Korea Food Guide: 15 Things To Eat and Drink in South Korea

There are loads of reasons to visit South Korea and its delicious food is definitely up there. Having evolved over the centuries, today it’s one of the most popular cuisines in the world and for good reason. Going on an impromptu food adventure around the country’s many markets, restaurants and street stalls is a great way to explore this corner of Asia. Here are my top things to eat and drink in South Korea.

Korea Food Guide: 15 Things To Eat and Drink in South Korea

Gogigui (고기구이) – Korean barbecue

Korean BBQ is likely what people are most familiar with when thinking about the country’s cuisine. Visiting an authentic gogi-jip (literally and aptly translated as “meat house”) is an absolute must if you are serious about a traditional food experience in Korea. While top-end options can are not budget-friendly, many gogi-jip offer all-you-can-eat menus for very affordable prices. My friends took me to a local place in Seoul and I was blown away by the amount of meat, sides and sauces were brought to our table. A plate tower loaded with meat cuts, bowls of soup and vegetables and of course kimchi filled the space in seconds! Best of all, the entire meal, with beers included only came to about ₩20000 (around £14/$18) per person!

Grilled meat and vegetables on a table in a restaurant in Seoul
A Korean barbecue WILL fill you up

Bibimbap (비빔밥) – Korean rice hotpot mixed with meat and vegetables

Another Korean food that’s relatively famous in the West, bibimbap is another must-try staple! White rice is topped with ingredients ranging from vegetables to meat and fish and usually crowned with an egg. Once served, you mix everything together and enjoy the huge portion that will usually be put in front of you! Bibimbap is often served in a hot stone bowl called a dolsot.

A Korean stone bowl called a dolsot on a table with food inside
Bibimbap served in a traditional dolsot hot stone bowl. Image: www.souschef.co.uk

Gimbap (김밥) Korean seaweed rice rolls

Gimbap (or kimbap) is often labelled as sushi rolls, Korean-style. While that’s a pretty fair comparison for the most part, there are some subtle differences that give gimbap its own identity. While Japanese sushi is seasoned with vinegar, gimbap uses sesame oil which gives it a unique, slightly sweeter taste. In addition, instead of raw fish, gimbap generally uses cooked meats, vegetables and even cheese. The ingredients are then wrapped in sheets of laver seaweed (gim) and then sliced into bite-sized pieces. It’s a healthy and filling snack – perfect for a quick bite on the go while exploring the sights around Korea! It’s also an ideal hiking food and you will often see Koreans take a break from the trail or unwind after a long hike with a few gimbap rolls.

Check out the 8 South Korea Hiking Trails You Don’t Want To Miss

An outstretched hand holding a roll of gimbap against a backdrop of mountain scenery
Enjoying a gimbap at Birobong Peak in Sobaeksan National Park

Kimchi (김치) – Spicy fermented cabbage

There is simply no Korean food without kimchi. The spicy fermented side dish is an integral part of the nation’s cuisine and it’s unlikely that you will have a meal in Korea without it. Best of all, sides in Korea are usually free so you can have as much of the delicious stuff as you want. Most commonly made with fermented cabbage and radish, there are almost 200 different variations of kimchi. It does have somewhat of a Marmite effect – you will either love it or hate it! You should love it though – it’s amazing! It also dates back to around 2000 years ago so you’re eating a proper staple here!

Containers of kimchi lined up on a market stall
Different varieties of kimchi on sale at Sokcho Tourist Fisheries Market

Bulgogi (불고기) – Korean grilled beef

More BBQ meat goodness! Bulgogi is marinated slices of beef or pork that’s grilled on a barbecue or in a pan. It’s often prepared together with vegetables including peppers, onions and garlic. One of the best ways to eat bulgogi is wrapping the meat in a lettuce leaf and adding some kimchi and sauces such as ssamjang (a spicy dipping sauce) which I guarantee will change your life!

Strips of grilled meat, vegetables and rice in a dish
Bulgogi is another delicious barbecue option in Korea. Image credit: Steve Wertz

Mandu (만두) – Korean dumplings

If you are a fan of dumplings, then Korea has you covered. Mandu is the name for this delicious staple and the dumplings can be steamed, boiled or fried and come with a variety of fillings. Minced kimchi, pork and sweet red bean varieties are popular and I would recommend you try them all! Seoul’s Gwangjang Market has stalls dedicated to these steamed morsels of deliciousness!  They taste even better when paired with tasty sauces and ice cold beer. Don’t forget to keep topping up that kimchi plate – like all sides, it’s free virtually everywhere!

Top Tip: Pop in to Namdaemun Market (also in Seoul) to find queues of locals wait impatiently for their takeaway bags at Gamegol Mandu for their famous large mandu.

A tray of Korean dumplings in a market in Seoul is one of the top things to eat in South Korea
Heaped trays of mandu dumplings are a common at sight at street food markets in Korea

Japchae (잡채) – Sweet Potato Stir Fried Glass Noodles

Japchae is a really popular Korean dish of special Korean sweet potato noodles mixed with vegetables and meat. When Japchae was first invented it was actually just a vegetable dish – japchae translates as “mixed vegetables”. Today, the noodles are a star of the show though! Japchae is a popular festive dish and is often served at weddings, banquets and special events.

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/foodishfetish/

Tteokbokki (떡볶이) – Spicy stir-fried rice cakes

One of the most popular street foods in Korea, this spicy stir-fried rice cake dish is the ultimate comfort food. These can be found at almost every food market and street stall and can be easily enjoyed by themselves or as part of a bigger meal. Tteokbokki has a chewy texture and is very filling, while the delicious spicy red chilli pepper sauce covering the cake gives it a perfect kick.

A plate of tteokbokki and gimbap at Gwangjang Market in Seoul

Yangnyeom Chicken (양념 치킨) – Seasoned fried chicken

I can’t even write this without salivating. The juicy, seasoned Korean fried chicken is probably my favourite thing in the whole world! Coated with your choice of flavoursome sauces, it’s probably different to the fried chicken you’re used to! Commonly eaten together with ice cold beers, it’s a great snack to share on a night out with friends. There is even a name for the tasty pairing – chimaek! It’s also the food of choice at baseball games (which is SUPER popular in Korea) so if you want an authentic experience, grab a bucket of chicken and some cheap beers and enjoy the game with some chimaek!

A plate of seasoned fried chicken is one of the top things to eat in South Korea

Pajeon (파전) – Savoury Korean pancakes

These savoury pan-fried pancakes are another common sight in Korea’s plentiful markets and street food stalls. The ingredients vary greatly and you can find anything from vegetables and kimchi to seafood and meat inside. Why not grab a few different ones to share? While you’re at it, grab some bindaetteok (mung bean pancakes) which are also super popular!

A selection of colourful savoury pancakes at a market stall
Most markets have a huge selection to choose from so why not train a few different ones?

Memil Chongtteok (메밀총떡) – Rolled buckwheat pancakes

On the subject of pancakes, how about a rolled-up buckwheat one with kimchi or pork for filling? Buckwheat is also considered healthier than normal wheat flour. It’s been shown to help with detoxification of the liver and thus acts as a sort of hangover cure! Handy for those late-night soju sessions!

Rolled up buckwheat pancakes on trays at a market stall
Rolled up buckwheat pancakes are apparently a great hangover cure!

Dakkochi (닭꼬치) – Korean grilled chicken skewers

Another popular street food, delicious kkochi skewers have a variety of flavours, sauces and spice options. The most common, dakkochi (chicken skewers) is a quick and tasty snack with options ranging from salt and teriyaki to spicy chilli. A stall selling these is never too far away and if chicken isn’t your thing, other options include beef and seafood.

Rows of skewered chicken, meat and sausages at a street food stall in Seoul
Street food stalls selling skewers are a common sight in Korea

Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) – Korean spicy soft tofu stew

This tasty stew is popular all over Korea and comes in different variations – meat, seafood, vegetable or a mix of all three! Sundubu is a special type of tofu that’s normally sold in tubes and has a higher moisture content that normal tofu, making it extra soft. This is a great winter food – comforting, warming and spicy!

A hotpot of a spicy soft tofu stew next to a small bowl of rice
The hearty and tasty sundubu jjigae

Sikhye (식혜) – Sweet rice drink

A sweet drink with grains of cooked rice floating in it doesn’t sound that appetising but is surprisingly refreshing! It is served either as a dessert or sold as a thirst-quencher at markets and from vending machines. Definitely worth a try on a hot summer’s day!

A ladle pouring a cold drink into a cup
It might be an acquired taste but sikhye is very refreshing on a hot day!

Soju (소주) – Korean distilled alcoholic beverage

I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed drinking alcohol as much as I’ve enjoyed soju-filled nights with friends over a Korean BBQ! The clear alcoholic beverage happens to be the best-selling spirit in the world yet remains relatively unknown in the West! Traditionally distilled from rice grains, there are many different types of soju today. Soju is usually served straight (even though soju cocktails are a thing) and drinking it is a social occasion as you pour each other’s glasses, toast and drink before doing it all again. It’s pretty easy to drink and the new fruit flavoured soju varieties are become more and more popular. In short, don’t leave Korea without a night on the town drinking soju!

Check out my 11 Essential Tips for First Time Visitors to Korea

Six glass bottles with colourful labels lined up on a kitchen counter
There are loads of varieties of soju on the market today. Image credit: Jason Garber

Did you enjoy my 15 Things To Eat and Drink in South Korea? Have you tried Korean food? Let me know if you agree with this list in the comments! 

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