Korea is a land of intensity. Intense emotions, intense politics, and intense landscapes are part of the history of the peninsula, and cuisine is no different. Korea is famous for kimchi and Korean barbecue, but there is so much more to this complex and ancient culture than trendy restaurant offerings in Los Angeles.
Korean cuisine comes in all different varieties and flavors. Some are spicy while others are sweet and salty. From barbecued meat to pancakes to warm soups on cold rainy days, Koreans have mastered the art of cooking. Korean culture is unique and, although some elements have been borrowed from big brother China to the north and Japanese invaders and occupiers to the south, most Korean language, customs, and food developed independently of outside influence, giving Korean dishes a unique flair that can’t be found anywhere else.
One way Korean food culture is unique from the rest of Asia is in their chopsticks: Koreans are the only culture to use steel chopsticks. For westerners trying Korean food for the first time, the steel chopsticks can be a little tricky, but with a bit of practice they become preferable to wooden chopsticks and compliment the delicious Korean flavors perfectly. Dining on bulgogi or delicious bibimbap is the perfect way to enjoy your supper.
Not all Korean food is palatable to the average traveler, steel chopsticks or not. From silkworm larvae to live octopus, most people will stay away from these menu items. Here are 10 delicious Korean dishes, and 10 Korean dishes you’ll probably want to avoid!
21 Delicious: Bulgogi
Bulgogi is one of Korea’s famous exports to the world. Thin slices of beef marinated in a sweet sauce and topped with sesame seeds, then grilled on a barbecue right in front of you. The name simply means “fire meat”, and was once a dish for the Korean nobility, although today it is found in restaurants all over South Korea and around the world.
If you want a delicious, healthy Korean meal but aren’t a brave eater, you’ll be fine with bulgogi. Wrap it in a piece of lettuce and add some rice and kimchi for a perfect little lettuce wrap!
20 Delicious: Kalbi
Kalbi, like bulgogi, is cooked on a barbecue right in front you. It’s commonly known as “Korean barbecue” outside of Korea and is a favorite among Koreaphiles. There are several types of kalbi, the most popular being dwaeji-kalbi (pork ribs) or so-kalbi (beef ribs).
Kalbi meat usually isn’t marinated, although more experimental restaurants may add some sesame brush or even western barbecue sauce to be edgy. Kalbi is usually cooked on a grill over hot charcoals using a special type of Korean maple. If you enjoy a good barbecue, you’ll love kalbi for the fact that you are grilling meat over fire and popping it right into your mouth!
19 Delicious: Bibimbap
Travelers to Korea are always introduced to bibimbap. Koreans boast that its every foreigner’s favorite food, although most travelers will tell you it’s okay but not their favorite. Bibimbap is a bowl of rice covered in veggies, meat and topped with an egg. The presentation is everything with this rice dish, so the veggies and meat are sectioned and organized in a patter on top of the rice.
A sesame or soya sauce usually accompanies the dish, and the diner gets to have fun mixing it all together before eating. Whether this healthy and tasty dish is everybody’s favorite or not remains to be seen.
18 Delicious: Kimchi
Korea’s national dish is recognized by the United Nations as one of the healthiest foods in the world with unique cancer-fighting and weight-loss properties. Cabbage is pickled in a spicy red paste and allowed to ferment for a few months and then served in chopstick-size slices.
Kimchi is served as a side dish with everything in Korea. You can’t escape it, and you shouldn’t try, because, in addition to being super-healthy, it’s also absolutely delicious! Kimchi comes in different varieties, from slices of cabbage to cubes of radish, and it is cheap and ubiquitous, so dig in!
17 Delicious: Kimchijeon
Kimchi isn’t just served as a side dish. Sometimes it’s the main star, especially after a night out on the town in Seoul’s nightclubs. Kimchijeon is a kimchi pancake, made with a flour batter, sliced up kimchi and sometimes other veggies, and then fried on a flat grill. It is served with a side of sesame-soya sauce.
Sometimes the pancakes are mixed with spicy vegetables and hot peppers for an extra kick. Kimchijeon is spicy and filling and, in South Korea at least, cheap. You’ll definitely want to try some after a few drinks or, if you’re trying to impress a Korean, on a first date!
16 Delicious: Samgye-tang
If Europe and America have chicken-noodle soup, then Korea has a whole chicken in a soup. Samgye-tang is rice-and-ginseng-stuffed chicken boiled in a chicken broth. It is served with the entire chicken in the bowl, so each person gets their own huge meal. The chicken is extremely moist, and the meat just peels off with your chopsticks.
When you’re eating samgye-tang, a bowl of rock salt is served for you to dip your pieces of chicken in. This is the perfect dish when you’re feeling sick or just to keep warm on a rainy autumn day!
15 Delicous: Shabu Shabu
In the thirteenth century, the Mongols under Ogedei Khan invaded the Korean peninsula and fought a brutal fifteen-year war trying to conquer the spunky little nation. In addition to war and black plague, the Mongols brought Shabu Shabu, a delicious soup that uses thin-sliced meat, lots of veggies and big thick Udon noodles as its base.
Shabu Shabu is found wherever the Mongols went, from Japan to the Caucasus Mountains, but the Koreans have mastered the soup by adding a delicious fried rice to the dish right at the end of the meal, making it possibly every traveler’s favorite Korean dish, including Mongol invaders.
14 Delicious: Kimbap
The Japanese have sushi, nigiri, et al. The Koreans have their take on the roll: kimbap. This is a rice roll stuffed with raw fish and some veggies and wrapped in seaweed paper, basically like sushi but with the seaweed on the outside. Kimbap can have anything rolled into it and most places have different selections. For authentic Korean, make sure yours has some kimchi included.
Unlike sushi, which requires an elaborate restaurant and preparation, kimbap is a popular street food in South Korea, and rolls are quickly prepared, sliced and wrapped up to go within minutes for very affordable prices. The obligatory wasabi and soya sauce are served with it.
13 Delicious: Jajeong-myeon
Korean black bean noodles is actually a dish that originated in China, although if you want to find it in China you’ll ironically need to go to a Korean restaurant. This dish is a little sweet and flavorful, and usually has some pieces of beef included in the sauce. The black bean sauce is salty and sweet and is served over top of a big pile of thick Udon noodles.
Jajeong-myon is safe to eat for those who can’t handle spice of any type, as there are no peppers or other zippy flavors added. For those who want some more life in their food, the dish is often served with a side of crushed chilis which you can add.
12 Delicious: Kimchi Jiggae
Literally “Kimchi soup”, the name leaves nothing to the imagination. Seeing how Koreans have found a hundred other ways to consume kimchi, adding the fermented cabbage to jiggae (translation: soup) just makes sense. This soup often uses a fish and sesame-based broth and there are always other veggies and cubes of tofu floating around in there as well.
Kimchi jiggae is often consumed as a quick lunch or as a cure-all for colds, headaches, stomach-aches, etc. Because Koreans like to drink so much (they are often referred to as the Irish of Asia), kimchi jiggae is considered an instant hangover cure!
11 Delicious: Samgyeop-sal
Like bacon? Like Korean barbecue? If you answered yes to either of those, then you’ll love samgyeop-sal. It is strips of fatty pork fried on a flat grill right in front of you and consumed by picking whatever piece catches your fancy right off the grill with your chopsticks and chowing down.
For even more fun eating bacon right off the grill, plop it into a piece of lettuce with a bit of kimchi, or dip it into some sesame-and-soya sauce. There’s actually no wrong way to eat it. It is bacon cooked on a grill right in front you, after all!
10 Not-So-Delicious – Silkworm Larvae
Outside of every elementary school in South Korea is a cart, but this cart isn’t selling ice cream. Instead it’s selling cups of steamed silkworm larvae, which the Korean kids just love but which most travelers can’t even look at without their stomach churning. Beondegi, as it’s called in Korean, is served in a paper cup with toothpicks to skewer the juicy little pupa, and is considered a nice snack by Korean kids everywhere.
You’ll want to avoid skewering any beondegi, because biting down on one results in a blast of squishy, gooey insect guts into your mouth. No thank you.
9 Not-So-Delicious: Chocolate-Covered Grasshoppers
Korea’s food markets are filled with all sorts of strange and exotic items, from spiky sea urchins to squirming sea cucumbers, but the one stall that will have kids begging “Ama! Ama!” (“Mommy! Mommy!” is the one with all the chocolate-covered grasshoppers.
These are the real deal, not simply candies which look like grasshoppers. The grasshoppers are caught, fried whole and covered in chocolate. Most younger generations are introduced to them by older generations, especially grandparents trying to preserve traditional Korean culture in the wake of McDonalds and Pizza Hut. Most little kids love the crunchy treat, although the average Korean teen will say “No thank you”.
8 Not-So-Delicious: Jokbal
Jokbal is pig’s feet. Simple and to the point, although the production of this Korean gourmet dish requires a lot of preparation. First, all the hairs are carefully plucked off the hoof, and then they are boiled in a ginseng and garlic soup until the meat is tender. Then they are deboned, stuffed with a variety of rice and herbs, and sliced up to be served.
Jokbal is probably not that different from something that the French or British would eat, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s a pig’s foot, and the French and British eat some weird things, as well.
7 Not-So-Delicious: Bosingtang
South Korea hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002, and a storm of protest and controversy erupted when the world found out that Koreans eat dogs. Most people weren’t aware that Koreans don’t just grab any pooch off the street and chow down. Special dogs are bred on special farms, and they are consumed mainly by elderly men who believe dogs make them more virile. Bosingtang is the soup those men eat.
Bonsingtang is said to hold special properties to “enhance male parts”. It’s the traditional Viagra of the Korean peninsula, although you’ll probably want to avoid it no matter its perceived properties. By the way, the dog soup never went away after 2002.
6 Not-So-Delicious: Soondae
At first, this dish sounds like a Korean ice cream treat, but don’t be fooled. Soondae is blood sausage, using intestine as the wrapper. Cow or pig intestines are stuffed with the animal’s blood, minced meats, rice, and herbs and then steamed or boiled. It became popular after the Korean War when meat became scarce.
Today Soondae is served in homes and is a popular street food throughout Korea. If you happen to be a true Scottish patriot, this may be for you, otherwise, there’s a 100 percent chance that you won’t like this blood-stuffed-intestine.
5 Not-So-Delicious: Mudfish
If you ever wanted to know what a fish marinated in mud and then chopped up and served in slimy chunks tasted like, try Chuotang. Mudfish, or Chuotang, not only sounds weird but also tasted fairly disgusting. This fish is served either in slimy morsels at fancy restaurants, crispy fried from small little fish vendors. The method of cooking doesn’t seem to change the flavor one bit.
According to wisegeek.com, a mudfish is any type of elongated fish which lives in mud instead of open water, and they are found all over the world.
4 Not-So-Delicious: Sea Worm
Sea worms, or gaebul, are a delicacy in Korea, where they are eaten raw, sometimes even alive. You can always tell where they are served because restaurants will keep a tank full of pulsating, squirming phallic-like things outside on the sidewalk. Most travelers first reaction will be “Why is there a tank of penises here”, while elderly Korean men will most likely think “Oh yummy!”
Gaebul is eaten mainly by older Korean men for virility and strength, much like dog soup, so your Korean friends won’t insist that you try it. Even if you’re not eating raw squirming sea worms, it’s a little weird seeing them on display.
3 Not-So-Delicious: Live Octopus
For the bravest of the brave, who aren’t brave enough to try Japanese blowfish, there’s Korean Jannaki, or live octopus tentacles. These tentacles are sliced off a live octopus and gulped down as quickly as possible while they’re still squirming. The reason they need to be swallowed so quickly is that any hesitation will allow the suction cups on the tentacle to latch on to your throat, and then an unpleasant choking death awaits you.
Jannaki is for Korean machismo and has no other purpose. You’ll want to avoid this disgusting and, frankly, unethical dish.
2 Not-So-Delicious: Miyeok Guk
Have you ever wanted to eat a bowl of seaweed? How about a warm bowl of seaweed that’s been soaking in boiling water for the past few hours? If you’re a Korean woman who has recently given birth, then you may not have a choice, as miyeok guk is a traditional post-partum food rich in calcium and nutrients. Nursing mothers are encouraged by their doctors to eat a bowl of this slimy, salty, super-fishy-tasting soup every day.
For the rest of the world, there are flavorless pills that can be swallowed to give baby all those important vitamins.
1 Not-So-Delicious: Intestine Stew
When the Koreans heard that the Scottish enjoyed stuffing sheep intestine with meat and chowing down, they said: “We can do better.”
Imagine the slimiest intestines, pulled out of the pig’s stomach and sliced into three-inch tubes, and then boiled with a bunch of vegetables in a fish broth. That’s basically Gopchang Jeongol, Korea’s answer to Scottish haggis.
Gopchang Jeongol can be served at fancy restaurants or by welcoming housewives excited to entertain guests in her lovely home. As a foreigner to Korea and a guest of honor, you’ll be hard pressed to refuse the slimy chewy intestines. Hungry yet?