What I ate in South Korea | 10 dishes you must try

Saturday, March 04, 2017



A few months ago, I traveled with a friend to the exhilarating country of South Korea. We spent two weeks eating, sightseeing and shopping our way through Seoul, Gyeongju and Busan, discovering local traditions, new places and fascinating foods every day.
Before the trip, I knew very little about real Korean food - the food integral to the culture that gave us fried chicken and beer, bulgogi and kimchi


Our trip was full of unforgettable dining experiences and meals that expanded my knowledge of the vast array of different dishes, snacks and sweets that Korea has to offer. There is so much more to hansik (han meaning Korean, sik referring to food) than barbecue, bibimbap and chilli. 

Our philosophy on the trip was to follow our noses and eat at restaurants, street food stands or coffee shops that were full of people, no matter how long the wait. We wanted to try as many different dishes as possible in order to experience the real Korea.

While most restaurants in Sydney are tailored towards a particular cuisine, restaurants in Korea tend to specialise in a particular dish or style of cooking. In larger cities like Seoul, many of these are part of small restaurant chains, and are often the more popular eateries.



What follows is a visual compilation of 10 savoury dishes we ate on our trip that I think everyone must try when in Korea. As well as a brief description of each dish, I've included the restaurant, street food stall or city in which we tried it. Some of the foods are well known icons of Korean cuisine, like bulgogi and bibimbap, but others might not be quite as recognisable. But that is one of the joys of travelling - you never know what exciting things you can discover.

I am by no means an expert on Korean cuisine, and this should not be treated as a definitive guide to all of the dishes that you can eat in Korea (there are many, many more), but I hope that this post will inspire you to explore more of the delicious foods that country has to offer. 

Jjimdak


Jjimdak (also known as dakjjim) is a comforting braise of chicken and vegetables in a sweet, soy-based sauce. The word jjim is used to describe any type of braise or stew.

A popular style of jjimdak originates from the South Korean city of Andong. This version has a slightly spicy hit, which comes from the addition of dried chilli, and is typically cooked over a high heat.

Where we ate it:
Andong Zzimdak
Myeong-dong 2ga, 2-2Seoul


This popular chain restaurant serves only Andong-style jjimdak. The menu is short and sweet - choose your preferred size (for two, three or four people), whether you'd like chicken with the bone in, or de-boned (the latter is a little pricier), and then whether you'd like any sides.

Half chicken jjimdak (bone in) with rice (19,000KRW)
We opted for the half chicken size. This was recommended for two people, and when it arrived we were glad we didn't order any bigger. Piled onto a large plate was a mangle of thick, transparent cellophane noodles, dark-stained chicken pieces and a mix of vegetables which include potatoes, carrots and mushrooms.


The noodles were glossy and long, and soaked up all of the salty, sweet sauce. It's best to cut them up with the scissors that are provided at each table before eating. The chicken was flavourful and succulent; although it was a little hard to get around some of the bones, it was well worth ordering the meat with the bone in. There were chunks of stewed potato and soft onion strewn throughout the thick, shiny sauce - perfect for spooning onto the accompanying steamed rice. 

Bibimbap


Bibimbap is one of the most recognisable Korean dishes. It consists of a colourful arrangement of vegetables on top of warm steamed rice, which is often accompanied by an egg and sliced meat. The word bibimbap means 'mixed rice', and as the name suggests, the toppings are mixed into the rice before eating.

The list of bibimbap toppings is endless. Common additions include cooked carrot, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, spinach, daikon, kimchi and shredded, dried seaweed. More traditional versions are topped a raw egg, which is mixed into the warm rice and lends an extra dimension of silkiness to each mouthful. Some variations even come with raw minced beef. A spoonful or two of gochujang, a hot, fermented Korean chilli paste, is optional but highly recommended.

Bibimbap is probably one of the healthiest Korean meals you can have, and is sure to fill you up, too. My favourite variation is dolsot bibimbap, in which the rice and toppings are cooked and served in a hot stone bowl that sizzles as it arrives to the table. The hot stone chars the rice that sits on the edges of the bowl and leaves a layer of crunchy, fragrant conglomerated grains at the bottom.

Where we are it:
Gogung Bibimbap
38 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-guSeoul 110-300


Gogung is located on the lower basement level of Sszmiegil, a relatively new cultural hub in Insadong, Seoul. Walk down the narrow steps to find the entrance. The interior is furnished with dark wood, and there is a small section set up with traditional ondol (heated floor) seating. 


We request to be seated in this area, and are shown to a low table next to a floor to ceiling window that looks out to the peaceful garden outside. The ondol system set up under the wooden floor makes for a cosy dining experience and ensures that our bottoms and feet never get cold. 

Dolsot Bibimbap (11,000KRW)
We ordered the dolsot bibimbap, which came with a good array of banchan - small, complimentary side dishes. The bibimbap was generously sized and extremely satisfying. On top was sauteed zucchini, mushrooms, sliced kimchi, daikon, seaweed, and a sweet, chunky fermented paste that was reminiscent of chilli miso. 


Side dishes included kimchi, dried whitebait with peanuts in a sweet, sticky honey-like mixture, bean sprout soup, miniature spring onion jeon (battered pancake), a white savoury jelly and fresh salad. Having been on a diet of rice and cooked vegetables for the majority of the trip, we welcomed the fresh salad with open arms and eager bellies. 


Samgyetang


Samgyetang is a nourishing, warming Korean chicken and ginseng soup. Strangely enough, it's quite popular during Summer, and is eaten to stay energised through the hot weather.

Instead of being served with chicken pieces, each portion of samgyetang comes with a whole young chicken. Yes, you read it right - a whole chicken per serving. It's a young chicken, so is not as big as it sounds, especially by the time all of the meat is extracted off the bone.


The chicken is stuffed with a filling of glutinous rice, ginseng, garlic and jujube, and cooked in the soup until it's tender and the meat falls off the bone. This soup is comforting, nutritious and prized for its medicinal benefits, although the flavour itself is quite subtle and does not taste too strongly of ginseng. Samgyetang is commonly seasoned at the table to each diner's liking. 

Where we ate it:
Haeundae Somunnan Samgyetang
6, Jungdong 2-ro, Haeundae-guBusan 48096

Tojong-samgyetang (13,000KRW)
This was the first time we tried samgyetang, and we absolutely fell in love with it upon first sip. The soup was piping hot, and the starch from the glutinous rice gave it a thick, congee-like texture. The chicken was unbelievably tender and so soft that it just melted in the mouth. We thoroughly enjoyed picking through the bones and savoured every mouthful of the pure, delicately flavoured broth.


The soup came with banchan of fresh cabbage and daikon kimchi, green chilli, raw onion and a small serving of cooked chicken gizzards. This was the first time I'd tried gizzards; they had a very strong chicken taste and slightly chewy texture. 

Seolleongtang


This beef bone soup has a trademark cloudy, milky broth. Unlike most broths, which are cooked with the aim of being as clear as possible, the creamier and whiter the seolleongtang, the better. The thick, rich soup is attained by cooking beef bones for a long period of time, which allows the collagen in the bones to break down and create that desired cloudiness. 

There are no extra seasonings added to the soup before serving; as with most Korean soups, it's seasoned at the table according to one's personal taste. It's served with hot steamed rice, which is mixed into the soup to soak up all of those lovely flavours. 
Seolleongtang is an ideal hearty winter meal. It's high in calcium and protein, and can be eaten for breakfast, lunch for dinner. 

Where we ate it:
Sinseon Seolnongtang
56-1, Myeongdong-gil, Jung-guSeoul 04537


This is a famous seolloengtang chain, and the restaurant in Myeongdong has queues at most peak meal times. The eatery serves numerous variations of the bone broth, such as ox knee bone, ox bone stew with dumplings and a special soup with three different kinds of beef. 

Dubuyachae Seolnongtang (8,000KRW)
We ordered the traditional seolleongtang with vegetables and tofu. The broth was packed full of lots of vegetables - bean sprouts, spring onion, tofu and mushrooms - as well as thin, soft slices of beef brisket. The soup itself was quite bland, so seasoning was vital in order to bring out the rich flavours. It was served with a sweet, soy-based dipping sauce on the side, which had a small dollop of mustard that went really nicely with the beef.

We copied diners around us by tipping our bowl of steamed rice into the hot soup, although we were a little complacent about this as it wasn't something we'd ever done before. It was a very thoughtful addition though, as the rice really bulked it up and turned the soup into a filling meal. It gave it an extra thickness and cloudiness that resembled a comforting rice porridge. 


Mandu



Every cuisine has its own version of the humble dumpling. The Korean variation is mandu: plump, round pillows that are steamed, boiled or fried. Common fillings include pork and sweet potato noodles, kimchi, and whole prawns


There were three different varieties of mandu that we encountered on our trip. The first was a plump, round dumpling that was steamed or boiled. The second was flatter and longer in shape, and pan-fried so that is was more fragrant and crisp. Both were delicious in their own unique way. 



The third variety was jjinpang mandu, which had a thicker, fluffier, bread-like casing and a minced meat or kimchi filling. It's essentially a Korean steamed bun, and makes for a very satisfying snack  or as a meal in itself. 

Where we ate it - Mandu:
Bukchon Son Mandu
Seomyeon-ro, Busanjin-gu, Busan

Bukchon Son Mandu is a popular mandu restaurant with branches in both Seoul and Busan. We visited the branch in Seomyeon, the medical district of Busan, for a late lunch.


The menu featured both mandu and myeon (noodles). There were more varieties of mandu on the menu than we could count with one hand. These included fried, beef, pork, combination, kid-sized and ball-shaped mandu, as well as mandu soup. If noodles are what you prefer, then choose from Bukchon-style hand-chopped noodles or Bukchon-style cold noodles.


All mandu on the menu were handmade fresh right before our eyes. 


We ordered a plate of steamed dumplings, which came as a serving of two fat pork dumplings and one kimchi dumpling, a serving of galbi (beef) dumplings, and a plate of shrimp dumplings.



Steamed dumplings (3,500KRW)
Each variety was folded in a different way. The pork and kimchi mandu were round and plump, with a thick pleat around the edge. 

Shrimp dumplings (3,000KRW)


Galbi dumplings (4,000KRW)
The beef mandu were delicately folded into the shape of a roll, while the prawn ones featured a whole prawn - tail and all - encased in a thin, delicate wrapper. 


Where we ate it - jjinppang mandu:
At a jjinppang mandu shop on the outskirts of the Seongdong markets in Gyeongju



This shop handmade their jjinppang mandu daily and steamed each fresh to order. There were three different types offered: pork, kimchi and red bean jjinppang mandu. 






Pork and kimchi jjinppang mandu (1,000KRW each)
We stopped here for a light snack after wandering through the maze of alleyways in the nearby market. To our surprise, the outer casing of the mandu was not as thick nor as heavy as we expected. It was more like a cross between a bun (at the top) and dumpling wrapper (underneath). The pork jjinppang-mandu was flavoursome and filled to the brim with a mixture of pork mince, mushroom, shallot and glass noodles. The kimchi mandu had the perfect level of spiciness. 


Naengmyeon 


Naengmyeon was one Korean noodle dish that I had never tried before the trip. The noodle soup features thin, translucent noodles in an ice cold broth along with strips of cucumber, pickled radish and a boiled egg.

There are two types of naengmyeon - pyeongyang naengmyeon and hamheung naengmyeon. The former has a clear protein or radish-based broth, and the latter is injected with a spicy, sweet red sauce.

Where we ate it - Naengmyeon:
Bukchon Son Mandu
Seomyeon-ro, Busanjin-gu, Busan

Bukchon cold noodle (6,000KRW)
We tried naengmyeon at the same place at which we ate the gorgeously fat mandu in Busan. I had the Hamheung Naengmyeon, although I wish I'd had a chance to try the other variety too. The noodles used in this style of soup have a uniquely chewy, springy texture as they're they are made from predominantly potato or sweet potato starch, rather than buckwheat. They were so long that we had to cut them into shorter lengths before eating. 

The broth was super ice cold - so much so that we could see, feel and taste the ice slushy in the bowl when it arrived. We mixed in the healthy amount of bibim naengmyeon sauce that was hidden under the stack of vegetables and egg, and dug right in. This bright red sauce gave the broth an unusually sweet flavour that took a while to get used to. Recipes often call for sugar, Korean pear or apple, and even corn syrup to create this distinctively hot, sweet taste.

Bulgogi


Bulgogi is a childhood favourite meat dish. It's prepared using some of the most tender cuts of beef, which is sliced thinly and either char-grilled, pan-fried or stewed. The meat is marinated in a universally appealing sweet and savoury sauce that is made from a mixture of Korean pear or apple, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and sugar. 

It's cooked with sliced onion and spring onions, which soften during the cooking process and add even more sweetness to the sauce. The dish is perfect eaten with a bowl of steaming hot rice. 

Where we ate it:
Sosim
143-1 Gwanhun-dong, Jongno-guSeoul

Our tour guide took us to this tiny restaurant for lunch on our very first day in Seoul. It's located on basement level, and you'll find the entrance next to the GS25 convenience store on the corner near Anguk subway station.


The restaurant serves a range of meat dishes, soups and stews. We ordered the beef bulgogi set course and the house set meal, the latter of which came with an exciting array of banchan.

Beef bulgogi set course (11,000KRW) and Hanjeongsik
The bulgogi was everything we expected it to be. The meat was ultra thin and tender, and the sauce sweet and full of soft pieces of onion, spring onion and chewy rice cake. 


Acorn jelly salad
The banchan that were part of the set meal were just as exciting as the bulgogi. This acorn jelly salad was one of the more intriguing side dishes - a tumble of cucumber, garlic shoots, leafy greens and gelatinous, wobbly acorn starch cubes dressed in a sweet and hot chilli sauce.


Marinated lotus root
Another favourite was this sweet dressed lotus root.


Battered luncheon meat
This sliced luncheon meat was another surprisingly moreish side dish. It was coated in an egg-based batter mixed with chopped spring onion, and pan-fried. 


Jeongsik


Traditionally, jeongsik, or hanjeongsik is a formal, 'complete' set meal that was eaten by royals in banquets during celebrations. Today, the modern jeongsik offered by Korean restaurants a set meal made up of many different small dishes, or banchan. These can be served as they are, sometimes with a bowl of steamed rice, or can accompany a larger main meal (for example, a bulgogi jeongsik).


The dishes that make up the set meal are often pre-prepared for quicker, more efficient service, and can vary depending on what's in season. Jeongsik is priced on a per person basis.


You don't have to go to an up-market restaurant to sample this one of a kind Korean dining experience. At more casual restaurants, jeongsik can be offered at a price as low as 10,000 KRW (roughly AUD 11).


What I loved most about jeongsik was the sheer variety of different dishes we got to try. We otherwise would not have had a chance to try many of these. In both of the two set meals we sampled, there was always a perfect balance of different textures, spice levels, flavours and cooking methods in each. In addition to the standard kimchi and steamed rice, common components of the meal were fresh lettuce or cabbage leaves, sesame-dressed spinach, a spicy fermented dipping sauce, and some form of stew or braise.


Where we ate it:
Blue Dragon Restaurant
Bulguksa, Gyeongju

We had our first hanjeongsik experience at a small restaurant on the main strip of Bulguksa, not far from the base of the entrance to the Bulguksa temple. We were super excited at the prospect of having so many different plates to try. It really was a feast for both the eyes and the stomach.

Hanjeongsik (12,000KRW per person)
This set meal had a few larger plates, as well as many smaller nibbles. The larger dishes included a spicy seafood stew, serving of grilled bulgogi and fried whole mackerel. The stew was full to the brim with tofu, cabbage, carrot, mushroom, miniature prawns and a small soft-shell crab. It was flavoured with an umami bean paste and had a slightly spicy kick of heat that lingered after each mouthful.


The fried mackerel was a highlight of the meal. The skin was fragrant and crisp, and the meat salty and flavourful. The only tricky part was eating around the ultra thin, soft bones.

The meal came with a big plate of fresh lettuce, cabbage and shiso leaves, as well as three different accompanying dipping sauces. We noticed that the old Korean women eating across from us were dipping their lettuce into each of these sauces, so followed suit.


Each sauce was far different from the other. One was chunky and chutney-like, the other had a strong, fermented taste, and the third was almost like a soupy chilli oil. There was no doubt that all three had a good amount of chilli in them. 


Other smaller dishes included soft, tomato-based cold eggplant (super silky), sweet boiled soy beans, plain dressed mushrooms, preserved whole chillies, sweet fried whitebait, sweet Korean figs and pickled radish ribbons.

Where we ate it:
Dosol Maeul
71-2, Hwangnam-dongGyeongju

Jeongsik (9,000KRW per person)
The second time we had hanjeongsik was at an atmospheric restaurant behind the Dogung Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, right next to our AirBnB accommodation. 


Half of the tables were situated outdoors, with suspended wooden floor seating under thatched roofing, and the other half inside quaint, traditional ondol-heated mini huts for the cooler weather.


The biggest component of the set meal was a hearty, tomato-based eel stew. The fish had been chopped up into smaller chunks, and although it was very tasty, we found it very cumbersome having to pick through all of the spiky bones. One of our favourite dishes was a spiced chicken braise, which came with potato, onion and a tomato-based sauce.


Vegetable sides included a tofu-stuffed cabbage roll, fried long whitebait in a sweet chilli chutney, and fresh dried seaweed served with a sesame soy dipping sauce. 


One of the more intriguing banchan was this serving of sweet rice crackers, which had been made from the toasted bottom remnants of the rice cooker. These were dressed in a sweet, thick brown sauce and were quite an addictive savoury snack. 


Korean BBQ

Marinated beef ribs (260g)
BBQ is an essential dining experience in Korea. There are many different barbecue restaurants everywhere you go, which cater for a range of budgets.


The central feature of the Korean barbecue restaurant is the grill. In most KBBQ restaurants, every table has one of these built into the tabletop, so you can cook your own meat yourself.


The great thing about these restaurants is that you're not left entirely on your own to grill the meat; there is always a waiter nearby to help you out. They will bring your meat to the table, set up the grill, and, often, help cook the meat for you.

Where we ate it:
Madang Jip
512-23, Bujeon-dong, Busanjin-gu, Busan

Premium scotch fillet (100g)
This up-market barbecue restaurant offered premium cuts of meat. We ordered two different cuts of beef: scotch fillet and marinated beef rib. The former had a clean, delicate flavour, and the latter was extremely tender and tasty.



Banchan included a fresh cabbage and cress salad, kimchi jeon (pancake), crisp sweet potato chips and cold mung bean noodle salad. 

Kalguksu


Kalguksu is the ultimate Korean noodle soup. The word translates to 'knife noodles', which refers to the way in which the noodles are hand-cut using a knife. The thick noodles are made from wheat and have a rustic, comforting feel about them, with a texture that is firm but springy. They're served in a light, comforting soup, often with vegetables and meat.

Where we ate it:
Myeongdong Kyoja
29-1, Myeongdong 10-gil, Jung-guSeoul 04537


This restaurant is known for its kalguksu and mandu


Kalguksu (8,000KRW)
The noodles were unctuous, slippery and smooth, and came in a rich, clear chicken broth with minced meat, vegetables and four pork dumplings. It was a really, really comforting meal, and the dumplings were a nice addition to the flavourful soup. They were small and silky, a little like folded, pork-filled pockets.


This is just a snapshot of the breadth of savoury foods South Korea has to offer. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the street food and sweets we ate in Korea!

You Might Also Like

0 comments