ultimate guide to korean food

The Best Korean Food Guide – [What to Eat in Korea]

As we arrive in Korea the only thing we know about Korean food is Kimchi. And of course what we learned from the “Hairy Biker Asian Adventure.”, so the best thing to do? Head to a market.


Korean Food Night Market

Korean Food at Night Markets

So for our first night in Seoul we wander over to the Gwanjang market.  We’re a little late, but that means that at least we’ll get a seat. A lot of the stalls have closed up, but the food stalls are going strong. There are a variety of different aisles here, with each aisle specializing in a particular food stuff. There’s a distinct lack of English signage, but a good enough number of people sat down, which makes it easy to point and ask for “What he’s having please”.

Which of course is what we do.  And so begins the Korean Food adventure.

Eat Kimchi dumplings in broth in Korea

Korean Food kimchi dumplings in broth
Kimchi Dumplings

Oh heaven.

Dumplings without broth. A good brothless brother to the other.

Korean Food Kimchi Dumplings

And a selection of side dishes, from the regular kimchi to other pickled vegetables.

Korean Food - side dishes

We miss out by not having just noodles.  The folks next to us do have them so see them hand rolled and cut in front of us.

Korean Food - handcut noodles

Then we’re off to another stall.

Eat Tteokbokki in Korea

Another dish you’ll find EVERYWHERE in Korea. Solid tubes of glutinous rice  soaked in a spicy red chili sauce.  Tteokbokki. Oh boy this is good.

Korean Food - Tteokbokki

It’s good to eat, spicy, and tasty and will leave you smacking your lips and it fills you up too! Plus, it’s usually pretty cheap to eat, either as street food or as a side dish in a restaurant. We pick them out with toothpick like sticks and cram them in whole.

We found more at BIFF Square (the Busan International Film Festival Square) in Busan. Here’s a piece of advice.   When the Korean woman selling you some of the Tteokbokki in red sauce tells you that this one is REALLY spicy and you might want to try the other one. LISTEN TO HER. Oy, oy, oy. This was super super spicy. Even asbestos mouthed Nigel had a few moments with this!

Korean Food Tteokbokki
Korean Food - Tteokbokki

Also in Busan we found fish cakes.

Korean Food - fish cakes on sticks

Eat Korean Fish Cakes

Yup these are fish cakes. They sit in the boiling fish broth on sticks and you pay for the individual sticks. Dip em in some soy sauce and eat it down. They’re just like very mild fish on a stick really.

Eat Korean Pancakes – Dongnae Pajeon

Pancakes with green onion and sometimes seafood.

In Busan, one of the specialities of street food is the Dongnae Pajeon. We gave up on the flat chopsticks with this one and grabbed a fork from the vendor.  Then we chopped the pancake and dunked it in a little sauce. Nom Nom.

Korean Food - Dongnae Pajeon

Eat Korean Mung Bean Pancakes – Bindaettaeok

Pancakes with Onion and Soy Sauce on the Side
These mung bean pancakes are everywhere in this market. Mostly they look like they’ve being fried in inches of boiling oil and our initial response is “urgh, nope”, but as we sit eating our glutinous rice things in red sauce, the lady next to us, guzzling her Soju (a slightly sweet distilled firewater), convinces us in a stream of unrelenting Korean that we should try them.

Korean Food - Bindaettaeok

And when our soy runs dry she makes sure that it’s filled again. Nige has to try the pork belly (which is mostly fat) from her plate.  Then she’s raising her glass of Soju in salute and making him drink his beer down in one.

Koreans are known for being the Irish of Asia. So we end our drinking game before it begins.

Eat at Korean Department Store Food Courts

I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining that Debenham’s food court aren’t you (for the Brits), where you can get a dried up piece of battered fish, with some coldish chips and a slop of bakes beans with a mug of watery tea. The Lotte department store food court is NOTHING LIKE THAT.

Korean Food Lotte Department Food Court

First of all there’s a deli area, so you can wander round (and this place is huge).  You can pick up all the kimchi, bread, dried fish, sweets and everything else that you need to take home. There are some free tastings, but the kimchi tastings are clearly guarded.

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Then we move into the food court area. There are perhaps 10 food areas, with a variety of different foods on offer. From fried rice specialties, to noodle, to Japanese and each specific area has the plastic mockups of what the food looks like. This is WAY better than pictures. Some of it has English explanations.

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Buying Lunch at a Department Store Food Court

So you figure out what you want, and then head back to a central cash desk, where you tell them what you want. And that’s as easy as…. taking a picture and showing your phone, or getting the woman behind the food area to write down what you want and handing that over. Or if you know the bar code, heck you can just rattle that off as well…

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One receipt and a buzzer each later, and we find a table (the staff move some people’s bags).  We’re the only Westerners in here, and I think they’ve giving us space.  They won’t let us put our bags on the floor, we have to put them on the chairs next to us!.

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Our food is cooked to order and when we buzz, we head off to pick it up. Wow. It’s a complete feast for around 7,000 KRW.

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Korean Breakfast

Our breakfast in Seoul is provided by the hostel that we’re staying in. White toast, butter and jam and there’s eggs too – so we boil them for later. The bread that we find when we’re wandering the streets tends to be filled with creamy substances. It’s quite bizarre. We can’t find a bread roll or a small loaf that doesn’t have stuff inside it.

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Using Korean Chopsticks

We have been eating with chopsticks since China. That’s three months ago. And they’re slightly different in each country. in Sichuan, China, where you get food to sweat for, they’re really long. Almost like using a pole vault to get that Mapo Doufu in your mouth.

Here in Korea, they’re metal and flat. Yup. Flat. Weird huh? Turns out there was an emperor in the past who didn’t want his chopsticks rolling off the table onto the floor. So, flat chopsticks.

Korean Food - Korean Chopsticks

They’re very strange and hard to get used to. We thought we were doing well with regular chopsticks, I mean we might be losing weight, but that’s because of the walking, not an inability to get food in our mouths. But now these flat chopsticks. They’re difficult.

Supermarket Food in Korea

Some days, when we’ve been out hiking, the idea of eating out is just not fun. We’ve been on the road coming up to 5 months now. That’s a long time to eat out each night. We have nights off, where we eat in the room (or the kitchen if we’re in a hostel). This usually means noodles, as most places have a kettle. But when we’re near a supermarket or food store with a decent deli section, we see what they’ve got. And not getting there until after 8pm means that there are discount deals.

Here in Korea, the Lotte supermarket in Mockpo had some great deals. Although it was a little strange to get a “deli box” that had sushi, rolls, fried potato things and white bread sandwiches all in the same box, we figure we got a taste of just about everything. The breaded chicken/pork was an added bonus.

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Korean Snacks – Samgak Kimbap

Seaweed Covered Rice Triangles with Filling
Yeah that sounds good doesn’t it? Actually they are. They cost around USD$1 and come in plastic packing that lets you put the separate wrapped seaweed around the rice triangle without dropping rice all over the place.

Korean Food - Samgak Kimbap

They’re pretty good and the fillings range from nothing to tuna, beef, chicken, pork. Of course unless there’s an English translation there is always the “surprise” filling. They’re great for lunches on the move and definitely a change from our ham and cheese white bread sandwiches.

Snacking in Korea

This is what happens when you miss breakfast and its 2pm and lunch is nowhere in sight.

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That’s right. Its a hot dog covered in batter, with chips stuck on the outside with more batter and some ketchup. Its sinfully good. But I feel kind of dirty having eaten it.

I didn’t feel dirty enough to try these. The boiled silkworm pupae (Beondegi). But I didn’t see anyone else trying them either. Korean or otherwise.

Korean Food Beondegi

And when you’re on a roll of bad food, you might as finish it off right eh? Ice cream Korean style. Yup, that’s a cone with ice cream. Slightly soggy, but still it’s ice cream. Our first since Russia.

Korean Food - Korean Icecream

Jeju Island Food

When in doub follow what other people are doing.. That’s what we did in Seogwipo on the south coast of Jeju Island. Wandering around the market, early evening trying to figure out what to eat we found a line of people, some waiting for takeaway and some waiting to sit down. A table cleared and so we found ourselves sat down, pointing at the “small” picture on the wall.

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And then it arrived.

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There’s a bowl of clearish soup, some pickled vegetables and medium sized plate full of red spicy broth. In the broth there’s a roll of seaweed wrapped vegetables and rice.  Plus there are two boiled eggs, some of those Tteokbokki and some batter pancakes things. And it’s really really good. Until Nigel mishandles the flat chopsticks and drops a glutinous rice thing from a great height back into the spicy red broth. Red spicy broth doesn’t go with a light blue shirt. Not really.

Fried Chicken in Korea

Fried Chicken is another Korean specialty. They took what Colonel Saunders did and did it better apparently. We try a small cone or chicken pieces with more Tteokbokki and a squirt of mustard. It’s like chicken popcorn really. Good, though.

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Korean Bibimbap

We found this pretty much everywhere in the north of the country and it was easy.  A single bowl where warm white rice is topped with sauteed and seasoned vegetables, gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce and a fried egg. It’s laid out to look very pretty. You then mix it all up and then dive in. Don’t forget to eat your side dishes along with it. Easy, usually vegetarian, unless you ask for additional items. Like Octopus, which is everywhere. Nige ate more Octopus in 11 days than he’s eaten in 11 years.

Korean Food - bimimbap
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Korean Food Bimimbap and Side dishes

Spicy BBQ Pork on Jeju Island

This is just the best. BBQ is huge in Korea. In some towns every restaurant you walk past has individual barbecues on the tables.

And there are heaps of restaurants where each table has its own barbie

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One restaurant in Seogwipo on the south coast of Jeju Island (Yongi Sikdang) serves JUST one dish. Spicy BBQ Pork. And it’s fabulous. So good we went there twice.

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Sitting down at your table, you help yourself to water, indicate how many of you there are and then the food starts to arrive. The staff will turn on the bbq for you. It’s got a flat square cooking plate, and they’ll line this with foil. After they’ve dropped on the slices of frozen pork, then you’ll need to get on and lay it out.  Then make sure its cooking, not burning as you inspect the rest of the food.

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As well as your now sizzling spicy pork there’s noodles, bean sprouts, veggies, lettuce and red sauce. There’s also a bowl of clear soup with your name on it and a bowl of rice (with more available if you want it). It’s a fierce heat, so we kept a close eye on it. Once the pork is almost cooked, we add the rest of the fixings – apart from the lettuce and the red sauce. And keep stirring and turning it so that it doesn’t burn.

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To eat: Take a lettuce leaf in your hand, add a goop of rice, then some pork, noodles, veggies and beansprouts, a goop of red sauce and wrap it all up and pop it in your mouth. All in one go now, no taking a dainty bite. Hint – don’t make your spicy pork bbq parcel too big!.

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Nom Nom. This is a great local way to eat. And it’s easy. Easily priced at 6,000 KRW per person, easy to figure out (and the staff will help you if you don’t speak Korean) and it’s really tasty. It’s a little spicy, but not too much and pretty much everyone will be able to deal with the spicy heat. The heat of the just cooked pork sitting on a lettuce leaf on your hand is another matter.  So you’ll have to get it shoved in your mouth quickly!

Jeju Island Black Pork Belly

Then there’s the special Jeju Island Black Pork Belly. Like Bacon, but less salty and more pork. Nom Nom Nom.

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With yet more fixings. And this time you get a chunky pair of scissors to cut up your pork. And yet more fixings. Oh, I could definitely live here.

Korean Desserts

Ssiat Hoddeok

We wrap up our time in Busan with a famous dessert, Ssiat Hoddeok. It’s a fried fritter cut down the middle with pine nuts or seeds in the middle. It’s hot, oily and we agree while one is enough between us, it’s actually pretty good.

Ssiat Hoddeok

Patbingsu – Red Beans on Shaved Ice

We can’t leave Korea without trying some of the famous Patbingsu: Red Beans on Shaved Ice. So, of course we don’t. At the time of year when the locals are leaving the Shaved Ice and moving onto warm red beans in a bowl that they slurp down from small street stalls, we’re sitting with a cup of shaved ice, red beans dumped on top. It’s an interesting taste.. glad we tried it, but… It’s a little like refried beans over ice.


Food on the ferry to Japan

And then all of a sudden it’s over. Our sojourn in Korea, our “tour” of duty, our taste is done. We’re on the ferry leaving Busan and heading to the port of Shimonoseki, Japan. We’re in the restaurant on the Kampu Ferry, it’s pretty empty. There’s a menu in Japanese (this boat is Japanese) and Korean. It has pictures. Which are all a little blurry.

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Never mind. It’s easy, so long as you’re easy with what you get to eat of course…

1. Pick what you want to eat.
2. Buy a ticket for it at the machine outside the restaurant (you need Japanese Yen, and if you forgot to change it at the ferry terminal (doh!) then the duty free shop on board will give you 100 Yen for 1000 KRW.
3. Walk into the restaurant and hand over your tickets. Sit down.
4. Food gets delivered.
5. Want more? Go back to the ticket machine and buy more.

We buy off the pictures. Numbers 19, 22, 23 and 24.

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Our final taste of kimchi is good. Our Tteokbokki is good, but not great, we’ve had better. At least it didn’t melt my lips off like last night’s street food version did. Another dish…. hm. this wasn’t what we were expecting, it’s kind of like beef, pork, fishy with those transparent noodles. Still we’re hungry. And then stir fried mini hot dogs. Excellent. Russia was the last time we had hotdogs. Never had them stir fried before, still the sauce with a hint of peanut is really rather good.

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And that, is that. Farewell to the Republic of Korea, we have REALLY, REALLY enjoyed our 11 days here, we’ve marvelled at the peace in the national parks, we’ve found the people incredibly friendly and helpful, the transport has been superb and we have JUST LOVED THE FOOD.

We’ll leave the land of the morning calm and hopefully wake in the land of the rising sun in the meantime have some kimchi porn.

Travel Tips for Exploring South Korea

Korean Food - Kimchi
Korean Food - Kimchi
Korean Food - Kimchi
Korean Food - Kimchi

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