You’ve probably encountered Korean cuisine at home in one form or another, as it’s becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea.
Food in South Korea is centred around rice and soup accompanied by a meat or fish dish, with numerous sides available. Some dishes won’t seem too strange to a western palate – think seasoned rice and vegetables or barbecued meat, while others may at first be too spicy or simply off-putting. Those who persevere usually fall in love with Korean cooking.
Here’s an idea of what to expect from the food and drink of South Korea.
Traditional Food in South Korea
Kimchi is a bit part of the national identity and is therefore served with pretty much every meal in South Korea. It’s usually made from fermented cabbage and chili, and it’s fair to say it’s a bit of an acquired taste for travellers.
You’ll also find lots of other kimchi flavoured foods in South Korea, so try to like it!
Korean barbecue has become popular in the west, but health and safety usually means restaurants can’t use a charcoal brazier at the table like they do in South Korea – undoubtedly key to the best flavours.
Generally at a barbecue restaurant you’ll find on offer bulgogi, cuts of marinated meat (usually pork or beef), and galbi, ribs that are usually unmarinated. You cook these yourself at your table, and then choose from a number of sides or sauces to complete the meal.
Many waiting staff might supervise or even try to do all the cooking for you, but have confidence and assure them you can do it yourself to get the full experience.
Restaurants in South Korea serve a near limitless variety of rice dishes, so here are a couple of the most common (and tasty) to look out for:
Bibimbap – This is a bowl of rice served with a range of condiments – vegetables, shreds of meat, egg – that you can mash together and stir in some chilli sauce to taste.
Gimbap – You might think of this as Korean sushi, as it consists of rice, meat or fish, pickled radish, and sesame seeds wrapped up in dried seaweed. The chief difference from sushi is how the rice is flavoured with salt and sesame oil. A roll of gimbap can be a useful snack to carry with you, but is also an option in a restaurant or cafe.
Soups and stews
Again, the amount of soups and stews you’re likely to encounter in South Korea is ridiculous, and the difference between soup and stew might not always be clear. Soups are known as guk or tang, while jjigae usually means stew.
You’ll find soups and stews made with vegetables, kimchi, seafood, meat, tofu, noodles, and more, sometimes all at once. We recommend experimenting to see what you like (and being careful if you have food allergies).
Noodles are popular in South Korea. Look out for naengmyeon, a thin and chewy buckwheat noodle served in an ice cold beef broth – a Korean speciality. The recipe of the broth can vary heavily from place to place, so you might need to try a few before you find your favourite.
You’ll also find japchae (yam noodles fried with vegetables, beef, and/or dumplings), ramyeon (Korea’s spicy answer to ramen, served with kimchi), and u-dong (thick wheat noodles similar to Japanese udon).
Seafood is massive in South Korea, and many restaurants will have bays of fish tanks containing live specimens for you to choose from. It’s remarkable that there’s anything left in the ocean.
A traditional South Korean seafood dish is hwe, served raw (similar to sashimi) and flavoured with a hot pepper sauce. Note that in some places the fish will be prepared while still alive to ensure maximum freshness, which can be an altogether unpleasant experience for you.
You could also try haemultang, a spicy hotpot stew made with crab, shrimp, squid, along with vegetables and noodles.
Drink in South Korea
South Korea is the home of cheap alcohol and heavy drinking: someone considered to be an average drinker here could well be considered a heavy drinker in the UK.
Bars in South Korea are a place for inhibited businessmen to cut loose, and many business deals and promotions are agreed over a drink or three, and sometimes in a late-night karaoke joint. There are even small rooms and spaces that can be rented for the night to sleep it off, instead of going home.
Traditional drinks in South Korea
The national drink of South Korea is soju. It’s a bit like vodka (around 20% proof), and you’ll usually find it’s the cheapest beverage on the menu. There are numerous soju cocktails available, all of which will get you drunk remarkably quickly.
The way it’s made means soju tends to result in a mean hangover, even if you’ve only had a little – you’ve been warned!
You can also try takju, Korean rice wine, and ginseng wine, which is more expensive but generally has a better taste.
The most popular brands of beer in South Korea are western-style lagers – Cass, Hite and OB. All three are fairly light and cheap, meaning you can drink more.
Many bars and pubs in South Korea expect you to order food along with your beer, and some might bring food (and charge you for it) automatically.
Like many Asian countries, tea is popular in South Korea, usually green tea. Coffee is growing increasingly popular, and Starbucks has not missed the opportunity to spread across the country.
You’ll find loads of familiar soft drinks like Coca Cola and Mountain Dew, but you can also try sikhye, a sweet and grainy rice drink sometimes served with dessert, and sujeonggwa, a cinnamon-flavoured drink made from persimmons.
Many cafes in South Korea will serve a variety of fruit juices and smoothies, and with a Baskin & Robbins on almost every corner you’re never too far away from a milkshake.