Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. However, those unfamiliar with Korean cuisine will have to be wary for the many spicy and fermented dishes in Korean cuisine. Nevertheless, it is addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known asbanchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi (see below), typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and may be a bit of an acquired taste for visitors as it can be quite spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chilli paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon. See the various city articles for more details.
A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Be aware that eating is deemed a group activity in Korea, and some restaurants may charge a little bit extra or up to double the stipulated price for a lone patron, or on rare occasions, be uneasy with serving them at all.
Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of metal. Typically, restaurants have stainless steel chopsticks, but fine silver ones are also available. Unfortunately for the chopstick learner, these thin and slippery sticks are not the best implements to practice with, but if you can eat with wooden or plastic chopsticks you'll manage with some fumbling. When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.
In many traditional households, children were taught that it was impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.
Some etiquette pointers:
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi (불고기), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (갈비), which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and some chili-soya paste (쌈장 ssamjang) and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon, instead common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (고추장 chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok, 떡) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (eg. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is a interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae , and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕, pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans are great noodle lovers too, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types, sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as W3000-4000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean speciality, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.
Japchae (잡채) is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu (만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (신라면) for example.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) is the Korean version of the northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic — kind of like a tomatoless spaghetti bolognese. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet.
Finally, u-dong (우동) are thick wheat noodles, similar to the Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hwe (회), pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap (초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/ chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled with crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Whalemeat may also be regionally available at festivals in the outer provinces. Bear in mind that there has been quite a media ruckus over its origin: a recent study of restaurants in Seoul traced the meat back to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. As international whale trade is illegal, and the species itself endangered, this is one decision to be left up your own moral compass.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. If you ask for "no gogi" (고기) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared!
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables.
On the bright side, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
Yes, it's true — Koreans eat dog. While theoretically illegal, in practice the law is not enforced and dog meat soup (보신탕 bosintang or 영양탕 yeongyangtang) remains popular dish eaten as medicinal food among older men looking to improve sexual virility and for invigoration during the hottest days of summer. It is not regularly consumed as a common food item and is sold in specialty dog only restaurants. It is most commonly consumed a a spicy soup or stew or as suyuk (수육), which is just meat boiled with spices to eliminate smell and make the meat tender.
Aside from the cultural taboo, there are some issues regarding how the dogs are raised, butchered, and processed. These days, dogs are generally not beaten to death to improve the taste, but calling the conditions in which dogs are raised and butchered humane would also be an exaggeration. Even in Korea, where many people are pet owners, people get quite opinionated on this matter. So take anything you hear with a grain of salt.
In any case, you're unlikely to end up chewing on Snoopy by accident, as dog is only served by speciality restaurants, and as they rarely advertise you will have to actively seek them out. If you do make the effort, a bowl can go for under W10,000 and you'll find that dog tastes broadly like beef or veal, if perhaps a tad gamier.
Alcoholics rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings. The drinking age in South Korea is 19.
Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (originally German, but 호프 hopeu in Korean) are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Recently, due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.
Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in W200,000-W500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.
One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your 'status' to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.
On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju (see below) each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Often times, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20%). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over W3000 at bars (as little as W1100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc, to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - ion drink), 'so-maek (soju + maekju(beer) which adds a bit of a kick to beer) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.
Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and 'Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
There are two major differences between Korean rice wine and Japanese rice wine. The first is that Korean wine uses nuruk, while Japanese wine uses koji. While both can be considered yeasts, nuruk contains various kinds of fungi and other microorganisms, while in koji a more selected breed of fungi does its job. The treatment of rice is also different: traditionally rice for making cheongju is washed "a hundred times" (paekse 백세), but for sake, the rice is polished until the grain size is as little as 50% of its original size. Therefore, some people comment that in general cheongju tastes more complicated and earthy, while sake tastes "cleaner" and "sweeter".
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around 1500 won per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof (호프 hopeu), which serve pints of beer in the W2000-5000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of W10000 or so.
Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
Coffee (커피 keopi) is also widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as W300, usually sweet and milky. Latte snobs will also be glad to know that Starbucks and assorted copies are spreading like wildfire. Starbucks is particularly widespread in Seoul and the drinks served taste exactly as they do in Starbucks locations in the United States, so make sure you hunt around for a decent cup.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
Whilst not as popular as in Japan or China, many Korean men and an increasing number of Korean women smoke, and it's fairly cheap compared to much of Europe and America. A 20-pack costs around W2500(domestic cigarettes) or W2700(foreign cigarettes), and cigarettes can be bought from all convenience stores. Koreans favour mild cigarettes (around 6mg tar) so Korean-made cigarettes may taste bland and flavourless compared to those from America or Europe, and even the Korean-produced Western cigarettes are much lighter than the originals (e.g. Full-strength Marlboro Reds in Korea have only 8mg tar, the same as Marlboro Lights in the US). If you prefer stronger cigarettes it's wise to bring some duty-free cigarettes with you. However, there are a few vendors in Itaewon and Gunsan that do sell American cigarettes, although you will probably need to look around a bit to get the brand you like. Fortunately, the ubiquitous American military personnel in both cities can usually point you in the right direction.
Smoking is forbidden in most public buildings, public transport and restaurants, although it's permitted in most bars. Internet cafes have smoking and no-smoking sections and karaoke parlours, DVD-bangs, hotels etc give you a choice of smoking or no-smoking rooms.
Also, make sure you familiarize yourself with the local ordinances on smoking. Smoking in public is prohibited in certain places of Korea, and although police will generally let foreigners off with a warning, you still run the risk of getting fined.
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