Famous for its contributions to music, film, television, and of course, food, South Korea is celebrated for its highly influential pop and foodie culture. The country is adored its cuisine, featuring fresh ingredients that are thoughtfully prepared to create dishes that are both delicious and healthy.
In no particular order, here are eleven of the most famous foods and drinks in South Korea:
Not just a food, kimchi has been regarded as a symbol of national pride and identity by South Koreans. With a history spanning thousands of years, the fermented dish has been firmly embedded in South Korean culture in both the past and present.
Invented around 4,000 years ago, kimchi is a blend of cabbage or Korean radish that is sliced into small pieces that are then salted and soaked in water until softened and mixed with a paste often made of Korean chili flakes, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Kimchi seasonings can vary greatly with over 180 recognized varieties of the dish.
The mixture of seasoned vegetables is then placed into an airtight vessel that is stored in a refrigerator for several days allowing it time to ferment. The dish is so popular that it has become common for many South Korean households to have a kimchi refrigerator designed specifically to maintain ideal conditions to prolong the storage of kimchi, allowing it to be consumed for up to 5 months after being made.
While it does feature as a main ingredient in some meals, kimchi is primarily consumed as a side dish. It’s considered the perfect accompaniment to just about any South Korean dish and always has a place on the table.
The taste of kimchi can vary but the most common versions of the dish have a sour flavor, due to the fermentation process, which is balanced with the spice of the garlic and chili flakes and can sometimes contain a slight sweetness depending on the ingredients used.
Nearly every Korean restaurant around the world will serve up kimchi. You can also find it in many supermarkets, or shop for kimchi online (affiliate link).
Perhaps the most important condiment in the country, gochujang is a fermented pepper paste that is used throughout South Korean cuisine. The paste is made from Korean chili powder, barley malt, fermented soybean powder, glutinous rice, and salt.
Traditionally, to create the paste, barley malt is soaked and then strained to make malt water. It’s then mixed with sweet rice that is boiled down until a thick liquid is produced. That liquid is then combined with chili powder, fermented soybean powder, and salt.
The mixture is then stored at a cool temperature for a minimum of two months allowing it to ferment and develop flavor. The longer the paste is allowed to ferment, the better the taste.
Gochujang is used to flavor soups, marinate meat, and used as a topping in bibimbap. It’s known for its spice but also contains a hint of sweetness. Although traditionally made at home, today most South Koreans buy commercially made versions (affiliate link) of the paste.
Translating to “mixed rice”, bibimbap is another iconic South Korean dish that has been a part of the country’s cuisine since the 1500s. As its name would indicate, bibimbap consists of a base of rice that is mixed with a variety of vegetables, eggs, and a protein such as beef.
There is no official recipe however the most common ingredients include spinach, carrots, bean sprouts, mushrooms, a raw or fried egg, and beef that can be served raw or cooked.
A sauce often accompanies the mixture with gochujang, soy sauce, or soybean paste being among the most popular additions. Presentation is also important with an emphasis on the use of color, being pleasing to the eye, and using the best ingredients available. It’s often served in a hot stone pot called a dolsot.
Coming from the Korean word bul meaning “fire” and gogi meaning “meat”, bulgogi consists of thin marinated meat, often beef, that is either stir-fried or grilled and served with rice and other side dishes. It’s pronounced sounding liked “pool-goh-gee”.
The dish has been a part of South Korean cuisine for hundreds of years and has undergone a transformation over time. Originally it was cooked using skewers on hwaro grill.
The modern version of bulgogi is made from beef, chicken, or pork that is marinated with a combination of sugar, soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil, ginger, scallion, onions, and mushrooms and then grilled.
Many barbecue restaurants in the country have grills located in the middle of the table that customers can use to cook raw marinated bulgogi that is provided by the restaurant.
Hugely popular in South Korea and beyond, barbecue has become a staple in the culture. Many restaurants feature the aforementioned dining tables that contain built-in grills, which allow customers to prepare their meats to their liking. Different cuts of beef, chicken, and pork will be made available to customers who are served several side dishes, called banchan in addition.
Bulgogi is among the most popular meats along with galbi, or short ribs, and pork belly. Meats are usually presented to customers raw and pre-marinated allowing each person to cook their meal to their preferred temperature.
One popular way to consume the meats includes using lettuce or perilla leaves to make a wrap, which can be seasoned with ssamjang, a spicy paste made from gochujang. Diners are encouraged to eat their wrap all in one bite to experience the full flavor of the barbecue properly.
A dish with royal origins, japchae was introduced in Korea in the 17th century. A man named Yi Chung served the ruler of the time, King Gwanghaegun, a meal of mixed vegetables that was so good, the king named Chung to a high government position on the spot.
Originally a stir fry of cucumbers, mushrooms, and radishes, the modern version of japchae has transformed to include meat and glass noodles in addition to vegetables. It can be served hot or cold. Popular vegetables used today include mushrooms, spinach, carrots, onions, and scallions.
Glass noodles are stir-fried with meat, vegetables, and a sauce made of sugar, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil. The final touches include a topping of chili threads and sesame seeds.
Considered a comfort food in Korean cuisine, kimchi jjigae is a stew made of kimchi, pork, tofu, onions, gochujang, sesame oil, and anchovy stock. The perfect meal to keep you warm on a cold South Korean winter night, it’s hugely common and one of the most beloved dishes in the country.
The stew is often served in a large traditional earthenware pot along with several side dishes or banchan, as they’re known in Korean. Older kimchi that has begun to turn sour is often preferred in the making of the stew as it provides a deeper and fuller flavor.
The gochujang and Korean chili flakes used in kimchi jjigae provide a spicy kick to artfully balance the acidity of the kimchi and the richness of the pork. Often served with a side of rice, the stew can be poured over the rice and enjoyed with a piece of kimchi or pork.
Korean Fried Chicken
Although fried chicken has been around in the country for hundreds of years, the food really blew up in South Korea in the 1970s when Lims Chicken opened their first location in Seoul. The food has taken off with over 36,000 restaurants in the country selling the crunchy dish.
Originally plain fried chicken was the only available option until a sweet and spicy variant was invented and introduced in 1982. The sweet and spicy version would eventually begin to include gochujang in its sauce, solidifying it in the hearts of lovers of traditional Korean flavors.
Today the food is often enjoyed with beer. The combination is so popular that there is even a term for the consumption of fried chicken and beer called chimaek, which combines the word “chicken” with the Korean word for “beer”, maekju.
Translating to “army stew”, budae jjigae is another soup that is a beloved comfort food in South Korean cuisine. Although it’s quite popular today, the dish came about as a result of a dark time in South Korea’s history.
Following the Korean War of the early 1950s, food was scarce and many South Koreans faced starvation. The American army bases in South Korea remained well-stocked with food supplies, even throwing out food that was considered undesirable or that had past its expiration date.
South Koreans living near the US army bases were able to acquire some of these discarded foods, specifically spam, hot dogs, and baked beans, and began to make them into soup. A dish that was born out of necessity has today transformed into a popular comfort food.
Today, budae jjigae is adored and common ingredients include baked beans, hot dogs, bacon, tofu, instant noodles, macaroni, garlic, mushrooms, and even American cheese. While every region of the country has its own version, often the soup will be made with an anchovy broth that has been flavored with gochujang and kimchi.
A popular street food, tteokbokki is a dish made of small cylindrical rice cakes that are seasoned with gochujang and served with fish cakes, eggs, or scallions. A soy-sauce variant that excludes the spicy gochujang is also available.
Although the food has been around since the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1953 that chef Ma Bok-Lim had the idea to season the rice cakes with the sweet and spicy gochujang paste. Although this style of tteokbokki remains the most popular in South Korea, there are countless versions of the dish available today.
Some of the more common takes on the dish include curry tteokbokki, cheese ttekokboki, and even a cream sauce tteokbokki inspired by the Italian carbonara that includes bacon. The food can be found in restaurants throughout the nation and especially at street stalls called pojangmacha.
One of the most popular alcoholic beverages in South Korea, soju is made from rice, wheat, or barley that is allowed to ferment for around 15 days and then distilled to produce clear alcohol. The alcohol content can range from 12.9% to 53% alcohol by volume, with the average bottle typically sitting at 20% ABV.
The technique to make the drink came from the Mongols who invaded Korea in the middle of the 13th century. The Mongols themselves learned the technique from the Persians who made an alcoholic beverage called arak. While the process has modernized somewhat, soju is still made in a similar style.
To make soju, a fermentation starter of ground wheat and water is poured into a mold that is allowed to dry into a cake for around 3 weeks. The cake is then mixed with freshly steamed white rice and water to make a mash that then ferments for around 12 days.
This results in a liquid mixture that separates into two layers. The top layer, a golden liquid called yakju is then placed in a distillation pot called a sojugori that then boils the liquid, creating soju.
Soju can be enjoyed plain or with the addition of fruit flavors such as tangerine, peach, grapefruit, or watermelon. Jinro, the most popular brand of soju, sold over 94 million cases of the alcohol in 2021 making it the best-selling spirit in the entire world.
South Korea is a nation with a rich history that can be experienced through the myriad of dishes containing traditional flavors executed to perfection. The country is also constantly looking for exciting new ways to innovate and expand on the classics. This mix of old with new has created a food culture worth getting excited about and will no doubt be a highlight of your next visit to South Korea.