There’s far more to Korean cuisine than kimchi. While the spicy, pickled vegetable has been embraced by chefs and foodies around the world, here’s a list of other signature South Korean dishes to seek out in the bustling markets of Seoul, the fine-dining restaurants of Busan or your local Koreatown.
Bibimbap (Korean Mixed Rice)
As flavourful as it is colourful, this warm, savoury dish comes in a number of variations according to your choice. But generally, a bowl of bibimbap generally comprises fresh, seasoned vegetables, diced meat and fried kelp, which are all mixed with white rice and a dollop of gochujang (red pepper paste). It’s one of the most popular Korean dishes – both locally and globally.
Bulgogi (Thinly Sliced, Marinated Meat)
Thin slices of beef, chicken or pork, marinated in a seasoning made of various pastes, fruits and vegetables, then grilled. Bulgogi is one of the staple Korean dishes when dining out, paired with rice to soak up the sweet gravy – or a glass or two of soju (Korean grain spirit).
Kimchi Jjigae (Kimchi Stew)
An all-time favourite homecooked meal for Koreans, preparing dishes like this hearty stew made with fermented, sour kimchi for friends and family epitomises the affectionate spirit between loved ones known in Korean as jeong. You can also find it in many Korean restaurants, often served with generous helpings of pork belly, beef, canned tuna or luncheon meat to enhance the full-bodied flavour of the comforting dish.
Galbijjim (Braised Short Ribs)
A large pot of pork or beef short ribs, steamed with soy sauce, pepper and sugar, along with a number of vegetables including potatoes, carrots and onion, until fall-off-the-bone tender. Usually served for special occasions, family gatherings or on national holidays such as New Year’s Day or Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving), galbijjim is a representation of familial affection.
Hemul Pajeon (Seafood Pancake)
On rainy days, you’ll find Koreans crammed into traditional pancake places indulging on haemul pajeon (seafood pancakes) and makgeolli (rice wine). The sizzling sound that comes from a mixture of seafood, chives and batter deep-fried in oil creates a pleasant harmony with the sound of rain. It’s also served with kimchi or potatoes instead of seafood. Enjoy this warming snack with a kettle of rice wine or soju for an authentic Korean experience.
Japchae (Stir-Fried Glass Noodles with Mixed Vegetables)
The name of the dish of stir-fried glass noodles literally translates as ‘mixed vegetables’. Seasoned and stir fried vegetables are mixed with boiled vermicelli noodles, where an ample amount of soy sauce seasoning is added. Because of its colourful, lustrous appearance, japchae is often served as part of a bountiful feast for various special occasions.
Tteokbokki (Spicy Stir-Fried Rice Cakes)
Though possibly the most beloved street food among Koreans, tteokbokki (hot and spicy stir-fried rice cakes) used to be consumed only by royal families on New Year’s Day. The well-known, modern version of the dish first came about in the 1970s, when a chef replaced the original soy sauce paste with red pepper paste and added ingredients such as cabbage and fish skin to the sauce. Served piping hot from streetside stalls, it’s the perfect snack to grab and go when you’re feeling hungry between meals.
Naengmyeon (Cold Buckwheat Noodles)
Ice-cold bowls of naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles) were traditionally eaten during the harsh winters in the northern Korean peninsula, when the only food sources available were potatoes and buckwheat. Today, the dish is renowned as a summer treat, with toppings including slices of boiled meat, cucumber, radish slices and boiled egg. Feel free to add a dash of vinegar, blob of mustard or a healthy spoonful of red pepper marinade to add a kick.
Mandu (Korean dumplings)
Dumplings are ubiquitous in Asia – and Korea is no different. You’ll find mandu available from streetside stalls or sit down to a steaming plate in a local restaurant (or Koreatown hotspot). Stuffing varies according to seasons: during the winter, it might be a mix of tofu, kimchi and meat to warm up your body; during the summer, meat, shiitake mushrooms and cucumber slices keep things fresh.
Maekom-dak gangjeong (Sweet and Sour Korean Fried Chicken)
Along with K-pop and melodramatic soap operas, fried chicken is one of South Korea’s most beloved cultural exports. Locals love it as a late-night snack or with cold beer (a combination known as chimaek), often in sports bars or at home. There are many flavour combinations, but maekom-dak gangjeong – Korean fried chicken seasoned with sweet and spicy red pepper paste and soy sauce – is one of the most popular. Cubed radishes pickled with sugar, vinegar and water are served as a refreshing side dish with every order.
Jaeyook Bokkeum (Spicy Stir-Fried Pork)
This dish of stir-fried pork neck, marinated in sweet and spicy red pepper and ginger marinade, is affectionately known as ‘rice thief’ among Koreans as it pairs beautifully with steaming bowls of rice. Sweet seasoning and gravy ooze out in collaboration with green onion fried together with pork. Ubiquitous throughout Korea (and in good Korean restaurants around the world), it’s one of the most popular lunchtime choices for businesspeople seeking for a satisfying meal at reasonable price.
This story was originally published in June 2019 and updated in September 2020