How does Korean food taste like?
Those accustomed to eating local Chinese cuisine may find Korean food a variation of dishes that we are familiar with. For example, ban mian and kalguksu share the same floury noodles, but the stronger broth of kalguksu stands in contrast to the egg infused goodness of banmian. Yes, Korea has dumplings too but eating round mandu with noodles (yes, glass noodles!) stuffed in it surely hits different.
This sense of familiarity but subtle differences in each dish will guarantee that Korean cuisine will be a delicious but yet exciting culinary adventure filled with unknown surprises in wait. During my four month stay, I sampled many of South Korea’s unique dishes in Seoul and compiled the following list for you to add on to. 잘먹게습니다!
Disclaimer: I dont eat much spicy or creamy foods, so dont expect things like samyang buldak carbonara to appear in this list.
Nailed on fixtures in the itinerary
칼 (Kal) means knife and 국수 (guksu) means noodles. Put together, Kalguksu is like ban mian but the noodles are prepared by cutting the dough sheets with a knife to form the noodles. A must eat if you are a noodle fanatic like I am, I find that noodles in Kalguksu have a chewier taste than most ban mian, and the soup has a stronger flavour.
You know a restaurant is good when they only serve four items only! Go for the perennial favourites of Kalguksu and Mandu. Noodles have a perfectly chewy consistency and the soup has a deep meaty flavour to it. Mandu here is also a worthy mention with its fragrant sesame oil. Kimchi here is spicy and even more garlicky. Dont bother with it unless you are a spice and garlic fan of demonic proportions.
Perhaps the most popular Kalguksu in the whole of South Korea. Come at off peak hours to avoid queues
In contrast to Myeongdong Kalguksu, Netflix Lady’s version has a cleaner taste. Instead of a meaty taste, it has a saltier and peppery vibe in the soup. Personally my favourite over Myeongdong.
During winter, the seats will be heated! Enjoy a warm bowl of soup while toasting your butt off in the cold. Gwangjang Market is always very crowded, so do expect to queue.
Although it is a slightly more pricey dish, the goodness of ginseng and soup full of flavour from the chicken that has been boiled for god knows how long ensures that having a bowl of samgyetang will surely restore your HP after a long day of climbing the infamously never-ending stairs in Korea’s subways. The chicken itself is usually stuffed with glutinous rice and of course ginseng, so come with a friend if you have a small stomach.
The creamy and thick soup of Tosokchon’s samgyetang tastes closer to ramen pork broth than the traditional clear yellowy chicken soup with puddles of oil on it. Besides rice and ginseng, the chicken is also generously stuffed with chestnuts, dates and some other nuts that just remind me of Chinese medicine. Everyone here orders white chicken, so no need to bother with the more expensive black chicken. The meal comes with a free shot of ginseng liquor, which warms the body well during the winter.
Both times when I went during off peak hours for dinner there were no queues, but I did manage to spot a crazy long lunch queue on a Saturday afternoon. Last order is 1 hour before closing time.
Bossam is basically long sheets of boiled pork shoulder that taste somewhat like pork belly. Wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a dab of ssamjang and a piece of kimchi, Bossam is heaven for the all the pork lovers out there
Jokbal is pigs feet, but sans the fattiness and vinegar that is often found in its Chinese counterpart. The result is one that is often of a lighter brown colour than what we are familiar with. Enjoyed in a similar manner with Bossam, it comes in two main flavours: original (soy sauce) and spicy.
You know that a restaurant is good when it has the 인생달인 (insaeng-darin) plaque outside it, which somewhat translates to “people with a superb skill in life”. A popular TV show, it features people with awe-inspiring talent, and the pork here tastes simply amazing. I had lots of fun going through the different permutation of side dishes to add into my wrap, all of which tasted great too.
The place is a sit down on the floor restaurant, so make yourself feel comfortable on the floor. At this restaurant, I learnt that it is common to ask for a small paper cup of instant coffee post-meal to get rid of the oily feeling around the mouth.
Crowded with students looking for a place to have a good meal and drink. It is a little pricey for a few friends, so come with at least 3 or 4 people to help even out the damage. Ahjumma was kind enough to offer one of my friends who came some sundae as service (service = free stuff in Korea!), but actually he just ate awhile ago and was just here to accompany us.
Other famous jokbal stores that were recommended to me by locals were Miss Pigs, which has its main branch in Hongdae. Do note that in general, besides the regular version, jokbal can also be served spicy!
Also referred to as “donuts” in English, kwabegis are twisted and fried dough sticks that are of the length of a palm.
Honestly, kwabegis are only S tier because of this shop in Gwangjang Market. Sure to command a queue at any time of the day, the piping hot and crispy exterior is loaded with generous amounts of cinnamon sugar, which is complemented by the warm fluffy texture inside it. Going at 1 for 1000 Won, this snack is definitely a steal.
I learnt that the queue exists because the bakers are literally selling out the previous batch they just made! Once a new batch is done, it is hungrily snapped up by those at the front of the queue and you just have to wait for their nimble hands to make the next one. Gotta respect their dedication to making it by hand despite the demand. This way, you also know that you will be served the freshest possible kwabegi — bonus points for me!
The quintessential food for students, kimbap can be found in convenience stores, restaurants that open for long hours at relatively inexpensive prices. Basically bigger than your usual maki sushi, it contains more ingredients such as picked radish, perilla leaves, and so on.
Gimgane’s signature Kimbap costs only 3.90, but its real draw is the wealth of free flow side dishes and soup. Besides those in the picture, you may also find some mini meat puffs wrapped in omelette, kimchi beansprouts or cucumbers. All for you to take as much as you want!
Pro Tip: I learnt the hard way that side dish offerings can vary widely. Ehwa outlet consistently has at least 3-4 options, while Sinchon outlet only had kimchi the one time I visited them (the audacity!)
A great solid choice
Everyone knows fried chicken, but the super crispy versions lathered with a variety of sauces are different from your regular KFC and more like what you can expect at 4 Fingers.
Sometimes you can find small carts or storefronts in markets selling saucy bite sized chicken. Thats 닭강정 (dakgangjeong), of which the most famous is a store outside of Seoul in Sokcho city.
If you are bored of Korean-style fried chicken, try out their more traditional whole fried chicken! Similar to spring chicken, these bad boys are deep fried in a huge vat of oil and make for a good sharing dish with friends. Just outside of Seoul, Suwon has a whole street dedicated to fried chicken — just about any store will be a good choice; only if you are willing to wait out the long queues!
Pro tip: if you have a dabao a fried chicken, it often comes with a box of radish cubes. I always see my Korean friends pour out the accompanying liquid — can anyone let me know why this is common practice?
Nothing beats a good group gathering than a grilled meat mountain. Although relatively more expensive, KBBQs are a must have experience at least once during your exchange
Near Yonsei, one can find many cheap kbbq options. This one restaurant that I have patronized have fast and fuss free service of pork belly, a solid addition if you are looking for a place get together with the group. If your focus is more on the meat, you can head east for Majang market, where you can get select fresh meat and have restaurants cook it for you at cheaper wholesale prices
Pro Tip: Grill your kimchi to give it a different flavour! An advice given by a Korean friend that only eats kimchi when grilled, the toasty warm kimchi stands in sharp contrast with the cold, sharp and sour kimchi that you will often find in restaurants.
Gukbap means rice in soup, and it is often served with pork, but beef is not uncommon as well. Great choice to warm the body on a cold winter day, gukbaps usually have a lighter meat taste as opposed to heavy ramen pork broth. Usually there would be a heavy dose of gochujang hiding somewhere in the gukbap as well, so I would consider it a spicy dish.
My complaint about gukbap is that it often comes with a heavy dose of powdered seasonings, which can make the soup feel rather gritty towards the end. However, Hapjeong’s offering is superbly clean, allowing you to fully focus on the porky goodness of gukbap
The limited number of seats and the fact that they are counter seats only may be abit of a turn off for dates, but the classy interior and tableware means that it is a solid choice to bring your loved ones!
Given kimchi’s ubiquity across the world, Naengmyeon has now become the standard for testing if a foreigner can truly appreciate the diverse range of Korean cuisine on show. Naengmyeon generally comes in two types; the Pyongyang version with its clear and clean beef broth while the Hamheung version is dry with spicy gochujang sauce. Add vinegar to your own enjoyment!
Did you know: Although it makes sense most as a summer dish, naengmyeon is also equally popular during winter time!
Described by some as “water that comes from a wrung-out washcloth”, I found that the soup does not have much flavour initially. However, further sips revealed a beefy aftertaste at this shop that I enjoyed very much. Naengmyeon often comes with strips of pear (the dish that my chopsticks are on), which is a rather refreshing inclusion since I dont usually expect fruits in my noodles.
You know a restaurant is successful when it has its own multi-storey building with two valets standing outside ready to help any hungry drivers. Serving the spicy Hamheung naengmyeon, this dish did not leave a particularly strong impression on me, but I still enjoyed its unique cold yet spicy taste. Given that I finished the noodles, it is not particularly spicy, but extra chilli can be added to taste
Honestly the taste is just like Dah Fa fish sticks, but with even tougher texture. However, priced at only $1.5 per piece, this fish will give you a good reason to hang out with your cash strapped friends while you slowly chew your way through it. Mix the yangnyeom and mayo sauce before dipping the fish in it for maximum flavour!
Situated near Euljiro-3-Ga Station, the place comes alive at night where plastic tables and chairs spill over onto the roadside, filled with young people and working people coming here for a cheap but good time with friends. Do come with alot of friends, and order 오뎅탕 (Odeng-tang) to share sticks of fishcakes to maximize the casual laid back night out vibes!
Pro tip: For drinks order draft beer, which is called 호프 (Hopeu) and not 맥주 (maekju)! While there are multiple origin stories, one of my favourite is that it came from german (Hof), which was clarified by my German friend that it did not mean draft beer, but rather is the name of town that is famous for their beer festivals.
Not bad, but have a drawback or two
Comfort food of the masses, Kimchi Stew is definitely one of the things that you will have at least once while on exchange. Expect a spicy orangey soup filled with varying degrees of sourness from the kimchi that was used. Bits of meat, such as pork is commonly found in it too.
I first came here for the kimchi stew but returned for the free flow fried salted seaweed sheets in the tupperware. The plentiful servings of kimchi stew and stir-fried pork also make it a good choice to share between 2-3 people when ordering both dishes.
Pro Tip: Eat by placing a sheet on your rice, then use your chopsticks to kiap the rice with the seaweed on top, making like a mini maki of sorts.
Ranging from the usual sashimi to “live” octopus to fermented fish slices, the only common theme between each is that they are all rather expensive.
At Noryangjin, you get to walk around the wet market on the first floor, bargain prices with the stall holders before heading up to their affiliated restaurants that will prepare the fishes for you. For those who want to try something more unconventional, opt for the “live” octopus 산낙지 (San-nak-ji) or 개불 (Gae-bul), a species that closely resembles a part of the male anatomy. In case you get tired of chewing on the octopus, or even lifting it up from the plate, you can place the leftovers into a stew that is often cooked at the end of the meal with the fish scraps left over from preparing your chosen fish earlier.
Tastes quite like Japanese soba, is a solid dish but not a fixture on the itinerary. I included this due to its ubiquity amongst the restaruants in Seoul, where it is known as 밀면 (mil-myeon).
An extremely solid bowl of buckwheat noodles with clear but flavourful broth, though nothing too special about it. Nearby customers often ordered a side of tonkatsu or 전 (jeon), a fried pancake to share, which is a good idea to amp up the dinner if eating here with friends.
Yes, that’s right you can find quality Singaporean fare in Seoul. Why, I hear you ask? While some may find it ridiculous to splurge $22 on food that probably costs less than half in Singapore, sometimes you do need that fix of comfort food halfway into exchange.
Serving up Chicken Rice, Char Siew and Roast Pork, the chicken rice rice aromatics, crispy roast pork skin and most importantly, chicken rice chili sauce is of a similar, if not better level than the average hawker in Singapore. This restaurant definitely deserves a mention for cooking such complex dishes in a place where native ingredients must be difficult to source. If you need your fix of local food, get yours at a place that does it justice in One Degree North.
The ultimate comfort food that will surely make your flat mates jealous as you take the lift, this is a great option if you dont mind your noodles being overcooked and have a at least 2-3 people to eat with. Yes, although you can eat it at the restaurant too, personally I feel that nothing beats having a bowl of Jjajangmyeon served right to your doorstep as you rush that assignment due 2359 tonight.
There is no one Korean-Chinese store that I recommend — I simply ordered whatever was nearby on the applications. A standard restaurant though would be from the chain of Paik Jong-won restaurants (Hong Kong 0410), which include many others as well (Paik’s Coffee, Paik’s Noodles, etc).
Pre-ARC (kind of a VISA that takes at least a month to make after arrival), you can use Shuttle App to make orders, albeit at a higher price. Otherwise, you can make use of the Baemin App once you have an ARC to make orders. However, convenience does come at a price (e.g. the noodles in the jjajangmyeon/jjamppong are often cooked into the next universe due to it being soaked in the soup)
Interesting but maybe not very worth it
Did you know that Yonsei owns a dairy farm? Apparently, this is not unique to Yonsei, with my Cornell exchange friend telling me about Cornell ice cream being the best ice cream in his state.
Tastes like Chateraise but the cream is less smooth. Maybe can pair it with the Yonsei brand Milk if you are really interested in trying it.
Sundae is not ice cream here in Korea, but a sausage made of congealed blood and glass noodles stuffed in intestines. To me it tastes fine, but I’m not a great fan of it as I never enjoyed innards. However, it is a dish beloved by many Koreans, so it is worth a try.
While not a particularly famous store, I visited this when I was near the Olympic Park for Red Velvet’s concert. However, it was a well executed bowl of soup, with pieces of pork and of course bits of sundae available when you order their version of 국밥 (gukbap). The sundae in this soup doesn’t taste bloody, and I mostly could only taste the noodles in it. Definitely a solid choice if you are nearby and want to try out some sundae.
전 (jeon) is a pan-fried pancake made up of mainly eggy floury batter. Toppings can vary from proteins like beef, pork, kimchi, potato but one of the classics is 파 (pa), which is spring onion. Pajeon therefore comes with a generous amount of spring onions, and often with some seafood as well.
Although the first few bites of fried crispy batter were great, they soon became too jelat for me to eat on its own. Would be a good option to order when drinking with a group of friends though.
Pro Tip: If you visit the nearby Gangwon Province, where Nami Island is located, do try their local 감자전 (gamja-jeon), or potato pancakes! Gangwon is filled with mountains, where its rugged landscape with large temperature swings make it a good place to grow potatoes
As a big lover of duck, I was a bit disappointed by this because the duck meat had long been cooked to death and back in the piping hot stew. Would very much rather the tender braised duck version in Singapore
Loved by many Koreans, soybean noodles to me just doesnt have much flavour. It is nothing but noodles in a soybean broth. While I appreciate the sweet and light notes of soybean, the broth is overall very lightly salted and doesn’t taste of much otherwise. As someone who seeks umami in noodle dishes, the lack of flavour in the noodle is the antithesis to my perfect noodle dish.
The typical way to savour it is to first drink the soya bean broth then mix some kimchi directly into it. This place is a really popular restaurant, so if you want to try it, here’s a good place to have some.
If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thank you for your time! While I had a lot of fun eating my way through Seoul, I am still by no means an expert on Korean food so if you find any inaccuracies or have a comment, do feel free to let me know below.