Korean cuisine deserves greater international attention. A thrillingly spicy mishmash of simple but invariably healthy ingredients, it’s prepared with consummate attention, then doled out in hearty portions at more restaurants than you could possibly count – even if every single person in the country suddenly decided to go out for dinner simultaneously, there would probably still be some free tables. Most are open from early morning until late at night, and a full 24 hours a day in many cases. You can usually find a restaurant to suit your budget, and there will always be an affordable option close by, a fact attested to by the great number of foreigners that live here quite happily for weeks, months or even years on end without doing a single bit of cooking for themselves.
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Though Korean cuisine is one of the most distinctive around, few Westerners arrive with knowledge of anything other than gimchi (김치; fermented vegetables) and dog meat. To say that the former is ubiquitous is a severe understatement, as it’s served as a side dish with pretty much everything you order, but rest assured that the latter will not be part of your diet unless you go to a dedicated restaurant. One common problem for visitors is the spice level of the food, an issue that has given Korea one of the world’s highest rates of stomach cancer. It’s not so much the spiciness of the individual dishes that causes problems (British travellers trained on curry, for example, rarely have any problems adjusting to Korean spice) but the fact that there’s little respite from it – red pepper paste (고추장; gochujang) is a component of almost every meal. Another common complaint by foreign visitors is the lack of attention paid to vegetarians, as such folk are extremely rare in Korea. Despite the high vegetable content of many meals, almost all have at least a little meat, and very few are cooked in meat-free environments. Most resort to asking for bibimbap without the meat, eating ramyeon (라면; instant noodles), or poking the bits of ham out of gimbap with a chopstick.
When eating with locals, it’s polite to observe Korean culinary etiquette. Many meals are eaten with flattened stainless-steel chopsticks; those unable to use them may have to rely on a combination of fork and spoon, as knives are rarely used.
Korean eating establishments are hard to pigeonhole. The lines between bar, restaurant, snack-shop and even home are often blurry to say the least, and some places cover all bases: in provincial towns, you may well see children tucked up for the night under empty tables. The more traditional eateries will see diners sitting on floor-cushions, their legs folded under low tables in a modified lotus position that can play merry hell on Western knees and ankles. Many dishes are for sharing, a fantastic arrangement that fosters togetherness and increases mealtime variety, though this has adverse implications for single travellers – Koreans don’t like to eat alone, and are likely to fret about those who do. One other point worth mentioning is the incredible number of foodstuffs that are claimed to be “good for sexual stamina”; at times it feels as if food is an augmenter of male potency first, and a necessary means of sustenance second. Raw fish and dog meat, in particular, are said to be good for this.
The following are available around the country, and few will cost more than W5000. Many meals involve rice in various forms: one that proves a hit with many foreigners is bibimbap, a mixture of shoots, leaves and vegetables on a bed of rice, flecked with meat, then topped with an egg and spicy gochujang pepper sauce. The dish can cost as little as W3500, though there are sometimes a few varieties to choose from. Other dishes served on a bed of rice include beef (bulgogi deop-bap; 불고기덮밥), highly spicy squid (ojingeo deop-bap; 오징어덮밥) or donkasseu (돈까스), a breaded pork cutlet dish imported from Japan that’s particularly popular with those who want to avoid spice. Also fulfilling this need are rolls of gimbap (김밥): gim means laver seaweed, bap means rice, and the former is rolled around the latter, which itself surrounds strips of egg, ham and pickled radish; the resulting tube is then cut into segments with a sharp knife to make the dish chopstick-friendly. The basic dish is filling and only costs W1000 or so, but for a little more you’ll usually have a variety of fillings to choose from, including tuna (chamchi; 참치), minced beef (sogogi; 소고기), processed cheese (chi-jeu; 치즈) and gimchi.
Noodles are also used as a base in many dishes, and one of the cheapest dishes to eat – a bowl of ramyeon can go for just W2000. This is a block of instant noodles boiled up in a spicy red pepper soup, and usually mixed in with an egg and some onion. For double the price you can have dumplings (mandu; 만두), rice-cake (ddeok; 떡) or processed cheese thrown in. If you're travelling in the sticky Korean summer you'll find it hard to throw back a bowl of hot, spicy soup; a better choice may be naengmyeon (냉면), bowls of grey buckwheat noodles served with a boiled egg and vegetable slices in a cold soup (though still spicy – this is Korea, after all).
Soups are also available without noodles. The names of these dishes usually end with -tang (탕) or -guk (국), though special mention must be made of the spicy jjigae broths (찌개). These are bargain meals that cost W3500 and up, and come with rice and a range of vegetable side dishes; the red pepper broth contains chopped-up vegetables, as well as a choice of tofu (sundubu; 순두부), tuna, soybean paste (doenjang; 된장) or gimchi. Many foreigners find themselves going for the more familiar dumpling (mandu) options; again, these can cost as little as W1000 for a dish, and you can have them with meat (gogi) or gimchi fillings. Most are steamed, though it’s sometimes possible to have them flash-fried.
All of the above can be found at fast-food chains around the country.
The traditional Korean restaurant is filled with low tables; diners are required to remove their footwear and sit on floor-cushions. There are a number of rules of restaurant etiquette but a substantial amount of custom also surrounds the food itself; while what often appears to be a culinary free-for-all can draw gasps from foreign observers (eat the meal; boil off the soup; throw in some rice to fry up with the scraps; add some noodles), Korea’s great on conformity, and you may well provoke chuckles of derision by performing actions that you deem quite sensible – it’s best just to follow the Korean lead.
Restaurant meals usually consist of communal servings of meat or fish around which are placed a bewildering assortment of side dishes (banchan; 반찬). Often, these are the best part of the meal – a range of fish, meat, vegetables and steamed egg broth, they’re included in the price of the meal, and there may be as many as twenty on the table; when your favourite is finished, waitresses will scoot around with a free refill. Two of the most popular meat dishes are galbi and samgyeopsal, which are almost always cooked by the diners themselves in the centre of the table. Galbi is rib-meat, most often beef (so-galbi; 소갈비) but sometimes pork (dwaeji-galbi; 돼지갈비). Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is strips of rather fatty pork belly. Prices vary but figure on around W7000 per portion for beef and a little less for pork; a minimum of two diners is usually required. Better for single travellers may be the hanjeongsik (한정식); this is a traditional Korean banquet meal centred on a bowl of rice and a spicy jjigae stew, which are surrounded by side dishes – a full belly of healthy, lovingly prepared food can be yours for just W6000 or so. Ssambap (쌈밥) meals are similarly good-value collections of rice and vegetable side dishes, though here the array is far greater – often filling the whole table – and is supposed to be wrapped up in leaves before it enters the mouth; figure on W8000 per person, and a total failure to clear everything that’s in front of you.
Though the most common variety of Korean snack food is gimbap there are many more options available. One is a dish called ddeokbokki (떡볶이), a mix of rice-cake and processed fish boiled up in a highly spicy red-pepper sauce; this typically costs around W2000 per portion, and is doled out in bowls by street vendors and small roadside booths. The same places usually serve twigim (튀김), which are flash-fried pieces of squid, potato, seaweed-covered noodle-roll or stuffed chilli pepper, to name but a few ingredients. The price varies but is usually around W3000 for six pieces – choose from the display, and they’ll be refried in front of you. You can have the resulting dish smothered in ddeokbokki sauce for no extra charge – delicious.
Convenience stores are usually good places to grab some food, as all sell sandwiches, rolls and triangles of gimbap, and instant noodles; boiling water will always be available for the latter, as well as a bench or table to eat it from, an activity that will mark you as an honorary Korean. A less appealing practice, but one that will endear you to Koreans more than anything else can, is the eating of beonddegi (번데기) – boiled silkworm larvae.
You’ll find ice cream in any convenience store, where prices can be as low as W500; if you want to keep your selection as Korean as possible, go for green tea, melon, or red-bean paste flavours. An even more distinctively local variety, available from specialist snack bars, is patbingsu (팥빙수), a strange concoction of fruit, cream, shaved ice and red-bean paste. Also keep an eye out in colder months for a hoddeok (호떡) stand – these press out little fried pancakes of rice-mix filled with brown sugar and cinnamon for just W500 per piece, and are extremely popular with foreigners.
Seafood, markets and mountain food
Some Korean eating places exude an essence little changed for decades. Raw fish stalls around the coast, city-centre marketplaces and mountain restaurants are your best options for that traditional feeling.
Korean seafood is a bit of a maze for most foreigners, and much more expensive than other meals, though it’s worth persevering. Some is served raw, while other dishes are boiled up in a spicy soup. Jagalchi market in Busan deserves a special mention, but in small coastal villages – particularly on the islands of the West and South seas – there’s little other industry to speak of; battered fishing flotillas yo-yo in and out with the tide, and you may be able to buy fish literally straight off the boat. This may seem as fresh as seafood can possibly be, but baby octopus is often served live (sannakji; 산낙지), its severed tentacles still squirming as they head down your throat. Be warned: several people die each year when their prey decides to make a last futile stab at survival with its suckers, so you may wish to wait until it has stopped moving, or at least kill the nerves with a few powerful bites. A far simpler choice is hoe deop-bap (회덮밥), a widely available dish similar to bibimbap, but with sliced raw fish in place of egg and meat. A halfway house in excitement terms is jogae-gui (조개구이), a shellfish barbecue – the unfortunate creatures are grilled in front of you, and W35,000 will buy enough of them to fill two people.
Korean markets offer similar opportunities for culinary exploration. Here you’re also likely to spot seafood on sale, along with fruits, vegetables, grilled or boiled meats and an assortment of snacks. Many options have been detailed under “Snack food” above, but one favourite almost unique to the market is sundae (순대), a kind of sausage made with intestinal lining and noodles. Sokcho on the Gangwon coast is the best place to sample this.
Korea’s wonderful national parks feature some splendid eating opportunities surrounding the main entrances. One of the most popular hiker dishes is sanchae bibimbap (산채 비빔밥), a variety of the Korean staple made with roots, shoots and vegetables from the surrounding countryside – knowing that everything is sourced locally somehow makes the dish taste better. Most popular, though, are pajeon (파전); locals may refer to these as “Korean pizza”, but they’re more similar to a savoury pancake. They usually contain strips of spring onion and seafood (haemul pajeon; 해물), though other varieties are available; it’s usually washed down with a bowl or three of dongdongju, a milky rice wine.
While many visitors fall head over heels for Korean food, it’s not to everybody’s taste, and after a while the near-permanent spicy tang of red-pepper paste can wear down even the most tolerant taste buds. One problem concerns breakfast, which, to most Koreans, is simply another time-window for the intake of gimchi and rice. This is too heavy for many Westerners, but though a fry-up or smörgåsbord will be hard to find outside the major hotels, you may find some solace in the buns, cakes and pastries of major bakery chains such as Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette, or the mayonnaise-heavy sandwiches of the convenience stores.
International food is getting easier to come by in Korea, though only Seoul can be said to have a truly cosmopolitan range (and a thinly spread one, at that). American-style fast food, however, can be found pretty much everywhere – McDonald’s and Burger King are joined by Lotteria, a local chain, and there are also a great number of fried chicken joints scattered around. Traditional Japanese food has made serious inroads into the Korean scene, and the obligatory red lanterns of izakaya-style bar-restaurants are especially easy to spot in student areas. Italian food has long been popular with Koreans, who have added their own twists to pizzas and pasta – almost every single meal will be served with a small tub of pickled gherkin, an addition that locals assume to be de rigueur in the restaurants of Napoli or Palermo. Chinese restaurants are equally numerous, though unfortunately they’re no more authentic than their counterparts in Western countries, even in the many cases where the restaurateurs themselves are Chinese. One recommendation, however, is beokkeumbap – fried rice mixed with cubes of ham and vegetable, topped with a fried egg and black bean sauce, and served with deliciously spicy seafood broth; the whole thing will cost about W5000, and is, therefore, a great way to fill up on the cheap.
A sweet potato wine named soju (소주) is the national drink – a cheap, clear Korean version of vodka that you’ll either love or hate (or love, then hate the next morning) – but there’s a pleasing variety of grog to choose from. The country also has a wealth of excellent tea on offer, though coffee is increasingly winning the urban caffeine battles.
Though the imbibing of soju is de rigueur at restaurants of an evening, most people do their serious drinking in bars and “hofs”. There are a quite incredible number of both in the cities, though the majority can be surprisingly empty, even at weekends – you may wonder how most of them stay in business. Hofs, pronounced more like “hop”, are bright, booth-filled places serving beer (maekju; 맥주) by the bucketload. The main beers are Cass, OB and Hite; prices are more or less the same for each, starting at about W2500 for a 500cc glass. Quite fascinating are the three- or five-litre plastic jugs of draught beer (saeng-maekju; 생맥주), which often come billowing dry ice and illuminated with flashing lights. The downside of such places is that customers are pretty much obliged to eat as well as drink; you’ll be given free snacks, but customers are expected to order something from the menu.
Bars are almost invariably dark, neon-strewn dens; unlike in hofs, customers are not usually expected to eat and tend to take roost in an extensive cocktail menu; beer will still be available, in draught or bottled form. Each city has one or more main “going-out” district, with the most raucous to be found outside the rear entrances of the universities (which maintain a veneer of respectability by keeping their main entrances free of such revelry). Most cities have at least one resident expat bar; these are usually the best places for foreigners to meet fellow waeguk-in or new Korean friends. Often surrounded with tables and chairs for customer use, convenience stores are equally great places to meet new mates, and actually the best hunting grounds for local drinks. They also sell bottles of foreign wine for W7000 and up, though special mention must be made of a local variety named Jinro House Wine: this curiously pink liquid, which may or may not be derived from grapes, costs about W2000 per bottle and can only be described as “comedy wine” as it tends to give people the giggles.
Tea and coffee
Tea is big business in Korea. Unfortunately, most of the drinking takes place at home or work, though Insadong in Seoul has dozens of interesting tearooms, and there are some gems outside national parks and in Jeonju’s hanok district. Green tea is by far the most popular, though if you find your way to a specialist tearoom, do take the opportunity to try something more special (see Korean tea varieties).
Korea is now a bona fide coffee nation. Café culture has found its way into the lives of Korean youth, and even in smaller towns you shouldn’t have to look too far to find somewhere to sate your caffeine cravings. In addition to coffee, modern cafés usually serve delicious green tea latte, with some of the more adventurous throwing in ginseng or sweet potato varieties for good measure. Though certainly not for purists, worth mentioning are the cans and cartons of coffee on sale in convenience stores, and the three-in-one instant mixes that pop up all over the place, including most motel rooms.