.
The dish is made with marinated chicken, cabbage, sweet potatoes, perilla leaves (which have a flavor similar to mint) and Korean rice cakes called tteok bokki. Fermented chili paste (gochujang) adds both sweet and spicy notes. Dak-galbi is cooked at the table, typically in a cast iron skillet.
Chuncheon is very serious about their dak-galbi. There are entire streets dedicated to restaurants serving this one homey dish. The most popular street is actually called MyeongDong Dakgalbi Street.
On this road, each tiny restaurant puts its own spin on the dish, and of course, each proclaiming that their version is the best on the street. Of course, if you can’t make the trip to Chuncheon, this specialty can be found in Seoul as well.
Our favorite type of dak-galbi is served with cheese. Two types of cheese (Cheddar and American) are added to the skillet and melt into a bubbling, gooey deliciousness.
You then drag the chicken, vegetables, and (as in the above photo) noodles through the cheese for an amazing taste sensation.
Beef/Ox Bone Soup – Seolleongtang (설렁탕)
Seolleongtang or Korean beef broth soup is a must try dish when in South Korea. It is a thick white soup made by boiling beef bone over an extended period of time. This creates a thick milky white soup as it is basically a bone marrow soup.
Most Koreans used to eat this as kids, especially when they were sick. So for many Koreans, this is a kind of comfort food.
This dish was created back in the Joseon Dynasty when the king ordered his people to create dishes that used the least amount of ingredients and could feed a maximum of people.
The best seolleongtang in Seoul is at Imun Seolnongtang in Jongno. The restaurant is over 100 years old and still serves the soup like back in the days. It is a restaurant famous among locals and is included in the Michelin guide.
Pumpkin Porridge – Hobakjuk (호박죽)
You might discover hobakjuk (also called hobakjook, hobak juk, or hobak jook) when recovering from an illness in Korea. It’s a go-to dish when Koreans are feeling sick, similar to chicken soup in the west.
It’s reputed to help reduce swelling, and is also eaten as a cure for scars or scratches.
To make the porridge, boiled and seeded chunks of pumpkin are mashed, and then mixed with rice flour and water and boiled. At times, red or black beans can be added added for additional texture.
Hobakjuk is definitely more of a porridge than a soup or stew. The thick consistency comes from the use of glutinous rice in making it. The flavor a combination of pumpkin and rice – it’s really quite pleasant and a little reminiscent of Autumn.
How do Koreans cool off in the summer? By eating naengmyeon (or naengmyun), a cold noodle dish that may seem odd to the uninitiated but it is absolutely delicious.
Made with mineral- and antioxidant-rich buckwheat, the thin noodles aren’t just often gluten-free (they may also contain potato, sweet potato or arrowroot starch), they’re quick-cooking and healthier than regular pasta. They also have a wonderful, slippery and chewy texture.
The dish originated in North Korea and was brought to South Korea by those who fled the North after the Korean War.
Naengmyeon can be ordered in one of two ways:
1) Mul naengmyeon – with icy cold broth made with beef stock and dongchimi (water radish kimchi). It’s slightly sweet and tangy. It can also be made as spicy and tart as you want with the mustard paste and vinegar that is typically served on the side.
2) Bibim naengmyeon – with red sauce made of gochujang (spicy red pepper paste).
Typical toppings for naengmyeon include hard-boiled egg, as well as sliced cucumber, pickled daikon radish and Asian pear, and sometimes with sliced beef.
Sanchon, the Vegan Buddhist Temple Food Restaurant
If you are looking for an interesting dive into South Korea’s culinary history, I recommend checking out the vegan Buddhist temple food restaurant Sanchon.
Located in the heart of Seoul’s Insadong district Sanchon is nestled between traditional Korean hanok houses and the bustling traditional markets in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Seoul.
Sanchon offers traditional dishes prepared with fresh, local ingredients according to Buddhist beliefs. This also means, this place is ideal for vegans and vegetarians!
Once you step into the restaurant, you’ll be overcome with a feeling of relaxation induced by dim lights, temple music and intricate Buddhist decorations. The menu is only comprised of one thing: a 16-course lunch/dinner course full of healthy, simple ingredients from all around Korea.
To give you an idea of the unique menu, some dishes included in the set are black sesame porridge, dried seaweed in sweet seasoning, seven kinds of greens in different seasonings beautifully surrounded by various Korean banchan, or side dishes, such as vegan kimchi, tofu, mushrooms, japchae glass noodles, beans, sweet potatoes and a delicious vegan doenjang jjiggae, fermented soybean stew.
The course ends with traditional Korean desserts and tea. This food experience has been one of my favorite in South Korea and I highly recommend it!
Fermented Soybean Paste Stew – Doenjang Jjigae (된장찌개)
Doenjang Jjigae is staple of Korean home cooking – a stew made with ingredients in every typical Korean home. The base soup is made with a fermented soybean paste called doenjang.
In addition to the broth made from the paste, typical additions include garlic, tofu, vegetables, mushrooms, and/or fatty pork. Really, just about anything can be added to stew, making hundreds of unique variations possible.
The fermented soybean gives the soup an earthy, pungent, almost “funky” taste that can be a surprising flavor experience at first. Don’t be put off by this unique taste…this is a favorite dish in many Korean households.
Korean Pancake – Hotteok (호떡)
The hotteok at Namdaemun, best described as a vegetable noodle stuffed pancake, is a Korean street food staple and a must try food in Seoul. Hotteok pancakes are typically sweet but the stall at Namdaemun cooks up a fantastic savory version.
At Namdaemun, the hotteok is made from a rice dough stuffed with glass noodles and vegetables which include onions, chives and carrots. The hotteok is fried until it is crispy and golden and is then basted in a fruit seasoned soy sauce before serving.
The best hotteok we tried came from a stall at Gate 2 in the Namdaemun Market, the largest traditional market in Korea where everything from fashion to handbags to household goods and street foods are sold.
Easily identified by its long queues, the stall at Namdaemun is so popular the owner is rumored to be a millionaire! A hotteok costs between 1,000 and 2,000 Korean Won (equivalent to a couple of US dollars). We recommend trying all the flavors on offer but our favorite was the mozzarella version!
Boiled Pork Wraps – Bossam (보쌈)
Boiled meat doesn’t sound like the most delicious thing to eat. But, when done well, Bossam is a real treat. In Korean, ssam means wrap and bossam means wrap with various stuffing inside.
In this dish, the pork belly or pork shoulder is boiled in a flavorful brine until tender. It is then served thinly sliced.
This is typically a shared dish – each person at the table takes some meat and wraps it in Napa cabbage leaves, into a sort of taco. Salted shrimp and radish salad are often used as additional toppings.
Bossam is one of the meals served at Kimjang, when kimchi is prepared and preserved for the wintertime. Korean moms will prepare the pork dish as a reward for the helpers who took a hand in making and storing the kimchi.
So, of course, there’s also plenty of this spicy mixture to add to the “taco” as well! A radish kimchi that is specially seasoned for bossam is often a preferred topping.
Spicy Seafood Tofu Soup – Haemul Sundubu Jjigae
If you are someone who loves spice and seafood, then you must check out this best seller item in the Korean Cuisine – Spicy Seafood Tofu Soup!
After a long day walking around Seoul city and working up an appetite, this dish will definitely not disappoint. It’s a spicy savory broth, sometimes made from kimchi base or other times of Soya bean paste. T
he added ingredients into this dish includes the Korean homemade silken tofu, fresh seafood like prawns, squid and shellfish, such as clams or mussels).
To finish the dish, a soft boiled egg, mushrooms, some vegetables like sliced cucumber, beansprouts and chiles are also added to the lovely broth, giving it additional flavor and texture.
This soup is usually served in a black heat-retaining clay pot and served to guests with rice and sides. Best eaten all year round, but I especially love drinking hot soup like this during winter time.
If you’re an adventurous eater, consider trying a favorite locals dish, Gopchang. Made with the small intestine of cows, many foreigners look at this as an exotic meal. But make no mistake, this dish is very popular in Seoul.
Drinkers flock to gopchang joints late at night, downing beer and enjoying their chewy accompaniment. The meal, which used to be an affordable staple, recently became a sought-after option for younger people as well.
A video of popular star, Hwasa, from the K-Pop group Mamamoo went viral, creating a bit of a craze for the food. There was even a (brief) worry that there would be a shortage on gopchang in Korea.
There are a few different varieties available, all with tripe as the primary ingredient. Gopchang gui is grilled over a barbecue, often with onions and peppers. Gopchang-jeongol is stewed in a hot pot. There is even a pork version called dwaeji-gopchang.
Want to try some in Seoul? Restaurant Gugongtan has franchises around the city, and they specialize in a grilled version served with cheese and vegetables.
Ginseng is a plant root that supposedly has magical properties and people in Korea are obsessed with it. As such, one of the most popular dishes to try whilst in Seoul is “samgyetang”, aka ginseng chicken soup.
It’s a hot, steamy soup that Koreans like to eat during the hottest days, rather than the coldest, so in the summer months you will find restaurants serving samgyetang filled with tourists and Koreans alike.
The soup contains a small, whole chicken, stuffed with rice, gingseng, garlic and red dates. A simple, homey dish, filled with nutrients and it’s very filling. Despite the simplicity, the dish is fairly expensive due to the pricey Ginseng root ingredient.
I’d recommend visiting Tosokchon, one of the top restaurants in Seoul for samgyetang. But, fair warning, you may have to queue! Thankfully this moves fairly quickly as the restaurant is actually enormous on the inside.
There are several different dining chambers and you’ll be eating on the floor in the traditional Korean way. The decor here is traditional on both the outside and inside and looks like the interior of a Korean home!
Korean Fried Chicken
Eating fried chicken paired with beer, called chimaek (치맥) has become a cornerstone in Korea’s culinary tradition.
Interestingly, fried chicken, which is more of an American soul food, was actually introduced to the Koreans by American soldiers during the Korean war. Prior to that, chicken was typically boiled in a simple broth with ginseng and rice.
After learning what most of us already know (that everything is better fried), Koreans took the chicken recipe and added their own twist.
One thing that makes Korean fried chicken special is that it is fried twice. Once, to render the fat from the skin. The second dunk in the fryer comes after carefully spreading a layer of sauce or very light dusting of flour (depending on the type of fried chicken dish that is being made).
The most typical chicken preparations are fried simply with flour, coated with a sticky sweet and spicy sauce (yangnyeom-chickein), or a soy sauce and garlic version, Ganjang-chikin.
No matter which recipe is being used, the resulting chicken has very crisp “crackling” skin that surrounds tender juicy chicken. To make sure that standard is met to perfection, it is typical to fry only young chicken, and add a few beers, just for fun.
Bindaeduk and Makgeoli
After living in Seoul for three and a half years I can tell you that my favorite place to go for great street food was Kwangjang Market. Located in downtown Seoul, this market is a local favorite for its traditional Korean foods.
You can eat anything from sannakji (live octopus) to gopchang (pig intestine) here. However, I always came for the bindaeduk and makgeolli.
Bindaeduk is a mung bean pancake that is reminiscent of my grandmother’s potato pancakes. They mix it all together and fry it up to be served with a vinegary soy dipping sauce. Be careful because these come out piping hot. They are also in the dead center of the market so it will be hard to find a seat!
Makgeolli, a Korean rice wine that contains fiber, many vitamins and looks like milk, is traditionally drank from a bowl. I couldn’t tell you if bindaeduk and makgeolli were traditionally eaten together but this was always our drink of choice.
Makgeolli is more like a craft beer than the rice wine that you’re used to (like Sake or Soju). It comes in a variety of flavors and can be found in almost every Korean restaurant and festival.
In fact, there’s a makgeolli festival every year in Gyeonggi-do, where you can sample hundreds of mixtures from chestnut to banana!
Spicy Rice Cakes – Tteokbokki (떡볶이)
Every group of street food stalls in Seoul will have one stall with someone ladling out servings of tteokbokki. At first glance, this looks like thick pasta in a tomato sauce – not what you would expect to find streetside in Seoul. The “pasta” are actually rice cakes, and the sauce is made with Korean chili paste.
The dish is packed with unami flavor from fish cakes and Korean soup stock made with nori and dried anchovies. And of course, the chili paste gives it its fiery red color.
Where do you find the best tteokbokki? Just look for the longest line at the street food stalls, and you have your answer.
Gamjatang – Pork Bone Potato Stew (감자탕)
Gamjatang is spicy Korean stew made from the spine or neck bones of a pig. It’s made with potatoes, cellophane noodles, radish greens, perilla leaves, green onions, hot peppers and ground sesame seeds.
Since neck bones aren’t a highly sought-after cut of pork, this is a pretty inexpensive dish. But like many peasant dishes, it is hearty, and filling. The bones are cooked until the meat is falling off the bone, making it quite meaty as well.
It’s also full of flavor from the spices and collagen from the bones. The perilla leaves (perilla belongs to the mint family) have unique combination of nutty and minty licorice taste, and add significantly to the rich flavor as well.
If you order Gamjatang in a restaurant in Seoul, the pot will typically be brought to your table to finish cooking right in front of you. The famous area for this dish is in the Eungam-dong area, where there is an entire street (appropriately named Gamjatang Alley) filled with restaurants specialize in the dish.
Galbi (or Kalbi) is simply grilled ribs. The ribs, typically beef short ribs, are marinated in garlic, onion, soy sauce, brown sugar, honey, sesame oil and black pepper. At times, fruit puree such as Asian pear are part of the marinade as well.
Because this is a typical Korean barbecue dish, Galbi are often served raw at the table to be cooked by the diners themselves. At times beef ribs are substituted with pork spareribs (or another meat).
As its name implies, Gimbap is a Korean dish basically made from gim (or kim) and bap. Gim refers to a sheet of dried seaweed while bap means rice. This seaweed rice roll resembles Japanese sushi roll but really, the fillings are not at all the same.
Sushi rice is seasoned with vinegar while gimbap is traditionally seasoned with sesame oil. And while sushi is rolled with raw ingredients that is usually fish, gimbap is filled with cooked or preserved items like vegetables, canned tuna, ham, crab meat, and beef, then sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Gimbap is one of the delectable and affordable street food you can find in Seoul that is served in bite-sized slices.
There’s also a wide variety you can try nowadays like chi-jeu gimpab (made with cheese), soe-go-gi gimbap (made with beef), and gye-ran gimbap (gimbap with egg wrapped around the outside). It is a popular on-the-go meal in Korea that is practically found everywhere and is a favorite by both adults and kids alike.
Haemul Pajeon (해물파전)
Pajeon is a savory pancake whose primary ingredient is scallions (“pa” means scallion in Korean). The base batter is made from of eggs and flour. Pajeon ingredients can include beef, pork, kimchi, shellfish, and other seafood.
A seafood pajeon is called haemul pajeon, and the seafood used may include oysters, shrimp, squid, or clams. And, as with most of the pancakes listed on this page, the favorite accompaniment of haemul pajeon is bindaeduk – rice wine. Bottoms up!
Spicy Noodle Soup – Jjambbong (짬뽕)
Before the 1960’s, Jjambbong was a noodle soup served in a clear broth without much spice. But this originally Chinese dish was adapted to local taste when brought to Korea by Chinese immigrants. Chili flakes were added, creating the spicy noodle soup dish that Jjambbong is widely associated with today.
Originally, the soup was aimed at feeding hungry students on a budget, and was quire inexpensive. It has evolved significantly since then, incorporating the spicy soup broth with vegetables (including onions, garlic, zucchini, carrots and cabbage), fresh noodles, and lots of seafood.
The price of the soup depends on the seafood included. Typical options include shrimp, mussels, and squid. Gul jjampong (굴짬뽕) contains oysters, and gochu jjampong refers to a jjampong with additional spiciness using Cheongyang chili pepper.
Another version, called jjampong bap (짬뽕밥), uses rice in place of noodles.
If you’re thinking ice cream sundae, you probably couldn’t be further off. In Korea, sundae (or soondae) is a type of blood sausage. It’s a popular street food, but you can easily find it in restaurants as well as from street vendors.
Every cuisine seems to have a version of sausage, and Korea is no exception. Here, this dish is made by stuffing cow or pig intestines with ingredients such as minced meat, rice, and vegetables.
Other potential sausage fillings include glass noodles, kkaennip (perilla leaves), scallions, doenjang (soybean paste), soybean sprouts, and (of course) kimchi.
Korean sundae differs from American or European sausages in its texture and spiciness. The sausage is steamed to a moist, soft consistency, then cut into slices. It has great texture and is guaranteed to melt in your mouth.
Soy Sauce Crab – Ganjang-gejang (간장게장)
Ganjang gejang is a traditional dish that’s made by marinating fresh raw crabs in a brine of mild soy sauce. In fact, in Korean ‘ge’ means crab while ‘jang’ indicates the sauce or condiment used a marinade.
This simple dish really highlights the crab as the primary ingredient. And, as any crab aficionado knows, part of the enjoyment of this delicacy is the process of extracting the delicious crab meat from the shell.
Each mouthful of crab is accompanied with flavorful rice. This dish is often referred to as a “rice thief.” Your bowl of rice will disappear as you munch on it while sucking the delicious crab meat out of the shell, following each delicious mouthful with a bite of rice.
There’s no need to recommend a specific place for this delicacy. Any stroll through a traditional market will find gangjang-gejang available in any of the prepared food stalls.
Sujebi and Kalguksu (칼국수)
Whenever I’m ask by a Seoulite what my favorite Korean food is I get mostly surprised reactions. While they expect me to answer with the usual galbi or BBQ chicken, my preference is actually the older, healthier food.
Two of my best meals and in my view the best food in Seoul, is perilla seed kalguksu (들깨칼국수 – deulkeh kalguksu) and hand-pulled dough soup (수제비 – sujebi).
Sujebi and kalguksu are made with the same ingredients, handmade wheat flour-based noodles. The only difference is that kalguksu is neatly cut with a knife (kal in Korean) while sujebi is roughly pulled with the thumb until torn off.
The sujebi broth is clear while the deulkeh gives a grainier texture, but both are packed with flavor. And there is always a side plate of kimchi to dip into the broth for that additional salty and spicy taste.
While restaurants that make this are not too easy to come by, especially for foreigners, my recommendation is to visit Chebudong Janchijip (서촌 체부동잔치집) in Socheon, very close to Gyeongbukgong Palace. It may look like a dive, but the food is absolutely delicious.
Historian aren’t sure when this dish of noodles in cold soybean soup were introduced to Korea, but today it’s a popular summer dish. It’s comprised of noodles made with wheat flour and soup made from ground soybeans.
The soup has a nutty, creamy soy milk broth that is, because it is served cold, very refreshing on a hot summer day.
If you’re looking to sample kongguksu in a restaurant, Jinjuhoegwan is eatery most often mentioned. The restaurant has been around for over 40 years, has been visited by Korean presidents, and received cultural awards for its dedication to Korean cuisine.
Rice Cake Soup – Tteokguk (떡국)
Tteokguk is a meal typically served on the Korean New Year. Tradition says that the soup will grant the consumer good luck for the next year.
The Korean expression “How many bowls of rice cake soup have you eaten?” is a way of asking someone’s age, and refers to the belief that consuming a bowl of the soup on New Year will grant an extra year of age. Once a seasonal dish, it’s now available year round.
Tteokguk consists of a broth, made from beef, pork, chicken or seafood. The primary season is ganjang (soup soy sauce).
Thinly sliced rice cakes (garaetteok) are added and boiled in the broth, after it has been strained. Additions to the soup are different in various region, but usually include julienned eggs and spring onions.
Braised Spicy Angler – Agujjim (아구찜)
Aguijjim is purported to have originated in Masan, in South Gyeongsang province. Fisherman in this region would catch the blackmouth angler (“agwi” in Korean), which was notoriously difficult to sell due to its strange appearance. The fishermen began to ask local chefs to make a dish using the “ugly fish”, so it wouldn’t go to waste.
The result was a spicy dish seasoned with hot chili pepper, minced garlic, fermented soybean paste (doenjang), soy sauce, and chopped scallions. Crunchy bean sprouts are added for additional texture, and various other seafood such as shrimp, clams, squid, and sea squirts are often incorporated.
The first time I heard of this dish, I was very excited, mainly because I know another name for blackmouth angler: monkfish. And monkfish is one of my favorite fish – it has a firm texture and tastes slightly like lobster.
In fact, monkfish is sometimes referred to as the “poor man’s lobster.” Despite that, due to it’s popularity, this isn’t an inexpensive dish – it’s definitely more of a splurge meal.
There are two versions of aguijim – one made with dried fish and one with fresh. Personally, I favor the fresh version, as the fish has a more mild taste.
Finding good agujjim in Seoul isn’t a problem – there are two streets devoted to the dish – one in Sinsadong (Gangnam) and one in Jongno (Dongdaemun area).
Glass Noodle Stir Fry – Japchae (잡채)
Strangely, japchae translates to “mixed vegetables” in Korea. The reason is that japchae was originally a noodle-less dish, when it was first invented.
These days, though, the glass noodles are the star of the dish. The noodles are a bit different – they’re made sweet potato starch, rather than traditional wheat or rice flower. Made from potato, they’re gluten-free, if that’s a concern.
The colorful vegetables, brilliant noodles, and well-seasoned meat make this a visually beautiful dish. The sesame oil that is typically added also adds a nice, nutty flavor to the noodles.
Steamed Egg – Gyeranjjim (계란찜)
As we’ve traveled (and eaten) around the world, one ingredient is ubiquitous: eggs. And rightly so. In our opinion, eggs make a fantastic meal as well as a critical ingredient in so many foods.
In Korea, gyeranjjim takes eggs to the next level. The egg isn’t treated simply as a breakfast item, and instead is transformed into a light, luscious delicacy. In Korean, “gyeran” means eggs, and “jjim” refers to a steamed dish.
It’s a very quick and easy addition to any Korean meal, made all the easier by being prepared in a microwave these days. It’s often served with spicy dishes – the creaminess of the egg mellows the heat.
Acorn Jelly – Dotori-muk (도토리묵)
Before writing this, “acorn” and “jelly” are two words I’d never think to join together to describe a food item. In Koream “muk” means “jelly”, when used without qualifiers, it usually refers to dotori-muk.
Acorn jelly is made from acorn starch, and is actually a savory rather than the typical sweet jelly preparations which are more familiar to us. It has a slightly bitter, nutty flavor and is often considered more of a side dish or an ingredient used in conjunction with other foods, such as a salad topping.
It can also be mixed in with vegetables (such as mushrooms or carrots) or added into rice dishes.
Mudfish Soup – Chueotang (추어탕)
Let’s just start with the obvious: anything with the name”mudfish” doesn’t sound appealing. But don’t worry, it’s much better than it sounds.
Mudfish (or loach) are basically bottom-dwelling freshwater fish. For this dish, the loach is purged of all mud and sand, then completely ground up, bones and all. The soup is made with the ground mudfish, soy bean paste and vegetables, primarily Napa cabbage.
It’s seasoned to taste with chopped garlic and jalapeños, red pepper paste, shredded Asian leeks, and perilla seeds. With a long cooking time, the consistency of the vegetables get a little mushy, so crisp toppings of green onions are often added for texture.
This dish is thought of as a health food in Korea. Since loaches also can survive by living in mud in case of a drought, they are believed to have great stamina.
When people are tired and fatigued, they look for chueotang as a remedy. The soup, in reality, is actually pretty healthy, with lots of calcium and minerals from the pulverized bones.
Chueotang is also sold by its aficionados as a beauty food. Many believe that eating the soup will make your complexion sparkly, smooth and fresh. Frankly, I’m not sure if mudfish equals great complexion, but what can it hurt?
Spicy Stir-fried Octopus – Nakji bokkeum (낙지볶음)
One walk through a fresh food market in Seoul is enough to let you know that octopus is a Korean favorite. Live octopi of all sizes are on offer in fish markets, and even at street-side fish monger stalls on major roads.
Sannakji or “live” octopus is a well-known Korean specialty. Haven’t heard of it? Think sashimi, but so fresh that the octopus tentacles are still moving around. While sannajki may only appeal to the most adventurous eaters, we tend to appreciate our octopus less….active, shall we say.
That’s where nakji-bokkeum comes in. Stir-fried with spicy chilis, soy sauce, sesame and sugar, this dish is a perfect mixture of hot/salty/sweet along with chewy, depending on the size of the octopus used. Small octopus are quite delicate and tender, while with larger octopus, the tentacles are chopped into bite-sized pieces and provide a chewiness.
Shaved ice – Patbingsu (빙수)
If you’re looking for gelato in South Korea, and you might be disappointed. Patbingsu, however, is a close second. Literally “red beans shaved ice”, this is a popular shaved ice dessert with sweet toppings. Traditionally, the shaved ice is topped with red beans, tteok, and ground nut powder.
In recent years, establishments have offered a variety of different options. Newer additions can include chopped fruit, condensed milk, fruit syrup, and many, many more options. Varieties with ingredients other than red beans are called bingsu or bingsoo).
Noodles in Black Bean Sauce – Jjajangmyeon (짜장면)
Jjajangmyeon are thick, chewy wheat noodles topped with a dark rich black bean sauce made with pork. How can you go wrong with this? Most Koreans agree, making jjajangmyeon one of the most popular food delivery items in Seoul.
We recommend that you try jjajangmyeon at one of the O’mori Kimchi restaurants. O’mori makes the noodles by hand, which is a lot less common these days due to the labor involved. The fresh noodles are less uniform in appearance and thickness, and this thought to somehow enhances the experience.
Kimchi-jjigae – Kimchi Stew (김치찌개)
Kimchi-jjigae (kimchi stew) is a jjigae, or stew-like Korean dish, made with kimchi and other ingredients, such as scallions, onions, diced tofu, pork, and seafood. It is one of the most common jjigae in Korea.
The quality of the kimchi used in the stew is key to the flavor. When you find a place that uses well-aged kimchi (three year old or more) the flavor is intense.
Budae-jjigae – Army Stew (부대찌개)
Budae-jjigae is one of the stranger items on this list, because of the unique (and non-Korean) ingredients. The stew is made with ham, sausage, spam, and baked beans, along with kimchi and gochujang.
If you’re wondering how this kitchen-sink dish came about, you just need to check into a little history of Korea. The dish was created shortly after the end of the Korean War, when food shortages were common.
Koreans would scrounge for surplus foods from the U. S. army bases, and then mix the discovered treasures into a single dish – hence the name “Army Stew”.
Haejang-guk – Hangover stew (해장국)
It doesn’t take much time in Seoul to discover that the drinking culture is alive and well among Koreans. Drinking beer, soju, and makgeolli is a popular pastime. And of course, all the late night drinking often results in next morning pain (and possibly regret).
Koreans have approached the dreaded hangover by having soup specifically dedicated to the cure. Most neighborhoods in Seoul have at least one establishment devoted to a version of haejang-guk.
There isn’t one particular variety of hangover soup – we’ve seen versions made with dried sardine base and bean sprouts, various cuts of fatty pork, congealed blood, and of course, tripe. With this many choices, you can easily find a hangover cure that fits your own personal palette.
You may even sample some without even the requisite hangover! However, once you discover the wonders of mixing soju and beer, I’m not betting on it.
Seoul Food Conclusion
First of all, this list of Korean food isn’t comprehensive. There are so many other great foods in Korea – this post would be at least twice as long just trying to list them all. We hope we made you hungry, though, and gave you some new ideas for what to eat in Seoul on your next visit.
And if you are concerned that any one of the dishes aren’t exactly what you’re looking for, don’t worry. I’ve rarely eaten a meal in Korea that was accompanied by at least a half dozen of side dishes. These include everything from fresh vegetables, pickled items, hot sauces, and of course, kimchi. So, you can doctor up your dish to your own standards, however you wish.
If you enjoyed this post, check out some of our other regional food roundups: