Whether you’re hankering the spicy tang that explodes from a mouthful of fragrant freshly-made kimchi or the exquisite aroma of prime beef roasting on a traditional coal barbecue, South Korea’s gastronomic repertoire will not disappoint.
Historically, this country’s culinary culture is a social one, with a host of dishes traditionally shared between diners at the centre of the table. This gives you the chance to sample as many tasty delights as possible at one sitting, nibbling on everything from seasoned mountain bracken to fatty pork belly that’s been dipped into small bowls of salt and sesame oil. While many dishes, like kimchi, are staples of the South Korean diet, others have more of a regional presence. We’ve picked out five of our favourites.
A Royal Encounter
Nestled within Gyeongbuk province, a short drive from the Korean peninsula’s eastern coast, lies Gyeongju. This city was the capital of the 1,000-year-long Shilla dynasty and is a hotspot for tourists keen to delve into the history of the region. A trip to this city would be incomplete without dining on ssambap – a meal comprised entirely of the side dishes – banchan – that accompany the vast majority of traditional meals in Korea. Ssambap is served all over the city throughout the day, although a handful of excellent eateries can be found on the edge of downtown near to the entrance to Tumuli Park. A varied feast awaits diners, comprising everything from seasoned mackerel, marinated short ribs (galbi) and lean slices of ribeye (bulgogi) to egg soufflé, acorn jelly and gochujang (chunky soy bean paste). All of these delicacies can be wrapped up in lettuce and dandelion leaves, formed into little green packages and eaten whole. This is a culinary experience not to be missed.
When most people think of authentic Korean cuisine, of course the traditional coal barbecue comes to mind. This is one of the greatest dining luxuries in the Kingdom and offers the chance to gorge on a selection of succulent meats. However, the best part is that in most restaurants across the country, dining in local barbecue joints won’t break the bank. Syam-gyeop-sal – thick, fatty pork belly – is one of the nation’s meaty favourites. Barbecued right at the table over hot coals, diners can make miniature parcels of culinary magic with hot pork, bean paste, raw garlic gloves and lettuce leaves. A lot of restaurants specialise in certain types of meat, and what to expect can usually be gleaned from the cartoon representation of the animal available that decorates most restaurant signage. Finish your meal off with a steaming stone pot of doen-jang-jigae – soy bean paste stew.
A Stew to Remember
South Korea’s culinary repertoire is also packed with an impressive array of soups and stews – jjimdak being one of the most famous. The word jjimdak translates roughly to “braised chicken” and originates in the market town of Andong, which is also situated in Geyongbuk province. This hearty dish packs a flavoursome punch. The chicken is cooked in a soy, sesame oil, brown sugar and chili sauce before carrots, potatoes and a hearty handful of glass noodles are added. The wonderfully fiery flavour of this dish keeps diners coming back for more, and the best place to try it is in Andong’s fresh produce market where an array of jjimdak restaurants line the walkways. Some restaurants also offer a modern take on this traditional dish, which substitutes the delicate glass noodles for fat and slippery udon shoelaces. Cheese is then sprinkled on top and then left to melt into the sweet, fiery sauce.
Golden and crispy on the outside yet succulent and steamy within, fried chicken is one of the nation’s naughtiest treats and is particularly popular with the younger generations of city-dwellers who grew up in a more westernised Korea. Often served alongside cubes of radish and monstrous jugs of Korean lager (usually Cass or Hite), fried chicken is often the favoured sustenance before a night out on the town. Of course, SoKo’s top notch chicken joints don’t just offer one type of glorious fried chicken. Diners can choose from hot and spicy marinades or even sweet, succulent sauces crafted from garlic and sugar.
Alongside rice, kimchi is probably South Korea’s number one food staple. Although many families will make kimchi to a slightly different recipe, it usually comprises fermented cabbage, chili, red pepper, garlic, ginger and shrimp paste. This spicy side dish was traditionally scooped into large earthenware pots and placed underground for the duration of winter to ferment.
If you weren’t brought up on kimchi, it can be something of an acquired taste. However, something magical happens when you heat up this spicy cabbage and the flavour takes on a whole new life of its own. Kimchi jeon – a spicy pancake – is a must-try dish if you’re dining out. Also, don’t miss kimchi bokeum-bap – kimchi-fried rice with a fried egg on top. Pop the golden yolk and mix through the rice for maximum deliciousness.
- Korean drinking culture is very different to what you would expect in the West, and in many bars punters have to order some kind of snack alongside their beer. Dubu kimchi – hot chunks of tofu in a piping hot kimchi and pork sauce – is a winner.
- Stodgy and wonderful, traditional Korean rice cakes are a fabulous sweet snack if you want something satisfying to keep you going until the next meal. You’ll find that they come in an array of shapes, sizes and flavours – including red bean, sesame or green tea.
- Traditionally made from rice, wheat or barley soju is to South Korea what vodka is to Russia. This clear spirit is a staple tipple on most Korean nights out, and can even be mixed with beer to create the lethal – yet oddly tasty – so-mek cocktail.
- If you’re enjoying the culinary highlights of South Korea, it’s important to sample a few of the nation’s finest beverages as well. Makgeolli – a milky white rice wine – has an alcohol content of roughly 6%. Crafted from a blend of fermented rice, it packs a powerful probiotic punch and boasts a slightly sweet, yoghurt-like taste.
- If you’re setting off on a long journey across South Korea or hiking up to one of its misty mountain peaks, do what the Koreans do and pack a picnic. Essentially, gimbap – the quintessential Korean picnic fodder – is a bit like a Korean take on a Japanese sushi roll. Steamed white rice, crab and veggies are rolled in crisp sheets of nori for your taste buds’ enjoyment, and you’ll often find gimbap shops near bus and train stations.