20 of the best foods to try in South Korea
‘Anyeongahaseyo’ to all you food lovers out there. Get ready to set your taste buds alight with our list of the top 20 foods to try in South Korea. It’s no secret that the country is home to some of the most delicious dishes in the world; from the famous spicy side dish, kimchi that’s served with every meal, to the cook-it-yourself Korean BBQ experience. Korea is also known for its tender crispy fried chicken and endless amounts of red bean desserts and snacks.
In this guide, we’ll share some of our absolute must-try dishes when visiting Korea. Sit back, get your note pad at the ready and try not to dribble. Our list of the best foods in Korea has something for all tastes!
The best meals and street food to try
Bibimbap (Korean rice bowl)
We’re starting off our list of the top 20 foods to try in South Korea with one of the country’s most popular and signature dishes, Bibimbap. The word, ‘bibimbap’ literally translates to ‘mix rice’ and that’s exactly what you need to do with this dish. Traditional bibimbap is served with a variety of vegetables such as bean sprouts, carrots, lettuce and often dried seaweed. It also features a fried egg on a bed of sticky white rice, with a dollop of spicy sauce known as ‘gochujang.’
Some places will offer a meat option with strips of spicy pork or beef. You’ll need to mix all the ingredients up so that the spicy sauce gets absorbed into the ingredients, and voilà, it’s ready to eat! Be sure to try ‘dolsot bibimbap’, which is served in a hot stone bowl. The hot bowl gives the rice a crispy edge, making it even more delicious.
Kimbap (Korean-style sushi)
Another popular and traditional food to try in South Korea is kimbap. This dish may look suspiciously like Japanese sushi, but the ingredients used are completely different. ‘Kimbap’ translated from Korean means ‘seaweed rice,’ and that’s exactly what it is. Sticky rice is placed on a sheet of dried seaweed, along with vegetables such as spinach, carrot and pickled radish. They’re lined up tightly to create a rainbow colour of foodie goodness. It’s then rolled up and cut up in small pieces.
Each Kimbap on its own, or with a side of sesame soy sauce. It’s a popular street food choice and whilst it’s usually a vegetarian dish, you can sometimes see vendors selling a meat or fish option. You’ll also find fancier versions of the dish in restaurants. Kimbap is one of the best foods in South Korea and you’ll find it absolutely everywhere.
Mealtimes aren’t just about enjoying good food for Koreans, it’s also about the experience too. Korean BBQ is a popular choice amongst co-workers, families, and friends in Korea; the perfect chance to get together and enjoy some good food and catch up. Korean BBQ can either be cooked for you, or in most cases, is to cook it yourself at your table. Pork belly is the most popular BBQ meat you’ll find in Korea, but you can also get beef and other types of pork in some restaurants.
To start the Korean BBQ, you’ll be provided with fresh, uncooked meat, a selection of cooking utensils and a hot BBQ grill, usually heated with hot stones or coal. The BBQ restaurant tables are especially designed to accommodate a BBQ; they even have an exhaust to get ride of the smoke!
One challenge which foreigners may face is understanding how to really eat Korean BBQ, the right way. You’ll be given fresh lettuce leaves, various dipping sauces and ‘banchan’ (Korean side dishes). Follow our step-by-step guide below on how to eat Korean BBQ just like a Korean:
- Grab a lettuce leaf and place it in the palm of your hand
- Put a slice of meat on top of the lettuce leaf
- Add some rice on top (optional)
- For flavour and spice, add some dipping sauce
- Roll the food up into a small parcel
- Put the entire parcel in your mouth and enjoy the flavours exploding in your mouth
Samgyeopsal (Pork belly)
A popular meat to try in Korean, often popular at BBQ’s is the fatty, but oh so delicious, pork belly, Known as, ‘Samgyeopsal.’ Koreans absolutely adore pork belly, and whilst it may not be the healthiest and leanest of meats, it’s not to be missed! Samgyeopsal has a slight crunch to it once it has been cooked. It has less taste to it compared to other meats so you’ll need to add some extra flavour through the different dipping sauces served alongside it. We recommend trying Korean pork belly at a Korean BBQ, or as a pre-cooked side dish with a main meal. You might also find it on a street food stall.
Bulgogi (Marinated beef)
Next up on our list of foods to try in South Korea is one for the meat lovers out there. If you’re a fan of beef, you’re going to love bulgogi. ‘Bulgogi’ literally means, ‘fire meat’ in English, and that description fits it perfectly. It’s consists of strips of beef that have been marinated in a sweet sauce. Soy sauce, sesame oil, pear, ginger and many other delicious ingredients made up this Korean sauce staple. It’s a dish that’s popular amongst the younger generation and can either be eaten on its own with some sticky rice, with Bibimbap, or with Japchae (another dish we’ll talk about later).
Korean fried chicken
Whilst we’re on the topic of meat, this next dish is not to be missed when visiting South Korea! You may think, ‘what’s so special about fried chicken?’ Well, let us tell you that you haven’t really tried fried chicken unless you’ve sampled it in South Korea! KFC’s Colonel Sander’s has nothing on this delicious variation! It’s no secret that Korea is known for its tender, crispy, and juicy chicken. It makes a great takeout option, dinner for the weekend, a picnic meal, or even eaten at a baseball game! In Korea, you’ll find fried chicken houses at every street corner, each offering their own special touch to the classic recipe.
Korean fried chicken is best enjoyed with a cold can of beer, known as ‘Chimek’, which simply means chicken beer. You can opt for the original crispy fried chicken with a slight spice, or if you’re feeling brave, go for the spicy chicken. It’s glazed in a good serving of chilli sauce and sesame.
Japchae (Sweet potato noodles)
Another popular and tasty street food dish to try in South Korea is the glass noodle dish, Japchae. Similar to Vietnamese vermicelli noodles, Japchae is made from sweet potato and the noodles have a slight sesame taste to them. Traditionally a vegetarian dish consisting of spinach, carrots, courgettes and peppers, it’s a light and healthy stir fry dish that makes the perfect accompaniment to any meal. The noodles are enjoyed warm and sometimes you’ll see vendors preparing it with bulgogi.
Do you love chicken? Do you love cheese? Are you a lover of spicy food? If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to all these questions, be sure to try, Dakgalbi when visiting South Korea. Dakgalbi is essentially a stir-fried chicken dish that’s mixed with Korean rice cake (Tteok) and a variety of different vegetables. It also features, you guessed it, spicy chilli sauce. It’s a popular dish to order at a restaurant amongst larger groups of people, and just like the Korean BBQ, it’s all about the experience, not just eating the food. At the restaurant, they’ll bring out a large pan with all the above ingredients, so you can enjoy watching the food cook whilst talking with friends.
Once you’ve almost finished, they’ll come in and add some rice and mix it with cheese… Yes, that’s right! It’s a spicy dish with so much going on, but it’s definitely worth a try. We recommend searching for a specialist Dalgalbi restaurant during your visit. This is where taste the best version of this trendy dish.
Kimchi Jiggae (Korean Kimchee stew)
The next meal on our list is one for the kimchi lovers out there. Imagine lots of kimchi in a soup on a cold winter’s day. That’s how Koreans best enjoy this dish! It’s undeniable that kimchi is Korea’s superfood, and whilst it’s like marmite, there’s no escaping it on your travels. Kimchi jiggae is a broth kimchi soup that’s often served on a hot stone bowl. It comes with kimchi, tofu and either tuna chunks or spam ham.
This glorious dish is very spicy and has a strong taste of garlic chive and onion, so be sure to have a mint or two afterwards! It’s often served with sticky rice, which you you scoop into your soup for extra calories and texture. It’s one of the best foods to try in South Korea for those that want to sample a more traditional dish.
Donkkaseu (Fried pork cutlet)
One dish that’s a hit especially amongst the younger generation of South Koreans is ‘Donkkaseu.’ This mouth-watering dish is essentially a pork cutlet that’s deep-fried in katsu breadcrumbs. It’s either served plain with a dipping sauce, or covered in a sweet and rich marinade. It’s a Japanese-inspired dish, similar to chicken katsu. It’s served with sticky rice, and of course, more banchan. Pork cutlet is a good option for those who aren’t as adventurous with foods and want something plain but tasty.
Kalguksu (Korean noodles)
In amongst the newer and more modern dishes in South Korea, there are also some traditional plates that deserve merit. Noodles are a staple Korean food that are served both hot and cold depending on the time of year. One noodle dish that you can’t leave without trying is ‘Kalguksu.’ The Korean word translates to ‘knife noodles’. They’re handmade wheat flour noodles served in a broth with vegetables. The taste is very mild, but the star of the show are the noodles!
Good Kalguksu is amazing, but kalguksu is awful, so be sure to find a restaurant that specialises in it. Add some kimchi to spice it up and eat it the Korean way. It’s one of the best foods to try in Korea for the Ramen lovers out there.
Tteokbokki (Spicy rice cake)
If you’re heading to a street food market, don’t leave before trying the famous, ‘Tteokbokki.’ This spicy and tasty snack dates back many years and is still loved by all generations. It’s a Korean classic that’ll you’ll want to try every day during your visit! It’s made up of Korean rice cakes, flavoured in a spicy, slightly sweet chilli sauce with sesame seeds. Tteokbokki can be enjoyed by itself or as part of a combo dish. You’ll often find it served with Korean fish cakes or chopped up sausage.
It’s quite spicy, so be sure to have a bottle of water on hand. It’s also one of the best foods in South Korea if you want a quick and tasty snack.
Pajeon (Korean pancake)
Next up on our list of foods to try in South Korea is another great street food option: the Korean pancake. It may sound and look very basic, but it’s far from it. A thin, crispy pancake filled with garlic chives, onions and sometimes squid and prawns, it makes a great starter or even side to accompany a meal. It’s also perfect for a quick lunch on the go whilst wandering around a market. The pancakes are always served with a dip made from soy sauce and sesame. They have a very unique and slightly strong taste that may take a few bites to get used to, but trust us, they’re scrumptious!
If you try a Korean pancake and aren’t really a fan, be sure to try other flavours or ask for it without certain ingredients. We personally love a version of the pancake with courgette and prawns, which isn’t as common!
Here it is, the star of the show and the main event of this blog post! Did you know that all Koreans have a separate fridge in their homes that’s dedicated to kimchi? That’s how much of a staple it is in their daily diets! Kimchi doesn’t really need much of an introduction, as you’ve probably seen, heard, or have tasted it already. It’s known worldwide! Kimchi is a fermented cabbage that’s soaked in spicy sauce, spring onions, salt, garlic and ginger and is left for a few days to ‘spice up.’
No matter what restaurant you go to in Korea, you’ll be given a side of kimchi. It’s a spicy dish with endless health benefits, so be sure to at least give it a try. Top tip: the taste is quite overpowering. Try it with some meat for a milder and less intense flavour.
Sweet treats / desserts to try in South Korea
Tteok (Rice cake)
The first sweety treat on our list of 20 foods to try in South Korea is the simple, yet delicious Korean rice cake, Tteok. Dating back to the 7th and 8th century, it’s one of the most popular desserts in the country. Tteok is made from steamed rice flour, which is then served plain or combined with various flavours and fillings. The best ones in our opinion are the cakes made from mung bean, red bean, sesame and honey. In South Korea, you’ll find Tteok houses everywhere that specialise in making these fantastic treats. Be sure to try a few different flavours.
Let’s talk about red bean. It’s absolutely everywhere in South Korea. Red bean pastries, cakes, ice creams, shaved ice, biscuits, chocolate, rice cakes, you name it! Also popular in other Asia countries like Thailand and Japan. Red bean has a distinctive taste that will make you want to come back for more! When visiting Korea, we recommend heading to one of the many bakeries to try the signature red bean bun. It’s soft, buttery and incredibly tasty! Red bean ice cream is another excellent variation.
Hotteok (Fried pancake with nuts)
In our opinion, one of the best foods in South Korea is undoubtably the Hotteok. Think of a warm, deep-fried pastry, filled with mixed nuts and honey, and you get the marvellous, ‘Hotteok.’ It’s a popular street food treat that many market vendors will prepare freshly in front of your eyes. It’s a filling pancake that will certainly get your taste buds flowing, making it a great dessert to snack on after lunch or dinner. It’s also a popular breakfast item, paired perfectly with a cup of coffee.
Yakgwa (Honey cake)
Continuing with the theme of honey, the next dessert on our list of foods to try in South Korea is ‘Yakgwa.’ It’s an indulgent, deep-fried cake that’s soaked in honey, giving it sweet, moist and rich flavour. This sweet treat is typically served during special occasions in Korea, including Chinese New Year and Christmas. It’s a real family favourite. It’s not a common dessert that you’ll see in every dessert shop and café, but if you keep you eyes peeled, you may be lucky enough to spot it at a stall or bakery.
Bungeoppang (Fish-shaped pastry)
Bungeoppang is one of the best foods in South Korea that you might already recognise. It has been featured all over social media and is a trend setter for Korean street food. It’s a fish-shaped pastry that’s often stuffed with, you guessed it, red bean paste, or sometimes with ice cream in trendy Seoul cafés. It’s one of South Korea’s most popular winter snacks and you’ll always see people with one in their hands as you stroll through a market on an evening. This interesting dessert is grilled and filled with a topping of choice. Be sure to snap a cool foodie photo before you eat it!
Bingsu (Shaved ice)
Our final recommendation of foods to try in South Korea is one for a hot summer’s day. Bingsu is a milk-based, shaved ice dessert that’s loved by children, but also adults with a sweet tooth. The most common type of Bingsu is known as ‘Patbingsu’ and it’s served with red bean. Other popular toppings include mango, strawberry and other tropical fruits. The best part of this dessert is that it’s extremely low calorie. Therefore, you won’t feel bad for having one, or maybe even two! They serve Bingsu in almost every ice cream shop or dessert café, so be sure to try all the different flavours.
We hope we got your taste buds flowing and you’re now set to try some of the best foods in South Korea. There are plenty more weird and wonderful offerings you’ll no doubt come across, but be sure to try the above dishes. They’re not to be missed! Many restaurants have small menus and specialise in specific different types of dish, so be sure to do your research before heading out to eat.
We’d love to hear your experiences with Korean food. If there are any other dishes you’ve tried and recommend, please let us know about them in the comments below. 😊
By SusieAuthor bio:
I’m a passionate traveller that loves a sunny beach holiday, but also appreciate the cultural side to a trip and checking out undiscovered destinations. I’m the go-to Toucan Traveller for great holiday stories, cool photos and foodie recommendations.