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.
Korean food is based a lot around grains—in particular rice. It’s a cuisine that isn’t afraid of a little spice and uses a lot of fermented ingredients. Fish and seafood also lay an important role in South Korean food, because of the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula.
Traditional South Korean Cuisine
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Many South Korean dishes have fascinating histories or cultural significance. A lot of the foods here are adopted or adapted from other cultures. As well as looking at some of the more traditional dishes, we’ll also give you an insight into some of the modern concoctions that have become popular more recently.
So, come along with us on this food journey of South Korea. We can’t wait to show you some of our all-time favorite dishes.
Bibimbap is one of the more well-known Korean dishes. But have you really tried it unless you’ve tried it in its country of origin? Bibimbap is a rice-based dish that can consist of vegetables, a fried egg, and whatever other protein you like.
You can get a version with seafood, beef, tofu—there’s something to suit all tastes! Different regions of South Korea have their own takes on this traditional Korean dish. The exact origins of bibimbap are not known, but it’s thought long ago it may have been used in religious rites.
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.
This dish actually comes from Northern Korea, but today it is popular in South Korea as well. Bulgogi dates back all the way to the Goguryeo era during which time a kingdom of the same name ruled over the Korean peninsula. This is a delicious and unpretentious dish that you’ll find in 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 BBQ! Also known as Gogigui, this type of food is as fun to eat as it is delicious.
At Korean BBQ restaurants, you order your meat, you’re given a selection of veggies, and then you can go to town drilling your own dinner. It’s a super fun way to spend an evening and a very social way of eating.
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 pork 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 usually consists of cabbage, carrots, 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.
Make your own Kimchi with this delicious recipe!
6. Saengseon Jjigae
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 of other shellfish. If you’re a lover of fish then you’ve got to make sure to try this dish!
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.
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!
Another popular street food, Tteokbokki is 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.
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 (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.
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.
Try making your own at home with this recipe!
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
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.
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.
Our Favorite South Korean Food
South Korea is a fascinating and culturally rich country and South 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!