Growing up, my diet was a mash-up of American and Korean cuisine. My Korean mom wanted to make sure that my brother and I didn’t feel different from our “American” friends, so she made sure we ate plenty of hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches and spaghetti–served with a side of kimchi, of course. We ate our salads with chopsticks and marinated our steaks with bulgogi seasoning. When I left home, my mom used the power of FedEx to get her homemade kimchi to me–yes, Koreans are that serious about their kimchi–so I wouldn’t get sick (kimchi has magical healing properties in case you didn’t know!). Now that I’m living in Korea again, I’ve both renewed my love for Korean food and discovered some amazing dishes that my mom never cooked for me (seriously, Mom???).
Here’s a list of some of my favorite Korean foods (my list could honestly go on forever!). If you’re new to Korean cuisine, and you’re ready to venture beyond “beef and leaf” or bibimbap, or if you’re looking for something adventurous and fun to tell all your friends about, here are my top recommendation!
1. Ori – Duck
I love duck. I’ve previously written about my deep, heartfelt appreciation for duck here and here. If you’ve never had duck before, but you’re a meat-loving carnivore, then this is definitely a must-try. Most duck restaurants in Korea serve the meat prepared several different ways. My personal favorite is smoked duck. It’s no-nonsense with very little added to it so you can really appreciate the taste of the duck itself. You usually have to purchase the entire duck (which only consists of the breast meat). Prices for a whole duck breast are generally in the 40,000-45,000W range (approx. $40-45) and it’s enough to feed 2-3 people. Smoked duck is served “beef and leaf” style. You grill the duck at your table, and you’re brought an array of banchan/side-dishes, dipping sauces, and lettuce and sesame leaves to wrap your meat. Often, potato and mushroom slices are placed on the grill at the same time to help soak up some of the duck fat as you grill. Those may be the best potatoes and mushrooms you’ve ever had in your life. 😉
2. Samgyupsal – Pork belly
Samgyupsal literally means three-fold fat, but simply put, it’s BACON. Really, really thick-sliced bacon. However, it’s uncured, so it doesn’t have the same salty flavor, but it’s the same cut of meat. It’s generally only seasoned with thick rock salt and grilled at the table. Like beef and leaf, it’s served with lettuce, sesame leaves, dipping sauces, kimchi, and an assortment of banchan. One of the BEST things to eat with samgyupsal is grilled kimchi (just be sure that it’s fermented, not fresh, kimchi). Place the kimchi on the grill as you’re cooking the pork and let the fat from the pork soak into the kimchi. It’s a perfect combination of flavors. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it! One serving of samgyupsal usually runs about 12,000-15,000W, and you’ll probably need to order 3 servings to feed 2 adults (one serving isn’t quite enough for one adult). Most restaurants will also serve dwenchangjigae (bean curd soup) with the samgyupsal in a hot pot, but you’ll have to order bowls of rice separately (1,000W/each) if you like rice with your meat. Which I do.
3. Hwe – Raw fish, Korean style! Oh, and live, moving octopus too.
If you’re not afraid of a little raw fish, then you’ve got to give Korean hwe a try. Keep in mind, though, that Korean hwe is really nothing like its Japanese counterpart. If you go to a run-of-the-mill Korean hwe restaurant (not a fancy-schmancy 5-star place), there are two types of fish that are traditionally served raw–gwanguh (flounder) and ooluk (rockfish).
Although most restaurants will have some variety, they will always have these two fish. In addition to raw fish, Korean hwe restaurants also serve several other types of seafood. Raw. If you pass a hwe restaurant on the street, check out the tanks of live fish and seafood outside the restaurant. You’ll see octopus (nakji) and squid (ohjinguh), sea cucumbers (haesam), and sea squirt (munggae) among others. My 5 year old boys LOVE live octopus (san nakji), and once you get over the fact that your food is still moving and the suckers on the tentacles still work… It just tastes like octopus. 😉 So if you like the taste of octopus, give this a try. It’s just the tentacles–it’s not like in the movie Oldboy where Oh DaeSu gnaws on a whole octopus while the tentacles stick onto his face.
And to be precise, it’s not technically still alive. The tentacles are cut into smaller, manageable pieces, and it’s served with a small bowl of sesame oil and salt for dipping. Be sure to use the dipping sauce. It prevents the suckers from sticking to the inside of your mouth as you chew! Like san nakji, the other seafood options at hwe restaurants–like haesam and munggae–are really more about unique texture than taste. If different textures and consistencies of food in your mouth really isn’t your thing, it’s probably best to steer clear of Korean hwe. The flavors are unique as well, but from my experience taking friends to eat hwe, it’s the texture that gets them.
At a standard hwe restaurant, you should plan to spend about 15,000-20,000W/person. Platters of hwe are usually offered in small (serves 2-3), medium (serves 3-4) and large sizes (serves 4-6). And often, the large size includes extras such as the spicy fish soup (maeoontang) at no additional charge. The soup is made with the bones of the fish that was served to you raw, and it’s really good! If you enjoy spicy food, you won’t want to pass it up. If you order a smaller platters, ordering the maeoontang is usually an additional 5,000-7,000W.
4. Albab – bibimbap-style rice bowl with fish eggs/roe
Bibimbap is one of the staples of Korean cuisine, mainly because traditionally, like shepherd’s pie, it was the dish that you could throw everything and anything into. Growing up, my mom only made bibimbap if there was some leftover banchan that would go bad if we didn’t finish it off, so she’d chop up some fresh veggies and green, throw everything in a bowl with some rice, fry an egg and mix it all up with some hot pepper paste (gochujang). If you love bibimbap, and you’d like to venture out a bit, definitely give albab a try. The idea is the same, but the taste is completely different. It’s served in a hot stone bowl like dolsot bibimbap with rice at the bottom and topped with chopped kimchi, dammuji (yellow picked radish), lettuce, sesame leaves, dried seaweed, and a heaping helping of fish roe. The hot stone bowl cooks the eggs as you mix everything together, and the result is just plain delicious. It’s one of my boys’ favorites, and they’ll happily finish off an entire adult serving. Then ask for more. Albab can be found at most Korean seafood restaurants for 6,000-7,000W ($6-7).
5. Haemul Pajeon – seafood pancake/pizza
This is a must-try dish for the seafood lover, and it’s both like and unlike a pancake and a pizza. The most basic pajeon is a combination of batter (eggs, flour and water) and green onions (or pa, thus the name pa-jeon). Haemul pajeon contains vegetables and various types of seafood (squid and shrimp mostly, but it can also include mussels and clams. There’s also kimchi pajeon (yummy!), which like the name suggests is pajeon made with kimchi. Since the batter mixture is poured onto a pan, it looks more like a pancake, but savory, not sweet so tastes more like a pizza, but not really. 😉 When cooked just right, it’s crispy on the outside and every so slightly chewy in the center. Sometimes, it’s cut into pieces like a pizza, but you’re supposed to just rip chunks off with your chopsticks, dip in the soy sauce-based dipping sauce, and enjoy. It’s meant to be a shared dish, so not something you would order by itself for dinner. Haemul pajeon usually runs about 15,000W and can be shared with about 4 people. It’s a great addition to a Korean dinner, especially if you’re eating family style and sharing dishes.
6. Mook – jello?
Mook is difficult to describe. It has a jello-like consistency, but there’s really no other food that it could be compared to. There are many different varieties (made with various ingredients: buckwheat, sesame, acorns), all resulting in different colors and flavors. My favorite is black sesame mook (pictured above), which is made from, you guessed it, black sesame seeds. Some people say that mook has very little flavor and that you eat it for the toppings, but depending on the ingredients, mook does have a particular flavor. It’s a very subtle flavor that goes perfectly with the toppings that it’s typically served with–dried seaweed, green onions, red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, and a sauce made with soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. It’s usually served as a side dish, but there are mook specialty restaurants that serve both platters of mook as well as soup with slices of mook in it.
7. Dduk – rice cakes
You’ve probably seen the street vendors that sell ddukbokki, log-shaped rice cakes stir fried with fish cakes in a spicy red sauce, but dduk is so much more than the chewy white rice cakes. There are countless varieties of dduk, which can be best described as a traditional Korean dessert food. You can find dduk shops all over–in my little neighborhood, I can think of 4 different dduk shops on one street, all within 100 feet of each other. There’s dduk coated and/or filled with various powders, beans, seeds, and jellies, cute little dduk with flower shapes on them in various colors, dduk for special occasions like birthdays and weddings. A small package of dduk generally runs about 2,000W, so stop by your local dduk shop and try it out!
8. Haemultang – spicy seafood soup
Rice, kimchi, and soup are at the center of Korean cuisine, and while rice and kimchi come in a limited number of varieties, the soups are endless: seaweed soup, kimchi soup, bean curd (or miso) soup, soft tofu soup, beef rib soup, ox tail soup, bean sprout soup and and really long list of hangover soups. My favorite Korean soup is haemultang. It’s spicy, delicious, and not for the faint of heart, especially if you go to a proper haemultang restaurant where all the ingredients are fresh. And by fresh, I mean still alive when it’s brought to your table. Haemul, or seafood, is obviously the main ingredient for this soup. A large pot of spicy broth, bean sprouts, green, and a heaping serving of live squid, shrimp, crab, clams, mussels, scallops, abalone, and much more is brought to your table and boiled on the gas burner at the table. And you get to see cool stuff like this:
Our favorite haemultang place does a really great job of adjusting the spice level so that my kids can enjoy it as well, which they do. My kids (and I) will eat just about anything that comes out of the ocean, and if you’re an adventurous eater, then you really can’t leave Korea without trying haemultang. It’s sooooo good! Haemultang can be found at some restaurants in individual serving sizes, but for the real deal, you’ll have to order a larger size. Most haemul restaurants will offer small (2-3 people), medium (3-4 people) and large (5-6 people) serving sizes, and the price generally runs from about 30,000W for the small to 45,000W for the large.
9. Jokbal – boiled pig’s feet
While the idea of eating boiled pig’s feet may sound a little…unappetizing, it’s actually incredible. And it’s more like the pig’s lower leg, not just the feet. Jokbal is prepared by thoroughly washing it and removing the hairs. The skin is left on, and it’s boiled with various seasonings, including the obligatory soy sauce. The skin gives it a unique taste and texture that most of my friends who have tried it have not disliked (unlike sea cucumber and sea squirt). The meat and skin are removed from the bone, sliced and served with a dipping sauce that consists of tiny, salted shrimp. Jokbal is generally thought of as a anju, or food that accompanies alcohol. It’s served on a platter and shared with friends, so it’s not something you’d go to a restaurant and order for yourself. One order of jokbal is one entire leg, including the bone, and at a restaurant, you’ll pay about 30,000-35,000W per order. There’s an area by Dongkuk University Station that’s known as Jokbal Street with numerous jokbal restaurants, but chances are, if you wander around your neighborhood, you’ll find a local place that specializes in jokbal. If you don’t feel like paying restaurant prices for something you may or may not like, you can find packages of jokbal at Emart for about 15,000W.
10. Shabu shabu – deliciousness
Saving the best for last! Shabu shabu is one of those dishes my parents never told me about, and when I confronted them about it and bemoaned their parenting for denying me shabu shabu while I was growing up, they claimed it was because it was a dish they rarely ate when living in Korea nearly 40 years ago. Beef was a delicacy, and as a dish that was imported from Japan, shabu shabu wasn’t terribly popular when they were young. Beef is still astronomically expensive in Korea, but the popularity of shabu shabu has soared over the years.
It’s really a rather simple dish with thin slices of beef dipped into a pot of boiling broth, but shabu shabu is also about the process and the experience. It used to be served as a communal dish: one large pot of boiling broth for the table to share; however, most shabu shabu restaurants now provide individual pots. You’re brought a platter piled high with slices of beef, various types of mushrooms, cabbage, dumplings, Korean sweet squash, dduk, noodles… Selection will vary by restaurant. You put your ingredients into the boiling broth and dip them in a variety of sauces before eating them. The sauces both flavor and cool your scalding hot food. Eating shabu shabu definitely demands a bit of patience on your part so as not to burn your tongue and lose the ability to taste anything for the rest of the meal. And probably the day after as well.
If too much of your broth boils off, you’ll be given more to add to the pot, and slowly, all the ingredients you’ve been adding to the broth create this wonderfully flavorful and delicious broth. That’s when you add the noodles. Boil the noodles. Enjoy. THEN, if all that wasn’t enough, most (not all) restaurants provide rice. Throw your rice in the pot and watch it turn into the best rice porridge you’ve ever had. Once it’s all over, you’ll probably have to be rolled out of the restaurant, but it’s worth it. I promise.
All-you-can-eat shabu shabu restaurants have become pretty popular, but if you’re not looking to put on 10 lbs during one meal, then a standard shabu shabu place should be just fine. 😉 Generally speaking, shabu shabu runs about 20,000W per person, and you can order additional meat for about 10,000W.
**Making a list of 10 food was harder than I thought it was going to be. I had to leave off so many other foods that I LOVE. Like kimbab, soondae (blood sausage), raw crab, rotisserie samgyupsal (only found on food trucks so far!), jook (porridge)… I often joke that the only part of me that’s thoroughly Korean is my stomach.
Hope you enjoyed my list! I’d love to hear about your favorite Korean foods. Or tell me about the foods you’d love/refuse to try!