Dining options range from casual bites at a market stall to elaborate multicourse meals at lavish restaurants. While the basic building blocks of the cuisine are recognisably Asian (garlic, ginger, green onion, black pepper, vinegar and sesame oil), Korean food combines them with three essential sauces: ganjang (soy sauce), doenjang (fermented soybean paste) and gochujang (hot red-pepper paste). The main course is nearly always served with bap (boiled rice), soup, kimchi, and a procession of banchan (side dishes).

Restaurant Types & Typical Dishes

Saucy Side Dishes

It’s not a Korean meal unless there’s kimchi and banchan (side dishes). Banchan creates balance with saltiness, spiciness, temperature and colour. The number of banchan varies greatly, from three in an ordinary meal to 12 in traditional royal cuisine, to an incredible 20 or more in jeongsik (set menu or table d’hôte).

Besides the archetypal cabbage kimchi, it’s common to see radish or cucumber kimchi, and dishes with spinach, seaweed, bean sprouts, tofu, jeon, bindaetteok, small clams, anchovies – just about anything the chefs can concoct. You don’t have to eat it all, though if you like a particular dish, you can ask for free refills (within reason).

Say Kimchi

It appears at every meal (including breakfast) and often as an ingredient in the main course too. What began as a pickling method to preserve vegetables through Korea’s harsh winters has become a cornerstone of its cuisine. With its lurid reddish hues and limp texture, kimchi doesn’t look that appealing, but just one bite packs a wallop of flavours: sour, spicy, with a sharp tang that often lingers through the meal.

The most common type is baechu kimchi, made from Chinese cabbage, but there are more than 180 varieties, made with radish, cucumber, eggplant, leek, mustard leaf and pumpkin flower, among others. Some are meant to be eaten in tiny morsels while others, such as bossam kimchi, are flavour-packed packages containing vegetables, pork or seafood.

To make kimchi, vegetables are salted to lock in the original flavour, then seasoned with garlic, red-pepper powder, green onions, ginger, fish sauce and other spices, and left in earthenware jars to ferment for hours, days or even years. Kimchi can be made all year round using seasonal vegetables, but traditionally it is made in November. Many regions, restaurants and families have their own recipes, jealously guarded and handed down through the generations. High in fibre and low in calories, kimchi is said to lower cholesterol, fight cancer, supercharge gut health and prevent flu viruses.

Local Specialities

  • jjimdak (simmered chicken) – Andong
  • ureok (rockfish) – Busan
  • dakgalbi (spicy chicken grilled with vegetables and rice cakes) – Chuncheon
  • maneul (garlic) – Danyang
  • sundubu (soft or uncurdled tofu) – Gangneung
  • oritang (duck soup); tteokgalbi (grilled patties of ground beef) – Gwangju
  • okdomgui (grilled, semidried fish); jeonbok-juk (abalone rice porridge); heukdwaeji (black-pig pork) – Jeju-do
  • bibimbap – Jeonju
  • ojing-eo (squid) served sundae (sausage) style – Sokcho
  • galbi (beef ribs) – Suwon
  • chungmu gimbap (rice, dried seaweed and kimchi) – Tongyeong
  • gatkimchi (leafy mustard kimchi) – Yeosu

Barbecue

Perhaps the most recognisable of Korean restaurants, these are often boisterous establishments where every table has its own small grill and the main selling point is the quality of the meat and the marinade. The menu typically consists of a mind-boggling array of meat cuts. Beef, usually local, is highly prized and more expensive; pork is more affordable. Bulgogi is thin slices of meat, marinated in sweetened soy sauce, while galbi are short ribs, similarly flavoured. These terms usually refer to beef but can also be used for pork (dwaeji). Another popular cut is samgyeopsal (streaky pork belly).

Diners cook their own meat on the grill, though servers will assist foreign customers. Grilled meats are often eaten wrapped in ssam (vegetable leaves) with slices of fresh garlic, green pepper, kimchi and a daub of spicy ssamjang (soybean and red-pepper sauce). The vegetables used for ssam are lettuce, perilla (similar to shiso leaf, and Koreans call wild sesame), crown daisy and seaweed. Rounding off the meal – or just something to munch on while the meat is cooking – are dishes such as bossam (steamed pork and kimchi), pajeon (green-onion pancake) or jjigae (stew). Expect to pay ₩12,000 to ₩50,000 per person.

All-seafood barbecues (sometimes called grilled seafood) on the coast focus on oily fish such as mackerel, but also include flounder and squid, served with an array of banchan. Expect to pay ₩10,000 to ₩20,000 per person.

Soups, Stews, Jeongol & Jjim

Many Korean dishes are served as boiling or sizzling hot off the stove. Besides the soup that accompanies every meal, there are many hearty, piquant main-course soups called tang or guk. Soup restaurants usually specialise in just a few dishes.

Samgyetang is a ginseng chicken soup, infused with jujube, ginger and other herbs. It’s not spicy and is very easy on the palate – the idea is to savour the hint of ginseng and the quality of the chicken. Though it originated as court cuisine, it is now enjoyed as a summer tonic.

A stouter alternative is gamjatang, a spicy peasant soup with meaty bones and potatoes. Other meat broths are delicate, even bland, such as galbitang or seolleongtang. Haejangguk or ‘hangover soup’ (to dispel the night’s excesses) is made from a doenjang base, with bean sprouts, vegetables and sometimes cow’s blood.

Jjigae are stews for everyday eating, often orangey, spicy and served in a stone hotpot. The main ingredient is usually dubu (tofu), doenjang or kimchi, with vegetables and meat or fish. Budae jjigae (‘army stew’) was concocted during the Korean War using leftover hot dogs, Spam and macaroni scrounged from American bases.

Jeongol is a more elaborate stew, often translated as a casserole or hotpot. Raw ingredients are arranged in a shallow pan at the table, then topped with a spicy broth and brought to a boil. Jjim are dishes where the main ingredient is marinated in sauce, then simmered in a broth or steamed until the liquid is reduced. It’s a popular (and extremely spicy) serving style for prawns, crab and fish.

Soup and stew meals cost ₩6000 to ₩20,000 per person. Jeongol and jjim are rarely served in individual portions, unlike jjigae.

Fish & Seafood

Hoe (raw fish) is extremely popular in coastal towns, despite the high prices. Modeumhoe or saengseonhoe is raw fish served with ssam or ganjang with wasabi, usually with a pot of spicy maeuntang (fish soup) to complete the meal. Chobap is raw fish served over vinegar rice. Restaurants near the coast also serve squid, barbecued shellfish, octopus and crab. More gung-ho eaters can try sannakji (raw octopus, not live but wriggling from post-mortem spasms) or hongeo (ray, served raw and fermented, or steamed in jjim – neither of which masks its pungent ammonia smell). A seafood meal costs from ₩15,000 per person.

Jeongsik

Often translated as a set menu or table d’hôte, this is a spread of banquet dishes all served at once: fish, meat, soup, dubu jjigae (tofu stew), rice, noodles, shellfish and a flock of banchan. It’s a delightful way to sample a wide range of Korean food in one sitting. Hanjeongsik (Korean jeongsik) may denote a traditional royal banquet spread of 12 dishes, served on bangjja (bronze) tableware. Expect to pay from ₩20,000 for a basic jeongsik to more than ₩100,000 for a high-end version.

Everyday Eats

Not every meal in Korea is a banchan or meat extravaganza. For casual dining, look for one-dish rice or noodle dishes. Bibimbap is a perennial favourite: a tasty mixture of vegetables, sometimes meat and a fried egg on top of rice. The ingredients are laid out in a deep bowl according to the five primary colours of Korean food – white, yellow, green, red and black – which represent the five elements. Just stir everything up (go easy on the red gochujang if you don’t want it too spicy) and eat. A variant is dolsot bibimbap, served in a stone hotpot; the highlight of this is nurungji, the crusty rice at the bottom. Vegetarians can order bibimbap without meat or egg.

As in much of East Asia, noodle joints are plentiful. A common dish is naengmyeon, buckwheat noodles served in an icy beef broth, garnished with vegetables, Korean pear, cucumber and half a boiled egg. You can add gochujang, sikcho (vinegar) or gyeoja (mustard) to taste. Naengmyeon is especially popular in summer. Sometimes it’s served with a small bowl of meat broth, piping hot, that you can drink with your meal (but it’s not for pouring onto the noodles).

Japchae are clear ‘glass’ noodles stir-fried in sesame oil with strips of egg, meat and vegetables. A Koreanised Chinese dish is jajangmyeon, wheat noodles in a black-bean sauce with meat and vegetables. Gimbap joints often serve ramyeon (instant noodles) in spicy soup.

Gimbap are colourful rolls of bap (rice) flavoured with sesame oil and rolled in gim (dried seaweed). Circular gimbap contains strips of vegetables, egg and meat. Samgak (triangular) gimbap is topped with a savoury fish, meat or vegetable mixture. Just don’t call it sushi – the rice does not have vinegar added and it is not topped with raw fish.

Mandu are dumplings filled with meat, vegetables and herbs. Fried, steamed or served in soup, they make a tasty snack or light meal. Savoury pancakes, often served as a side dish, can also be ordered as a meal. Bindaetteok are made with mung-bean flour and are heavier on the batter, while jeon are made with wheat flour. Common fillings are kimchi, spring onion (pajeon) and seafood (haemul pajeon).

Some eateries specialise in juk (rice porridge). Savoury versions are cooked with ginseng chicken, mushroom or seafood, sweet ones with pumpkin and red bean. The thick, black rice porridge is sesame. Juk is considered a healthy meal, good for older people, babies or anyone who’s ill.

Rice and noodle dishes cost ₩6000 to ₩10,000 each, a meal-sized jeon is ₩7000 to ₩10,000, and gimbap or mandu meals cost ₩3000 to ₩7000.

Desserts

While desserts are not traditional in Korean dining, sometimes at the end of a meal you’ll be served fruit or sujeonggwa, a cold drink made from cinnamon and ginger.

The classic summer dessert is patbingsu, a bowl heaped with shaved ice, tteok (rice cakes) and sweet red-bean topping with a splash of condensed milk. Modern toppings include strawberries, green-tea powder and fresh or canned fruit. It costs ₩2500 to ₩7000 at cafes.

Bakeries and street vendors sell bite-sized hangwa (Korean sweets) such as dasik (traditional cookies), and tteok flavoured with nuts, seeds and dried fruit. Look out for hotteok (Korean doughnuts) and bungeoppang (red-bean waffles).

Feature: Street Food

Korean street food runs the gamut from snacks to full meals. Expect to pay ₩500 to ₩2000 per serve, although some meals at pojangmacha (street tent bars) cost up to ₩15,000 per dish.

  • bungeoppang (red-bean waffles) – fish-shaped sweet cakes with a golden brown, waffle-like exterior and a hot, sweet, red-bean-paste interior.
  • dakkochi (grilled chicken skewers) – skewers of chicken and spring onion with a smoky charred flavour under a sticky, tangy barbecue sauce.
  • gyeranppang (egg muffins) – literally egg bread, gyeranppang is a golden oblong muffin with a still-moist whole egg baked on top with a dusting of parsley.
  • haemul pajeon (seafood pancakes) – these savoury seafood pancakes are a full meal on the go. Lots of squid and sometimes prawns or mussels are fried in a batter with lashings of leeks.
  • hotteok (Korean doughnuts) – spiced, plump pancakes filled with a mixture of sunflower seeds, cinnamon and brown sugar. Other fillings include black sesame seeds, peanuts, red beans and honey.
  • jjinppang (steamed buns) – soft fluffy buns with various fillings, but usually coarse red-bean paste, pork or kimchi.
  • mandu (dumplings) – fried or steamed Korean dumplings, often including a tofu or vermicelli-noodle filling. Kogi mandu are stuffed with a gingery minced pork and spring onions. Kimchi mandu adds spicy kimchi.
  • odeng (fishcake skewers) – flat fishcakes on a skewer, either long or folded over. They jut from vats of broth, which is a seafood and spring-onion soup that Koreans say cures hangovers.
  • sundae (blood sausage) – slices of black sausage eaten with toothpicks or chopsticks.
  • tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes) – chewy rice cakes that resemble penne pasta in pans of spicy, saucy gochujang (hot red-pepper paste). Variations add slices of fish cakes, boiled eggs or ramyeon (ramen or wheat noodles).
  • twigim (Korean-style tempura) – various batter-fried (like Japanese tempura but more substantial) ingredients such as squid, a hash of vegetables, sweet potatoes and even boiled eggs.

Vegetarians & Vegans

Although Korean cuisine uses lots of vegetables, much of it is pickled or cooked with meat or seafood. Dubu jjigae may be made from beef or seafood stock, and beoseot deopbap (mushrooms on rice) may contain a little pork. Even kimchi is often made with fish sauce. The only assuredly meat-free meals are those served at Buddhist temples or restaurants. Seoul Veggie Club (www.facebook.com/groups/seoulveggieclub) and www.happycow.net are good resources.

The safest approach is to ask about ingredients or order something such as bibimbap without the ingredients you don’t eat. Be as specific about your requirements as you can be – for instance, saying ‘no meat’ may not suffice to omit seafood. A useful phrase: 저는 채식주의자입니다 (jeoneun chaesigjuuija imnida; 'I am a vegetarian'), or simply say 'chaesigjuuija' and point to yourself.

Dining & Drinking Etiquette

From casual eateries to high-end restaurants, you’re as likely to encounter traditional floor seating as western-style chair seating. If it’s the former, remove your shoes at the door and sit on floor cushions (stack a few for more comfort). The menu is often posted on the wall. Main courses come with rice, soup, kimchi and banchan (usually included in the price). Don’t worry about not finishing the banchan as no one is expected to eat everything.

Meals are eaten communally and rarely, if ever, alone. Lone travellers may encounter a quizzical ‘Honja?’ (‘Alone?’). Occasionally a restaurant may turn away solo diners because they only serve meals in portions for two (especially for jeongsik and barbecue).

If the table is not set, there will be an oblong box or hidden drawer containing metal chopsticks and long-handled spoons, as well as metal cups and a bottle of water or tea. The spoon is for rice, soup and any dish with liquids; chopsticks are for everything else. Don’t touch food with your fingers, except when handling ssam. Remember not to let the chopsticks or spoon stick up from your rice bowl – this is taboo, only done with food that is offered to deceased ancestors.

Koreans eat out – a lot – and love to sit and sup on a main course for several hours (and over several bottles of soju). Seniors or elders begin eating first. Dining companions usually pour drinks for each other – traditionally, never for themselves. It’s polite to use both hands when pouring or receiving a drink.

To call a server, say ‘Yogiyo’, which if translated seems rude (it means ‘here’) but is a bona fide way of hailing attention. Tipping is not expected, though high-end restaurants often add a 10% service charge.

Food Glossary

Fish & Seafood Dishes

chobap초밥raw fish on rice
garibi가리비scallops
gwang-eohoe광어회raw halibut
jangeogui장어구이grilled eel
kijogae키조개razor clam
kkotgejjim꽃게찜steamed blue crab
modeumhoe모듬회mixed raw-fish platter
nakji낙지octopus
odeng­오뎅processed seafood cakes
ojingeo오징어squid
saengseongui생선구이grilled fish
saeugui새우구이grilled prawns

Kimchi

baechu kimchi배추김치cabbage kimchi; the classic spicy version
kkakdugi깍두기cubed radish kimchi
mul kimchi물김치cold kimchi soup

Meat Dishes

bossam보쌈steamed pork with kimchi, cabbage and lettuce wrap
bulgogi불고기barbecued beef slices and lettuce wrap
dakgalbi닭갈비spicy chicken pieces grilled with vegetables and rice cakes
dwaeji galbi돼지갈비pork ribs
galbi갈비beef ribs
heukdwaeji흑돼지black pig
jjimdak찜닭spicy chicken pieces with noodles
metdwaejigogi멧돼지고기wild pig
neobiani/tteokgalbi너비아니/떡갈비large minced-meat patty
samgyeopsal삼겹살barbecued (bacon-like) streaky pork belly
tangsuyuk탕수육Chinese-style sweet-and-sour pork
tongdakgui통닭구이roasted chicken
yukhoe육회seasoned raw beef

Noodles

bibim naengmyeon비빔냉면cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables, meat and sauce
bibimguksu비빔국수noodles with vegetables, meat and sauce
jajangmyeon자장면noodles in Chinese-style black-bean sauce
japchae잡채stir-fried ‘glass’ noodles and vegetables
kalguksu칼국수wheat noodles in clam-and-vegetable broth
kongguksu콩국수wheat noodles in cold soybean soup
makguksu막국수cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables
mulnaengmyeon물냉면buckwheat noodles in cold broth
ramyeon라면instant noodles in soup

Rice Dishes

bapboiled rice
bibimbap비빔밥rice topped with egg, meat, vegetables and sauce
bokkeumbap볶음밥Chinese-style fried rice
boribap보리밥boiled rice with steamed barley
chamchi gimbap참치김밥tuna gimbap
chijeu gimbap치즈김밥cheese gimbap
daetongbap대통밥rice cooked in bamboo stem
dolsot bibimbap돌솥비빔밥bibimbap in stone hotpot
dolsotbap돌솥밥hotpot rice
dolssambap돌쌈밥hotpot rice and lettuce wraps
gimbap김밥rice flavoured with sesame oil and rolled in dried seaweed
gulbap굴밥oyster rice
hoedeopbap회덮밥bibimbap with raw fish
honghapbap홍합밥mussel rice
jeonbokjuk전복죽rice porridge with abalone
jukrice porridge
modeum gimbap모듬김밥assorted gimbap
pyogo deopbap표고덮밥mushroom rice
sanchae bibimbap산채비빔밥bibimbap with mountain vegetables
sinseollo신선로meat, fish and vegetables cooked in broth
ssambap쌈밥assorted ingredients with rice and wraps

Snacks

beondegi 번데기boiled silkworm larvae
bungeoppang 붕어빵fish-shaped waffle with red-bean paste
dakkochi 닭꼬치spicy grilled chicken on skewers
gukhwappang 국화빵flower-shaped waffle with red-bean paste
hotteok 호떡wheat pancake with sweet filling
jjinppang 찐빵giant steamed bun with sweet-bean paste
norang goguma 노랑고구마sweet potato strips
nurungji 누룽지crunchy burnt-rice cracker, often at the bottom of dolsot bibimbap
patbingsu 팥빙수shaved-iced dessert with tteok and red-bean topping
tteok rice cake
tteokbokki 떡볶이pressed rice cakes and vegetables in a spicy sauce

Soups

bosintang보신탕dog-meat soup
dakbaeksuk닭백숙chicken in medicinal herb soup
dakdoritang닭도리탕spicy chicken and potato soup
galbitang갈비탕beef-rib soup
gamjatang감자탕meaty bones and potato soup
haejangguk해장국‘hangover soup’
haemultang해물탕spicy assorted seafood soup
kkorigomtang꼬리곰탕oxtail soup
maeuntang매운탕spicy fish soup
manduguk만두국soup with meat-filled dumplings
oritang오리탕duck soup
samgyetang삼계탕ginseng chicken soup
seolleongtang설렁탕beef and rice soup

Stews

budae jjigae부대찌개‘army stew’ with hot dogs, Spam and vegetables
dakjjim닭찜braised chicken
doenjang jjigae된장찌개soybean-paste stew
dubu jjigae두부찌개tofu stew
galbijjim갈비찜braised beef ribs
gopchang jeongol곱창전골tripe hotpot
kimchi jjigae김치찌개kimchi stew

Other

bindaetteok 빈대떡mung-bean pancake
donkkaseu 돈까스pork cutlet with rice and salad
dotorimuk 도토리묵acorn jelly
gujeolpan 구절판eight snacks and wraps
hanjeongsik 한정식Korean-style banquet
jeongsik 정식set menu or table d’hôte, with lots of side dishes
mandu 만두filled dumplings
omeuraiseu 오므라이스omelette filled with rice
pajeon 파전green-onion pancake
sujebi 수제비dough flakes in shellfish broth
sundae 순대noodle and vegetable sausage
sundubu 순두부uncurdled tofu
twigim 튀김seafood or vegetables fried in batter

Nonalcoholic Drinks

boricha보리차barley tea
chatea
daechucha대추차red-date tea
hongcha홍차black tea
juseu주스juice
keopi커피coffee
dikapein keopi디카페인커피decaffeinated coffee
mulwater
nokcha녹차green tea
omijacha오미자차five-flavour berry tea
saengsu생수mineral spring water
seoltang neo-eoseo/ppaego설탕넣어서­/빼고with/without sugar
sikhye식혜rice punch
sujeonggwa수정과cinnamon and ginger punch
uyu우유milk
uyu neo-eoseo/ppaego우유넣어서­/빼고with/without milk
yujacha유자차citron tea

Alcoholic Drinks

bokbunjaju복분자주wild-berry liquor
dongdongju/makgeolli 동동주/막걸리fermented rice wine
maekju맥주beer
maesilju 매실주green-plum liquor
soju 소주local vodka

The Basics

Koreans love eating out and booking ahead is rarely needed except in top-end restaurants, which can require booking weeks ahead.

  • Restaurants Eating out is social, steering solo diners towards bowl food and away from barbecues.
  • Bars Most bars in Korea serve good-quality anju (food to accompany drinks) made for sharing.
  • Street food Snacks are served up in markets, around bars and busy areas. Pojangmacha (food tents) act like mini restaurants with food to rival fancier affairs.
  • Cafes Far from being just about coffee, Koreans can spend hours over a dessert after dinner or hitting the bars.