Jod and I both love cooking and playing around with new ingredients, but even though we’re staying in an Airbnb this year rather than a hotel we’re still planning to eat out for almost every meal. Partly because I’ve been on a diet all year in preparation (60lb lost so far!), partly because it’s reasonably cheap to eat out in Seoul and partly because we’re big believers that going out to eat where the locals eat is part of exploring a new culture. With that said, here’s some of the best and most interesting food we tried in Korea over our last two trips.
We’ve split them up into three sections. First up is traditional Korean, covering dishes that might immediately spring to mind when you think of Korean food. Next up is snacks and street food; some of our favourite items that can be consumed on the go. Then finally there’s international flavours, definitely some interesting dishes in that category!
As with a lot of the items on this list, part of the fun of this meal is that you cook it yourself at the table (or, if you look incompetent and confused like we obviously do, a kind waiter will come over and cook it for you). The amazing smell of the meat grilling from tables all around you fills the restaurant and makes you feel super grateful for the plentiful side dishes that you can nibble on while waiting for it to be ready! Creating each mouthful of deliciousness from the bounty of different dishes on the table is like nothing else there is, and it’s rare that two bites are ever quite the same. There are a ton of different protein options but our favourites are pork belly and beef.
This particular dish has its origins in the 1950s when the influx of US soldiers to the country during and following the Korean War meant that American military delights like canned processed meats found their way into more traditional Korean meals – Budae Jjigae literally translates to “army stew”. Everything from hot dogs, ramen noodles, beans, vegetables and the ubiquitous spam all mingle together in a spicy red-pepper based broth. Super yummy, although probably not the healthiest thing on this list…
Like many Korean dishes jiggae’s are meant for sharing, so sadly this is something you’ll find pretty difficult to enjoy if you’re a solo traveller. As in, they’ll flat out refuse to serve it to you in a restaurant if there aren’t at least two of you eating. Don’t lose hope, though! We spotted a D-I-Y kit in Homeplus that can satisfy all your cravings while you sit alone in your apartment…ahem.
Both of the examples pictured are from Yoogane, a chain of casual restaurants that I kind of liken to a Korean Nando’s. Young couples, groups of friends and families all pile in and enjoy delicious chicken at a reasonable price. There are a ton of options for customisation and there’s pretty much something for everyone, see what I mean? Dak Galbi is a kind of spicy chicken stirfry but you can add various veggies, noodles and even cheese to satisfy any craving. Our favourite way to eat it is by adding rice right at the end when you’ve nearly finished. All the yummy spicy bits stuck to the bottom of the pan get mixed in, making the best fried rice you’ve ever tasted. FYI, the prices on the menu are per serving and the side dishes here are self-service, kind of like a salad bar at the back of the restaurant.
Korean Fried Chicken
I’m not sure how long fried chicken has been a thing in Korea, but I feel like it’s done well enough to be considered a classic at this point. Maybe it’s because they use the whole chicken, maybe it’s because of a double-fry or maybe it’s just copious amounts of deliciously addictive MSG, but Korean fried chicken is seriously great. The best place we ever tried it was at a little place in Gangnam on our Honeymoon that had sadly closed down by the time we visited again a year later. The sky high rent prices and short lived popularity of trendy food items mean that sadly happens all too often in Seoul, but on the bright side there’s always something new and exciting to try! There’s at least a million other fried chicken spots that we haven’t even discovered yet, and I’m up for the challenge.
Snacks and Street Food
Such a clever idea for hot summer days when you’re in need of a cold drink and something delicious to eat but you want to keep a hand free. There are a few different options for protein including pork belly, chicken, steak and my personal favourite: squid cubes! Plus you get veggies, fries, pickles and sauces, all in a little tray that balances right on top of your cup of either beer or soda. This particular place near Anguk station also served clam chowder which was yummy but did kind of defeat the object as we then had to use all our available hands to eat…
Croquette and Iced Strawberry Latte
Soft, pillowy mashed potato based dumplings stuffed with all manner of fillings, coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, need I say more? We’ve tried various flavours including curry, sweet corn and kimchi and all of them were pretty great. This one was from Edae and while I ordered from the little hole-in-the-wall shop, Jod picked up an iced strawberry latte from the café across the street. An amazing combination, but enough calories that you should
probably definitely share!
Lots of the street food options are served in little cups with toothpicks so that they’re super easy to eat on the move. There are tons of different mini fried chicken options, some of which are coated in a sweet and spicy sauce and served with various accompaniments. Some of the best we tried came with little mini hash browns/tater tots and rice cakes before being smothered in the liquid gold that is plastic cheese. The one pictured below was pretty good and had some kind of chopped nuts throughout which added some extra crunch.
Doshirak and Kimbap
Convenience stores are everywhere in Seoul and each one is filled with tasty snack options completely different than what we might pick up in the SPAR at home. Doshirak are like a Korean lunchbox filled with different items that are great for trying a few different things at once, they’re also often endorsed by kpop stars which can be a bit unnerving. Imagine picking up a microwavable spag bol in tesco only to be greeted by Gary Barlow’s smiling face from the box. Kimbap looks similar to a sushi roll but larger and generally doesn’t contain any raw ingredients. The rice is also seasoned differently and has a fantastic sesame flavour that compliments the typical fillings of veggies, egg and sometimes meat or crabsticks.
Fried Cheese with Special Sauce
We’re truly heading into the world of the weird and the wonderful now, friends. Fried mozzarella with rice cakes on a stick? That doesn’t sound too strange, until the lovely smiling lady on the stall asks “White chocolate sauce?” expectantly. Obviously we said yes because why wouldn’t you, and it was actually pretty good. Would recommend, just for the experience if nothing else.
Tornado Potato Hotdog
We saw these tornado potato things everywhere and only really ordered one because they looked fun. You can get them with or without a sausage through the middle, and rather than the generic hotdog we were expecting we were actually delighted to discover a chewy, slightly spicy, almost-chorizo surrounded by the super savoury deep fried potato spiral. Head to Myeongdong to try one for yourself.
Our last street food favourite is mostly based on the comedy value. Who wouldn’t want a delicious sweet bread stuffed with either red bean and walnut or chocolate sauce, all served in the shape of a poop? Yummers. Poop-themed-food seems to be a recurring theme throughout Asia from my (admittedly limited) Google searching, and we also visited a café where poop-shaped, chocolate-coated waffles were served in tiny porcelain urinals. This was actually super delicious especially when served with caramelised banana, a frosty chocolate shake for me and a beer for Jod.
You might think the world had reached peak pizza when Domino’s started selling one with a hot dog stuffed into the crust, but you haven’t even begun to fathom what they do to pizzas in Korea. The first one we tried had a hash brown crust, but was also topped with a combination of camembert, steak, tomatoes, spinach, basil a red wine sauce and mayonnaise. Try to imagine that being served at Pizza Express. The second one takes the cake though, with toppings including smoked cheese, bulgogi beef, potatoes, ham, feta and pesto. Once you get to the crust, however, prepare to be dazzled with the flavour of… banana mousse?! Which you can dip into the accompanying blueberry sauce. I honestly don’t know what the Italians would make of this monstrosity, but it was definitely fun to try.
The Korean version of sashimi is called hweh and we’ve heard mixed reviews. It usually refers to fish native to Korea (which obviously makes sense) and a lot of these happen to be quite a different texture to those that are typically used in the Japanese version. I’m saying all this to essentially explain why we’ve so far been wusses and haven’t tried it. What we did try though, was some of the most amazing raw fish we’ve ever had on a super late night in Gangnam last year. The salmon was buttery and delicious, the tuna was meaty and flavourful and the octopus ended up being my favourite out of everything. It wasn’t cheap but it was super fresh and we definitely had happy bellies that night. The price was also offset a bit by the fact that we also ordered skewers of fried chicken skin for about 30p a pop, and my word they were good.
Chinese Lamb Kebabs
Finally, finally, finally we’ve arrived at possibly my favourite dinner option on this list; Chinese lamb kebabs. These juicy, fatty little cubes of lamb arrive at your table pre-threaded onto metal skewers that you then slide onto this rotating grill thing over hot coals built right into your table. The ones in the centre cook first and once they’re done you dip them into this crazy cumin/salt/seasoning stuff and enjoy. We’re not sure if you’re supposed to order something else with them to make it a more complete meal but I honestly don’t think you need anything else when the chargrilled meat tastes this good.
Do you have any favourite Korean foods or recommendations for what we should try next?