Korean cuisine is becoming ever more popular in my hometown of Melbourne. This growing presence piqued my interest. I wondered whether the food was the same as presented in the restaurants of Melbourne, or rather if it was an entirely different world altogether. Throughout my week and a half in Seoul, I was able to scratch the surface of the incredible cuisine fueling Koreans.
Over the course of the trip, it was great to be surrounded by locals at the Asian Medical Students’ Conference, family friends, as well as a fantastic guide at Urban Adventures, to fully immerse myself in South Korean food. This local perspective meant that each meal was a new Korean dish, which varied from the smoky Korean BBQ restaurants, to street food stalls, to bustling market places, and all things in between.
From these experiences I would love to share with you the South Korean food I would strongly recommend visitors try. This is a comprehensive mixture of main meals, desserts, and beverages to guide you on this gastronomic adventure. Of course it was impossible to try everything, so the list is not exhaustive – I cannot wait to head back to Korea some time soon and try more mouth-watering dishes.
Chopped live octopus
This really was the strangest thing I have ever eaten. Over the first few days in Seoul I had seen a lot of octopi in fish tanks at the front of restaurants and had not thought a lot about it. It was not until a evening visit to Gwangjang Market that I understood their fate.
My friend from the conference, Syifa, really wanted to try chopped octopus. Little did I know that this meant chopped live octopus. After looking around the market for the best price, a group of us ended up finding an obliging stall owner who gave us a reasonable deal.
She pulled the squirming octopus out of the tank and posed for photos before swiftly grabbing a cleaver and chopping it up. Presented on a plate the octopus was still squirming. Each individual part of the octopus was moving independently and uniquely – it looked like a plate of worms.
It took a long time to work up the courage to try a bit, and when I finally tried it, it was a strange sensation. You have to chew the octopus completely to pieces so it doesn’t stick to your throat as it goes down. Occasionally the suckers will stick to your cheek or teeth and you have to pry it off with your tongue. The whole thing was really bizarre. It is best to not think too much of it.
And then you swallow it. The taste is not overwhelming. It does not even taste much like seafood. Most of the flavour comes from the soya sauce it is doused in.
Would I eat it again? Maybe, actually… probably not. But it was a great one for the bucket list!
Price: between 10,000 and 30,000 won – don’t be afraid to bargain.
READ MORE ABOUT GWANGJANG MARKET: 14 Best Things To Do In Seoul
Successfully eaten the octopus!
Kim Chi is the food I had heard the most about before heading to Korea. Although it sits on the must-try list, it was not my favourite food. Kim chi varies slightly around the country and between North and South, however the fundamentals remain the same. It is pickled cabbage usually in a spicy marinade that is generally served as a side dish. If you are in Korea it would almost be a crime not to try it.
Mung Bean Pancakes
Mung bean pancakes are a Korean specialty and a common street food. For the best ones you should head to Gwangjang Market where the quality is unparalleled. Watch as the pancake is fried up in hot oil by a stall owner, and I promise your mouth will never water so much again. As they are quite oily and filling, I would recommend sharing with a friend.
Alongside mung bean pancakes, there are plenty of other varieties of pancake to try including ones with meat. For strict vegetarians or people with dietary requirements, be aware that the pancakes are all cooked in the same oil so it may contain traces of meat.
Price: 4000 won for 2 pancakes
Before the flight over to Korea I had never heard of Bibimbap, but it is now one of my favourite dishes! I first tried it as the special meal on Singapore Airlines and was mightily impressed, despite the fact that it was plane food. Once in Korea I truly realised how popular this meal is.
Bibimbap comes with a bowl containing soybean sprouts, optional meat and shitake mushrooms, carrot, egg, zucchini, sesame seeds, and a separate bowl containing warm cooked rice. On the side there is hot pepper paste and sesame oil. Essentially, you mix it all together and enjoy!
It is a fresh and spicy meal that is enjoyable in any season. The servings are hearty and you do not finish feeling hungry (assuming you can maneuver the chopsticks well).
Going to a Korean BBQ is a fantastic sensory overload. Atmospheric restaurants line the streets of Seoul and provide these interactive meals. Each table comes with an embedded hot plate and a copper-coloured exhaust fan, giving the restaurants a unique and almost futuristic appearance.
You can choose from several types of meat, with pork, beef, and chicken being the most common. The tables are loaded with the various fillings and accompaniments for the meat. You are also given bowls of rice, a traditional soup, and traditional steamed egg.
Each table cooks their own meat and once it’s cooked you wrap it up in sesame leaves with whatever fillings take your fancy. It turns out kind of like a mini Korean burrito.
I was lucky enough to try Korean BBQ twice when in Seoul, once with family friends, and a second time with Urban Adventures. I would strongly recommend you read more about the Korean BBQ experience which can be found here: Seoul Food With Urban Adventures.
Bread from May Bell Bakery
On my second-last day in Seoul, I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful May Bell Bakery with Sunny, a gorgeous and incredibly generous family friend. May Bell Bakery is home to the best bread in Korea; and oh boy it is delicious. The mastermind behind the bakery is the lovely Mr Chuong. This incredibly talented man with ample chuong (a Korean expression meaning “heart” and generosity) is not only an impeccable baker, but also designed the stores, built the furniture, and painted the art.
If you find yourself in the Itaewon area you must try the bread or pastries here. Pair your selection with a coffee from the shop upstairs for a wonderful treat. Be aware that the bread routinely sells out so make sure you get there on time!
Chicken and Beer
Chicken and beer is a cultural icon in Korea. Baskets of fried chicken are enjoyed by thousands throughout the city in the evenings and is a popular post-work meal. Whether you’re eating it in restaurant or on the banks of the Han River, this meal will please. The fried and flavoured chicken is delicious – especially the spicy option! It is all washed down with a refreshing Korean beer. The recipe for a perfect evening.
Bingsu is a Korean dessert which can only be described as epic. The shaved iced milk comes adorned with various ice-creams and other additions. It is all stunningly presented and is unbelievably refreshing. My personal favourite flavours were matcha, as well as the blueberry cheesecake flavor from Subling. If you are in Korea, your trip would be incomplete without trying bingsu.
Any type of street food
Street food is everywhere in Korea and it is thoroughly delicious. Whether you want egg bread or fried noodles, you are sure to find it in one of the stalls. Many stalls have the prices in English and sometimes you can negotiate a cheaper price if there are a few of you buying the food. With street food use caution, I always go for stuff that is fried and cooked in front of me rather than raw food, or foods that will have been sitting out for a while.
All good meals are, of course, accompanied by the perfect beverage. In Korea there are no shortage of beverages to choose from. A few of the options are:
- So ju | A Korean vodka and soda mix which is available in convenience stores. This is a strong drink but tastes good considering the number of standards. The nicest flavours are grape and apple.
- Rice wine | A fermented white liquid which comes in a green bottle. It is lightly carbonated and refreshing with a hot meal.
- Korean beer | there are several options to choose from and the beer is pretty good. The famous brands are Cass and Hite.
- Rice drink Sikhye | this drink is rice water sweetened with malt and is available in some restaurants but also abundant in street-side stalls.
- Pear drink | this sweet pear juice is incredibly refreshing a delicious. It is famed in Korea for being good for hangovers, but you'll love it at any time of day.