South East Asia has some incredible food to try. It is really the ultimate foodie destination if you want noodles, rice, vegetables, fish, and so many more types of dish concoctions to stimulate your taste buds again and again. There really is no better place to explore the vast culinary differences of such a small region in the world.
A people’s cuisine really tells a lot about them. It tells about their past, how they were able to get by during difficult times, what foods are available to them in their region, their creativity, and so much more that you can discover just from a single dish.
South Korea is no different. From stews created with whatever was available during times of war to their national dish, South Koreans have a lot to offer a foodie looking for a good time.
I lived in Seoul, South Korea for a little more than three years. Natalie was raised in the city. We have been around the best and worst of spots while eating our way through the capital city. We have our spots that we would return to time and time again and the holes in the wall that only the locals know about to get the right grub.
There is nothing like knowing not only the food that you need to try, but also the spots that you need to go to try these local foods. What follows is the list of Korean foods that you need to try when you find yourself in Seoul, as well as a list of restaurants in Seoul that we recommend you to visit.
Should you be looking for more information than just eating in Seoul, we recommend this Lonely Planet guidebook. We do receive a commission at no extra cost to you when you use this link.
What to Eat in Seoul
Kimbap or Gimbap
Sannakji or Live Octopus
Bangi-Dong Shabu Shabu
Any Korean Barbecue Restaurant
Itaewon for Home Food
South Korean cuisine is famous for it’s side dishes. Whenever you order a main course in a Korean restaurant, you are served with what seems like an endless supply of side dishes. Most of these dishes are vegetables, though sometimes you will be served other sides like fish, squid, or octopus among many others.
The best part of these side dishes is that they are refillable! For free! Enjoy as much of them as you want, but remember they are just your side dish, not the main course.
One such side dish is actually a popular Korean food. In fact it is THE most popular Korean food.
Kimchi is cabbage that has been fermented in red pepper paste and various ingredients. Kimchi is so popular in Korea that it is served with almost every meal. It has a very distinct smell. To most, it can smell pretty rancid. This is why Koreans generally keep kimchi to ferment in a designated refrigerator just for kimchi.
The red pepper paste gives the dish it’s spiciness. The fermentation adds to the unique taste. Traditionally, it is stored underground in a pot to keep it cool during the summer months. Kimchi can be enjoyed at any time during the fermentation process, depending on the taste that is desired.
Though when we mention kimchi, we are talking about cabbage that has been fermented, there are actually hundreds of different types of kimchi served throughout South Korea. These kimchi dishes are vegetables ranging from cucumbers to radishes.
The next time you find yourself in South Korea, be sure to enjoy the most popular Korean food, kimchi. But I’m sure you will. You just can’t miss it. Don’t let the smell fool you, it is a delicious and healthy dish.
Bibimbap translates to mixed rice. It can be served cold or hot. The hot dish is served in a stone bowl with white rice on the bottom. On top of the rice are sauteed and seasoned vegetables (cucumbers or zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, and sprouts), seaweed, various sauces depending on the recipe, and a chili pepper paste. Sometimes this is topped with a raw or fried egg and beef. The dish is then mixed just before eating. Bibimbap is most famous in Jeonju, Korea.
Summer time means it is time to go outside and enjoy the weather. Go to the beach and soak in the sun. There’s nothing better on a hot summer’s day than something nice and cold that will cool you down. A nice cold beverage, ice cream, or . . . cold noodles?
Yes, in South Korea during the summer time, cold noodles are enjoyed by many on a hot day. There are various types of cold noodles, each with their own unique taste.
Bibimguksu, like the other cold noodles on this post, is made from thin wheat noodles. It is made with gochujong, a popular red pepper paste in South Korea, to make it spicy. Added to the noodles are vegetables like cucumbers, mushrooms, and onions. Also, sesame oil and seeds will be added to the noodles, with a half egg on the top of your noodles. This is a great noodle dish to order if you enjoy spicy foods.
Kongguksu is another wheat noodle dish that is served in a ground soy bean broth. If you enjoy soy products, this is an excellent noodle meal. In addition to the noodles and soy bean broth are cucumbers, sesame seeds, and half of an egg. Ice cubes can be added to the broth to keep the cold temperature on a hot summer’s day. Order this noodle dish if you know you enjoy soy products.
Naengmyeon, also using wheat noodles, is made with gochujong which gives the dish it’s spiciness, similar to bibimguksu. However, Naengmyeon is also served with a cold broth, with vinegar and mustard served on the side. Also added to this dish are vegetables like pickled radish, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and half of an egg.
The next time you are in South Korea on a hot summer’s day, grab a bowl of cold noodles. It will satisfy your hunger, while at the same time it will cool you down. A great combination. Enjoy!
Shabu shabu can be found in various forms throughout other Asian countries like South Korea. You start with a pot of boiling broth in the middle of your table. Loaded on your table is thinly sliced beef, various vegetables (including pumpkin, lettuces, carrots, mushrooms, and many more), tofu, and other different ingredients that vary from location to location. When the pot of soup is boiling, you add in all of the vegetables to cook.
After that, you take a slice of beef, dip it into the soup, swish it around a couple of times, pull it out and enjoy it with all of the vegetables and various side dishes. When you are finished with this, the next step is to add rice and eggs to the pot to make an excellent concoction of vegetables, rice, egg, and soup broth. All of this provides you with a delicious and healthy feast. The word shabu shabu comes from the sound the beef makes when you dip it into the boiling soup to cook it…supposedly.
There are many different forms of shabu shabu that vary from location to location. Our favorite location is in the Bangi-dong area of Seoul, South Korea that has a spicy red soup broth that you cook your beef in. If you ever find yourself in this area of Seoul, check it out! More information on this restaurant below.
The scorching heat of South Korean summers makes finding the right snack to cool you down crucial. Luckily, South Korea never disappoints with their choices. In the country, they have a particular dessert that becomes very popular during the summer months.
Patbingsu is a dessert that is primarily made of shaved ice. Do not think of the shaved ice as the ice you will find in ice cones at carnivals and fairs, but a very fine ice that easily melts in your mouth. On top of the shaved ice is red bean paste. Red bean paste is an extremely popular sweet filling in South Korea. Also included in the dessert are small pieces of rice cake, which is essentially rice that has been compressed into a chewy shape. Drizzled on top of this is a creamy and sugary milk topping that adds to the sweetness of the other ingredients. Sometimes also added on is a peanut powder and almond slivers.
Though some of these ingredients do not seem appetizing, such as beans or rice cake in your dessert, they provide a delicious flavor and texture to this dessert. Do not bypass this dessert when you find yourself in South Korea, you will have missed an amazing thing. If you are still weary of trying this traditional dessert, look for one of the many variations of the dessert. Some places offer fruit, chocolate, or other fusions of desserts into the patbingsu. Enjoy!
Throughout Asia, there are similar takes on the dumpling. Dumplings are dough pockets filled with an assortment of ingredients that vary from place to place. Each country throughout Asia creates their own similar dumpling like the momo in Nepal, the gyoza in Japan, and Mandu in South Korea. All of which taste delicious.
Mandu is a dough pocket that is filled with ingredients like minced meat, various vegetables, glass noodles, tofu, among a wide possibility of others. There are a few types of different mandu choices within South Korea. There is fried mandu, steamed mandu, and boiled mandu. Within different restaurants throughout the country are ingredient specific mandu, including kimchi mandu, pork mandu, and shrimp mandu among several others. Choose the ingredient you prefer, and the way you want your mandu cooked for the proper texture you like.
Fried mandu is crispier than steamed and boiled mandu, though less healthy. Steamed and boiled mandu have more of a soft surface. Served with the mandu, like any other South Korean meal, are plenty of vegetable-based side dishes to satisfy your appetite. In addition, there is a soy sauce or vinegar-based side to dip your mandu into. Let the mandu sit in the soy sauce to cool down or poke a hole into your mandu to let out the heat trapped inside. They can be scolding hot on the inside, so if it is your first time trying them you should be careful and make sure not to burn the inside of your mouth.
If you have tried dumplings in China, momos in Nepal, or gyoza in Japan, when you find yourself in South Korea, try their mandu. It is a satisfying meal throughout the year in South Korea, served in an assortment of ingredients that fill the inside of these dough pockets. Give them a taste!
There is nothing better than a filling snack that will keep your energy up during your travels that has many variations for you to choose from, that is delicious, and that is inexpensive. In South Korea, there are several such dishes and street food vendors available for your choosing, but no food is better or more portable than the Kimbap or Gimbap.
Kimbap or Gimbap is made from seaweed (kim or gim), steamed rice (bap), and various vegetable and possibly meat ingredients. The seaweed is placed on a flat surface, and the rice is the flattened on top of the seaweed. Vegetable ingredients are then added on top of the rice, usually cut into long thin strands for better fitting. Finally, the meat is added, and then all of this is rolled up, sealed, and sliced into small bit-sized pieces. Vegetable ingredients include cucumbers, radish, carrots, kimchi, among several others. Meat ingredients include crab, ham, pork cutlet, shrimp, beef, tuna, squid, among several others.
Kimbap or Gimbap can be found anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 KRW (approximately $1.50 to $5.00 USD). Variations that you can order include: Kimchi Kimbap, Cheese Kimbap, Pork Cutlet Kimbap, Ham Kimbap, Beef Kimbap, Shrimp Kimbap, Squid Kimbap, Tuna Kimbap, and several others. All of the ingredients are ready to go as soon as you walk into a shop, so everything is rolled up fast (most foods in South Korea are prepared for you extremely fast compared to North America standards). If you are ever in need of a quick snack, grab a kimbap and take it with you. It is easy. It is inexpensive. It is delicious.
Yes, live octopus is a thing. It is intense too. You can either eat it whole, wrapping it around your chopstick and then taking it all in one bite. This is too gnarly for me. The other way is to actually have it chopped up so it really is not live anymore.
Still it is wriggling around on the plate in front of you and you see its every movement before grabbing it off the plate with the chopstick. At this point you feel the suction of the octopus legs sticking to the plate and popping off. Literally popping off.
Then you put that wiggling leg into your mouth and you feel it suctioning to your tongue and the inside of your mouth while you chew it. And chew it. And chew it some more until you feel you can finally swallow it without having it suction itself to your throat on the way down.
You can also have the head where the ink sacks explode in your mouth causing your mouth to turn black. An interesting experience that involves ten times more chewing than the legs.
Ultimately having sannakji is all about the experience. Not so much the taste. Though dipping it in the sesame oil that is provided brings through some more flavor.
Korean barbecue is famous. Basically you order the meats you want and they provide all of the vegetables and side dishes along for unlimited refills. You just need to know that what you see on the menu is per serving and there is a minimum serving order of two.
You are going to want to order the samgyeopsal. This basically translates to three layer pork including meat, fat and skin. Think of it as thickly sliced bacon. It is the thing to get at Korean barbecue. They will bring all of the meat and side dishes, and then it is up to you to do the rest.
That means you grill it to your liking on the grill in your table, wrap it in the lettuce leaves, add some rice and vegetables, and pop it in your mouth.
This dish is a representation of Korean history. A spicy base mixed with anything that could be easily found in wartime Korea. This includes things like ham, sausage, noodles, kimchi, beans, and SPAM. Yes, SPAM. That stuff you probably never imagined of eating.
Yet with all of this stuff thrown in to a stew, it really works. And it is really good. Budae Jjigae is not only a great dish, but also a great insight into the still fairly modern history of the country.
Kimchi jjigae combines the love of soup with the greatness of kimchi. If you enjoy kimchi, then this soup is a no-brainer. Spicy and satisfying with some pork or beef usually thrown in for good measure.
Galbitang is beef bone soup. Extremely delicious with those chunks of beef and bone in the soup to satisfy any meat lover on a cold day.
Samgyetang is not my cup of tea, but it is very popular in Korea. It is a full boiled chicken in a soup. Way too bland to me, but they say it is extremely healthy.
Bokumbap is fried rice and it comes in a lot of forms. Kimchi, shrimp, and many other great tastes. Rice is a staple of Korea cuisine. Frying it mixed with various delicious ingredients just makes for a lovely meal that fits any budget.
Who does not like fried anything? Tonkatsu is fried panko covered pork cutlet. The best is when you get the cheese tonkatsu where a layer of melted cheese oozes out of the cutlet as you cut into it. This really is the quintessential Korean fried food. Unless chicken is your thing.
Chimaek is two words combined. Chi is short for chicken and maek is short for maekju which means beer in Korean. You combine these two and you have an incredible combination for a meal. Koreans do fried chicken really really well.
Chimaek is also about the experience of going out on a night and enjoying the friend chicken and beer and company that is with you.
Bulgogi is basically beef that has been marinated in sweet and savory bulgogi sauce. There is not a whole lot to say about this dish other than that it is the typical taste of anything enjoyed by Koreans. Sweet and savory. You will see bulgogi in a lot of menus anywhere you go so we thought it would be something important to add to this list.
Jjimdak is a chicken dish that combines a soy sauce based broth with glass noodles, potatoes, onions, and other vegetables. This is a great tasting, salty dish that combines the wonderfulness of soup with the deliciousness of a well cooked chicken. There is no way to go wrong with jjimdak.
Korean-Chinese food is really well done. From soups to fried dishes, there is so much to choose from. However, we are going to talk about two of our favorites.
Tangsuyeok is sweet and sour fried pork. Oh it is amazing. Just thinking about this is making my mouth water. The pork is fried so nicely with a topping of sweet and sour sauce poured all over it with some vegetable mixed in. You gotta love it.
Jajangmyeon is a noodle dish that is smothered in black bean sauce and some meat mixed in. This is a great noodle dish should you be craving this when in Seoul
Think of pajeon as a Korean style pancake with different ingredients mixed in like kimchi or seafood. No it is not like a breakfast pancake, but it is more of a salt-based pancake that really is so delicious. This is a great appetizer to order from a menu.
Ddeokbokki is the go-to street food snack in Korea especially among the kids. It is rice cakes mixed with spicy sauce. Fairly simple and lots of people love it. I am not one of them. Too chewy. But, it is definitely worth a taste that one time.
Last, but certainly not least, we have beondegi. A classic Korean street food. One that when I put it into my mouth I gagged and almost immediately threw up. It is silkworm pupae that has been boiled. You bite down on it and it explodes in your mouth revealing an incredibly bitter burst of flavor that will leave your skin crawling. Still, it is worth a try just once to say you did it.
Seoul Food Tour
You can thank us later. This is one of two specific restaurant that we are going to recommend you in this whole list. The one restaurant that we went back to the most often during our time in Seoul. It is a small, hole in the wall type restaurant that serves THE best shabu shabu hands down. As long as you enjoy a little bit of spiciness in your food, you HAVE to visit this place.
I am telling you that you are going to be blown away. They do shabu shabu so well that it is quite literally the only thing on the menu! They will bring you out your pot of spicy broth with all of the vegetables already inside, they will give you bibs should you not want to get red sauce spilled all over your clothes, they will light the fire and let you go to town on dipping the thinly sliced beef into the hot pot.
Once you are done with the beef, they come over and dump noodles into the remaining bowl. Once you are then done the noodles, they will come over and fry rice and an egg into that same bowl that had all of the spicy goodness in it not too long ago. This is the best part. I repeat. This is the best part. Do not fill yourself up too much that you miss out on this goodness.
I am telling you that this is the place you need to visit during your time in Seoul. Just thinking about it makes me want to book a plane ticket back just to go to this one restaurant and come back. We are not joking, we have actually considered it.
This restaurant is right by Bangi station on the subway. You can find it on your map by typing in the name or follow this map here.
This is a great place to visit should you be visiting the iconic Namsan Tower or to the Myeongdong night market. It serves THE best tonkatsu in Seoul. You are definitely going to want to order the cheese tonkatsu when you are there. You cut into it and the cheese just oozes out of it.
We do have some of our go-to spots for Korean barbecue, but mostly because of their proximity to where we were living at the time. The truth is, Koreans do barbecue restaurants really well. So there is not one in particular that we would send you to. What we do recommend is spotting the one you want to try because there is no doubt that if you are walking down an area with restaurants, then you are going to find some barbecue restaurants there.
You always want to try the street food wherever you go. This is local comfort food. Here you are going to find torpedo potatoes, fried squid, ddeokbokki, and so much more! If you want all of these in one spot, then Myeongdong is the place you want to go. This is where you just want to plan a night where you walk around this market and jump from stall to stall trying the different street food and shopping to your heart’s desire.
Myeongdong is simply a hop, skip, and a jump away from Myeongdong station on the subway.
Noryangjin is the largest fresh seafood market in Seoul. It really is an amazing place to walk around to see the hustle and bustle of the market in action. Even if you do not like seafood, it is still a cool place to go to check out.
If you are big on seafood then you are right where you should be. Noryangjin is situated right near Noryangjin Station on the subway. Just a stone throw away from the station, you can already start to feel the buzz in the air as soon as you step foot off of the subway car.
You can get anything that Korea has to offer as far as seafood goes here. If you want the freshest sushi, then you are in the right place. Want something cut up right in front of you for sashimi? Done. Want to try some of that live octopus we were talking about earlier in this post? This is the place you want to go for it.
So now that you have filled your face with all of these different places we have recommended, you are likely hungry for some dessert. Now it is time to find that perfect place to fill you face with some Korean dessert.
There is no if, ands, or buts about it, Seolbing is the place you go for patbingsu. It is the thing that they do really good at. Tons of different flavors from chocolate to fruit flavors. But maybe first try out the traditional patbingsu before getting into other flavors.
Seolbing is a Korean chain so you are likely to find some around the city. It is an easy search to find using your favorite map app.
Itaewon is the foreigner district of the city. This is where the American army base is situated. It is the place where all some of the best night clubs and bars are located. It is also the place for the best foreigner food in the whole city.
There are not many other places you can go to get some comfort food. If you are in Seoul for an extended period of time and need some home food to fill that hole in your stomach, then you need to visit Itaewon and find the food that is missing in your life.
Some of our favorite restaurants include: Linus BBQ for some southern style barbecue, Braai Republic for your South African food fix, Manimal for the best smoked meat, or Canucks for some Canadian food like poutine.
Seoul is a great city to explore the South Korean cuisine. It has so much to offer around any corner and there are so many different places that you will never know to hit unless you talk to a local. Especially in certain areas, locals will only be able to guide you as far as the areas that they know. However, there is so much of the city to explore.
You will never do it all, but this list is a good start. A great taste of the different places you can visit at any given time for any given meal. Hope you enjoy your food tour of this wonderful city.
If you are planning a trip to South Korea, there is so much more to see than just Seoul. The Lonely Planet guidebooks have a lot of great information in them to plan you trip and we always refer to them when planning our trips. If you want to buy a guidebook, you can follow this link. We earn a commission off of the sale at no extra charge to you.
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