Before moving to Korea I was a little worried about the food. I had never eaten Korean food and even though I am a pretty adventurous eater, I had no idea what to expect!
Having lived in Korea for a while now I can well and truly say that my fears were unfounded. Korean food is amazing. There are some things that I don’t like, or I’ll eat with long teeth, but overall it is delicious! I went back to South Africa for a short holiday and in that time I was already missing my Korean Food.
It can be daunting to order food in Korean! What are you actually ordering? Will it taste good? This comprehensive guide will help you with all the Korean food names, what they look like written in Korea (Hangeul) and what to expect when you food arrives.
Before I get into the list there are some important things about Korean food.
The first is:
Kimchi – 김치
Korea is pretty famous for its kimchi. Generally people either love it or hate it so be prepared for a variety of opinions on this dish. It is served with every meal you eat so you will have an ample chance to try it and form your own opinion!
It is a normally a spicy, fermented cabbage but you can find it with ingredients other than cabbage that I will talk about below. Each person makes Kimchi in their own way, so some are strong enough to blow your head off and others are very mild.
Personally I am not a huge fan of Kimchi; apart from alcohol I don’t like fermented things… That being said I do eat it everyday because the probiotics are great for your stomach health. I have also eaten some types that are quite delicious.
Don’t be afraid to try it but don’t worry if you don’t like it; lots of people don’t!
Rice – 밥
Rice is another staple of Korean food. Pretty much any food you eat will be served with rice. Rice is often considered as the main meal and anything else you get is just a side dish. I worked with a Korean teacher who was genuinely upset if he didn’t eat rice three meals a day.
Korean’s make really delicious rice. Back in South Africa I was pretty ambivalent towards rice but I have started to love it here. It is often light, fluffy and sticky for eating with chopsticks!
Side dishes – Banchan – 반찬
Every time you eat at a restaurant you will be given a range of side dishes. These are free with your meal and you can refill them as many times as you’d like.I am still not certain of what I am eating most of the time with Banchan.
I have listed a few of these at the bottom of this post but all I can suggest is give them a try. If they are red they will most likely be spicy but you can find some truly delicious little foods if you
Korean food for foreigners!
So here is an extensive list of my favourites to help you decide what to eat when you visit Korea. I have included the English pronunciation of the word and it written in Korean so if you find a Korean only menu it can help! There is a much shorter list at the end of the things I haven’t enjoyed.
I hope this gets you hungry!
1. Samgyetang – 삼계탕
Baby Chicken and Ginseng Soup with Rice and Veg
If you like chicken soup then Samgyetang is the meal for you. You get served this massive clay bowl filled with everything delicious. The soup comes with a whole baby chicken so expect bones.
The rice is stuffed into the chicken so when you are served the dish you literally squash it and break up the chicken with your ladle. You then spoon the soup into a smaller bowl to eat from.
Traditionally the soup is eaten on the hottest day in Korea called ‘Chobok’. The ginseng in the soup is meant to give you extra energy to help with the heat. It is a truly delicious soup and you feel healthier after your first spoonful.
2. Bibimbap – 비빔밥
Rice, egg and vegetables mixed in a bowl (Can contain beef)
This dish is incredibly simple but it is super tasty. It is served to you in a bowl that is full of colour with the different vegetables, rice and egg. You will get some Gochujang (Pepper) sauce to mix in.
Bibimbap used to be served to the Korean king at lunch time or as a snack. It is light but filling and makes for a very satisfying meal.
Apparently Michael Jackson tried this dish when he visited Korea and he loved it. He didn’t like the spice of the Gochujang sauce though so he ate it with soy sauce. You can get this ‘special edition’ of bibimbap at certain places.
3. Jjajangmyeon – 짜장면
Noodles with a black bean sauce (May contain Ham)
This is possibly my all time favourite Korean food. Interestingly it does not originate in Korea but in China. Although, like the Doner in Germany, it was adapted by Chinese immigrants in Korea and is quite different from what it was in China.
I am not a fan of beans so when I heard that there was a sauce from them I wasn’t impressed. That was until I actually ate it. It has such a delicious and unique flavour to anything else I’ve eaten before in the West.
There is a funny tradition around Jjajangmyeon; there are three relationship days celebrated in Korea. The first day is Valentines day when the girl buys the guy gifts. Next is White Day when the boy buys gifts for the girl. Finally there is Black Day for anybody who did not get any gifts, on this day they go and eat the black noodles. Jjangmyeon is super messy to eat but that’s okay, you’re alone so you can get messy!
4. Samgyeopsal – 삼겹살
If you are a meat eater samgyeopsal is amazing. At a Korean Barbecue you will get served thick sticks of the meat which you can then cook yourself. With a bit of salt or gochujang sauce it is delicious.
At the barbecue you will get a leaves of lettuce to wrap your meat in with anything extra you feel like adding. The meat itself is not flavoured but with the sides this doesn’t matter.
5. Heukdweiji – 흑돼지
Black pig, native to Korean Islands
This is a more expensive type of pork but it is worth the extra expense! You can get it on Jeju and Ulleung. I haven’t looked for it on the mainland but if you’re in Korea spoil yourself and visit one of the islands to eat heukdweiji.
It is cut the same as samgyeopsal but the meat has more flavour. Cook it to however you prefer and wrap it up and enjoy!
6. Hanu – 하누
Also eaten at a Korean Barbecue, Hanu is a beautifully marbled beef that is so tender and delicious. It is from the islands of Korea where the cows are fed on special herbs that grow there which gives the meat its extra-special flavour.
If you are visiting an island like Ulleungdo, make sure you try the Hanu beef! You can eat this in the same way as you eat the pork belly, wrapped in leaves with extra sauce and sides.
7. Bulgogi – 불고기
Meat marinaded in soy sauce and cooked with vegetables
Bulgogi is like a stew. The literal translation of the word means ‘cooked meat’. It comes in any type of meat you’d like; beef, chicken, duck etc. This is a deliciously saucy meal that will keep you scraping the bowl for more. You can eat it straight our wrap it up in some leaves like the barbecue.
Like with a lot of Korean food, you will have a gas cooker with the bowl full of meat. You can let it simmer there, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through. Once you have finished the meat, you will often be given rice to fry in the juices that are left.
You can also find bulgogi burger patties which are just wonderful. It is beef with a sweet flavouring that goes well with nice salty chips.
8. Korean Fried Chicken
Try a large variety of fried chicken.
Koreans have really got down the art of fried chicken. Normally when you think of fried chicken it is what kind of spices are in the crumbing. In Korea you can have things like Soy Sauce Chicken, Honey Chicken, Garlic Chicken and many others.
The soy suace, Ganjang Chicken – 간장치킨, is my favourite. The sauce is cooked into the cooked when it is fried and the flavour is to die for. I would eat it every night if it wouldn’t kill me within a year.
Explore the different types of fired chicken, you will not be disappointed!
9. Chimaek – 치맥
Chicken and beer
Okay this is cheating a little as an item on the Korean food list but I’ve included it because it is part of food culture in Korea. Order a large plate of fried chicken and wash it down with some Korean beer, Maekju – 맥주.
You may even get asked out for Chimaek. It is Chicken and beer and it is a wondrously delicious way to spend the evening.
10. Kimchi-Jjigae – 김치찌개
Kimchi is a very versatile dish that you will find cooked into many things. If you find plain kimchi a little hard to swallow, don’t think you won’t enjoy this dish.
It comes packed with flavour. In kimchi-jjigae, kimchi is chopped, sauteed in oil, and cooked with tofu, clear noodles, other vegetables and often some type of meat.
It is quite spicy but not overbearing. It is worth a try if you want something very Korean.
11. Budae-Jjigae – 부대찌개
Korean ‘army’ stew with just about everything in it
Budae-Jjigae is a relatively modern dish but it has an interesting origin that determined its ingredients. Just after the Korean war there was very little food available to the civilians in Korea so what they’d do is raid the refuse of the American army camps.
There were lots of foods like spam and cheese. Although food is now not a problem in Korea it has become a very popular meal that you can eat at many restaurants.
Modern Budae-Jjigae is a hodgepodge stew of sausages, Spam, cheese, instant noodles, tteok, and assorted vegetables. It is a fun meal that will be cooked at your table. Great for communal eating!
12. Tteokbokki – 떡볶이
Rice cakes in sauce made from chili
This is often served as a street food but you can also order it at most restaurants. It is also often has fish cakes in with the rice cakes. The level of spice will vary but it is one of the spicier things that you can eat in Korea so be careful!
I enjoy this meal when I am in the mood for something spicy! I also love the texture of the rice cakes so I’m always happy when I see it served with lunch.
13. Pajeon – 파전
These pancakes come loaded with just about anything you can think of and they are mouthwateringly good! They are not dessert pancakes, they are a savoury dish. Often served just as a side dish, I could eat these all day.
There are a variety of types of Pajeon. On the Island on Ulleungdo pumpkin (Hobak – 호박) pancakes are popular and you can also get a seafood type called Haemul Pajeon – 해물파전.
14. Jjambbong – 짬뽕
Spicy soup often with seafood
Another Chinese-Korean dish. This one is a little bowl of fire. If you do not like spicy things then this meal is not for you! If your order something like Jjangmyeon you will often get a little Jjambbong on the side but you can also order a whole bowl to yourself.
It comes with noodles and vegetables and is a massive serving. Don’t expect to finish it all if you’re not really hungry! And again, the burn may eventually get too much to take.
I personally won’t order a whole bowl of the stuff but it is a wonderful side to have with another meal.
15. Bossam – 보쌈
As simple as this dish is it is equally tasty. The meat itself isn’t very falvoured but it is another dish that you can wrap up in leaves to eat. Throw on some gochujang sauce, a few tasty sides and you have a delightful little package of taste!
16. Shabu Shabu – 샤브샤브
Korean style hot pot
You are served a large bowl of broth that is kept boiling on a little gas cooker at your table. You then throw in a variety of vegetables and meat. Often thinly sliced pieces of beef or pork but there is also a seafood option. Scoop what you want out of the bowl and roll it up in thin rice paper with any sides you feel like.
This meal comes in three different parts. The first part is the broth and meat. This in itself is very filling but make sure you have space! The second stage is adding noodles to the broth that is left once you have finished your meat. The broth is now extra tasty because of the meat!
Finally you add rice to whatever is left in your pot and fry that up. Usually by this time I am bursting at the seems but you have to try squeeze in a few grains of rice.
The whole process can look very complex but some restaurants will have instructional videos playing or you can ask your waiter to help!
On a factual note, Shabu Shabu originated in Mongolia but has spread through China, Korea and to Japan. So you can have a different version of this meal in lots of different countries!
17. Japchae – 잡채
Glass noodles and pork
Glass noodles, pork and assorted vegetables fried together with soy sauce. The most common vegetables to be used are mushrooms, onions, leeks, spinach and carrots.
This is a light and delicious meal. The flavours are not over-powering so it is easy to eat a lot of Japchae.
18. Hobakjuk – 호박죽
In Korea there are two types of soup, ‘kuk’ and ‘juk’. Juk is more a porridge than a soup while a kuk is how we understand soup in the West. That being said, Hobakjuk is devine.
Pumpkin is peeled, boiled, and mixed with glutinous rice flour. The result is a bowl of porridge so creamy, golden, and sweet that in some ways it seems more pudding than porridge. I love eating it at the end of meal!
19. Mandu – 만두
Mandu are Korean dumplings and they are a great addition to any dish. You can get vegetarian or meat options. They are stuffed full with ingredients like pork, carrots, cabbage, onion and noodles to make a little pillow of sensational taste.
You can steam them, fry them or even add them to a soup. They are incredibly versatile and can be eaten as your main meal or just a snack.
You can often just buy these frozen from supermarkets and cook them up at home. It’s usually what becomes dinner when I’m at a loss for what to make!
20. Twigim – 튀김
You cannot go wrong with this Korean treat. I have mostly eaten shrimp tempura’d in twigum and it has always been my favourite part of the meal.
If you are lucky enough to see something with Twigim at a buffet, load up on it, it is fantastic.
21. Galbi – 갈비
Marinated meat grilled over a fire
The word galbi literally translates to rib and can technically come from any animal. If you are using the word in isolation though it refers to thick slabs of meat, beef short ribs, marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, chopped garlic, and sugar and grilled on a barbecue.
If you are using another meat it should be named accordingly. This saucy meal is definitely something you should try if you get the chance!
22. Haejankuk – 해장국
Korean has a very strong drinking culture. On several work nights I have been out drinking with colleagues and had heaps of regrets the next morning when my alarm rings.
Hence a Korean food to deal with a hangover. Made from a beef broth, with cabbage, bean sprouts, radish and chunks of congealed ox blood. It has a deeply satisfying taste which is said to do wonders for kick-starting you in the morning. I have not found this myself but I’ve eaten worse things the morning after a party!
23. Ramyeon – 라면
Instant cup noodles
This Korean food is for a person on the go. Get your cup and pour in boiling water. Leave it for several minutes and you have a great, soupy noodle meal. There is a huge variety of types and all of them come with pictures on the cover of the cup so you know what to expect.
Some of them may end up being super spicy so make your choice carefully! There is a particularly brutal Ramyeon, Samyang, that inspired the challenge below:
24. Bokkeumbap – 볶음밥
Although this meal sounds simple it is bursting with flavour and I would recommend giving it a try if you find it on the menu. You will often find little prawns cooked into the rice along with a variety of vegetables and egg.
The part I really love is that you get a good helping of Jjajang sauce on the side. It goes really well with the rice!
This is another Chinese-Korean dish but most Korean restaurants will also have this on the menu.
25. Donkas – 돈까스
This meal is great if you’re missing Western food. It is a crumbed pork cutlet served with rice. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous you can get a cheese cutlet, 치즈돈까스. This is a pork cutlet stuffed with mozzarella cheese.
26. Tangsuyuk – 탕수육
Sweet and sour pork
Another meal that sounds simple and common but holy mother of all that is real tangsuyuk is amazing. Basted and fried pork strips in a sweet and sour sauce with vegetables. You might get strange looks if you order this by itself but the serving sizes are big enough for it to be a shared meal.
The best tangsuyuk that I have eaten is in Taeha on Ulleungdo. They cook cinnamon into the sauce and it is out of this world!
Tangsuyuk is another Korean food that is actually a Chinese export. There is a quite a large Chinese community in Korea which accounts for the large amount of Chinese foods.
27. Miyeokguk – 미역국
This is a strange meal but it has grown on me! This soup is often served on a Korean’s birthday, much like having a cake.
Soup is made up mostly of seaweed and beef. The texture of the seaweed is very slimy and took me a long time to get used to. The taste is what the ocean smells like and can be quite fishy.
28. Odengguk – 오뎅국
Fish cake soup
This meal has skewers of fish cakes boiled in a seafood broth with onions, radish,soy sauce, salt and pepper. I do not like things that taste too strongly of fish but I adore this soup. You can often buy just the skewers of fish cakes as a snack on the street but the broth is one of the best parts.
On a cold winter’s day nothing warms you up like a good broth. This is one of those!
29. Yukgaejang – 육개장
Spicy beef and vegetable soup
This soup was originally served as royal court cuisine. It is popular because of its spicy flavour. Hands down this is my favourite soup. It can also be served with chicken instead of beef. Either way I could eat this by the bucket-full.
30. Jjajangbap – 짜장밥
This is the rice version of jjangmyeon. You get a bowl filled with rice and a healthy serving of the jjajang sauce. I prefer the noodles because they are more fun to eat but it is the sauce that makes this Korean food so delicious!
31. Gimbap – 김밥
Rice rolls with a variety of vegetables rolled in and wrapped in seaweed
Gimbap is kind of like Korean sushi but there is no fish. Pickled radish, ham, cucumber, egg, and a variety of other ingredients depending on where you go, all rolled up in rice and seaweed. It is then sliced into bite-sized pieces; think California roll. It is difficult to say exactly what my favourite Korean food is, but this is high up there.
It can also be made with crab or completely vegetarian. However it is made, gimbap is incredibly delicious. I have it under the snack section but it is easy to make it into a full meal!
It is also reasonably cheap at about 1500 Won for a roll of gimbap.
32. Dakkochi – 닭꼬치
Chicken on a skewer
If you’re looking for a wonderful street snack look no further than dakkochi. These chicken skewers are lathered in a chili or barbecue sauce and served hot. This Korean street food is great on an evening of exploring the streets of Seoul or Busan!
One skewer holds a lot of chicken and the sellers don’t waste any of the space.
They cost about 2000 Won for one skewer.
33. Hotteok – 호떡
Deep-fried bread and syrup snack
Hotteok is pretty glorious. It is everything you imagine when you think our a gooey, sticky street snack! They are unfortunately mouth-scalding hot for ages but once it has cooled down enough to eat it is scrumptious!
You can also get a savoury version of this treat but I don’t know why you would when the sweet one is just so damn good! Koreans also refer to standard, American style pancakes by this name but when you’re wandering the streets you will see the sellers of this treat.
One will cost around 2000 Won.
34. Bingsu – 빙수
The most common form of this is red bean bingsu; patbingsu – 팥빙수. Really cannot stand red beans. The texture doesn’t do it for so I avoid this type of bingsu if I can.
That being said, there are so many different varieties of bingsu to choose from with things like mango, melon, coffee and ice-cream as there flavours, you will not be disappointed!
This snack is the best on hot summer days and because 90% of it is just shaved ice, you don’t have to feel bad eating a lot! Normally one bowl is enough for 2 people.
It’s about 10,000 Won for one bowl depending on where you go!
35. Bungeobang – 붕어빵
Waffle filled with choux cream or red bean paste
This is a delightful little snack! It is a puffy waffle filled with cream or red bean paste. I will always choose the cream but the red bean paste is also very popular. Often served fresh off the griddle it is a great treat for a day out.
Don’t let the fish shape make you think it tastes anything like fish!
These are quite cheap at about 500 Won each.
Korean Food I don’t really like!
The vast majority of Korean food I love but there are several dishes that just don’t do it for me. Here is the short list with reasons why I don’t like it but I’d suggest you make up your own mind!
36. Sundae – 순대
Blood sausage with glass noodles
Sundae is a sausage similar to blood pudding. It is pig intestines with a stuffing of glass noodles and meat.
It is not really the flavour that I don’t like but the texture. It is like chewing on old tyres!
37. Seolleongtang –설렁탕
Ox bone soup
Seolleongtang is easily recognisable by its milky white color and sparse ingredients. At most, seolleongtang broth will contain noodles, finely chopped scallions, and a few strips of meat.
This soup has a weird lack of taste which really puts me off it. Korean food has so many deliciously flavoured soups, why would I waste my time with one that has next to no flavour?
38. Naengmyeon – 냉면
Cold noodle soup
The soup is made with buckwheat noodles in a tangy meat or kimchi broth, topped with slivers of radish, cucumber, and egg, and seasoned with vinegar and Korean mustard.
For me some foods just shouldn’t be eaten cold. I am happy for anybody who enjoys this but my noodles and soups should be hot!
39. Pat – 팥
This is not a meal, but red beans are so common here in Korea I feel justified in including them in this list! You will find them in breads, in desserts, in waffles and in just about anything you can think of.
It always makes me sad when I get something with these beans. Again it is not the taste but the texture that ruins it for me. They are very floury. They are hugely popular so it may just be me.
40. Beondegi – 번데기
I have tried these twice just in case I changed my mind about them; Spoiler, I didn’t. Some people adores these as a snack but they just don’t do it for me. They kind of pop in your mouth and the taste isn’t great.
If you’re adventurous be sure to give them a try but I won’t judge you if you give them a miss!
Staples of Korean Food
Types of Kimchi
- Kimchi (standard) – 김치
- Diced Radish Kimchi, Kkakdugi – 깍두기
- Stuffed cucumber Kimchi, Oisobagi – 오이소박이
Common sauces and spices used for Korean food
- Soybean Paste, Dwejang – 된장
- Chili pepper paste , Gochujang – 고추장
- Fermented soy bean paste, Doenjang – 된장
- Hot pepper flakes, Gochugaru – 고추가루
- Toasted sesame oil, Chamkireum – 참기름
- Fish sauce, Aekjeot – 액젓
Korean side dishes (Banchan)
- Ssam, the leaves used to wrap food – 쌈
- Seasoned soybean sprouts, Kongnamul Muchim – 콩나물무침
- Seasoned spinach, Sigeumchi Namul – 시금치 나물
- Spicy cucumber salad, Oi Muchim – 오이무침
- Spicy radish salad, Mu Saengchae – 무생채
- Stir-fried zucchini, Hobak Bokkeum – 호박볶음
- Steamed eggplant, Gaji Namul – 가지나물
- Watercress Namul – Watercress 나물
- Braised potates, Gamja Jorim – 감자조림
Final thoughts on Korean Food
Korean cuisine is truly amazing. Every day I discover new foods that I love. Eating is very much a communal activity and I can think of few things better than spending the night drinking beer and eating Korean barbecue together with your friends.
Don’t be afraid to try the unusual looking foods, I think you will definitely find things that surprise you. There are also more than enough foods that you can enjoy even if you aren’t an adventurous eater!
Monique and I have started a video series on YouTube, the Secret Snack Segment. Give it a watch if you want to find out more about Korean food and snacks! Here is the second episode:
If all this leaves you hungry and unsure what to eat, check out our post on making pizza; you don’t even need an oven!
Happy travels and blue skies!
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