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Food in South Korea

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What do people eat in South Korea?

Food in South Korea is generally cheap and very nutritious, but with one catch: you MUST be willing to eat chili peppers! Korea’s famous red chili sauce, “gochujang” (고추장), typically ends up in most dishes, as well in the famous kimchi side dish that is coupled with every meal.

Most Korean dishes can be divided into the categories of rice, noodles, and meat barbecue. The cheapest and perhaps most sustainable meal you’ll find is kimbap (김밥), seaweed-wrapped rolls similar to sushi and stuffed with your preferred combination of meat, vegetables, or fish, each for under 3,000W per roll and thick enough to ward off hunger for several hours. These rolls can be bought from the ubiquitous “Kimbab Chunguk” (김밥천국) restaurants and are popular among students. Bibimbap (비빔밥), a simple but hearty bowl of mixed rice and vegetables with gochujang can be ordered either hot or cold. A variety of other rice dishes, usually termed “Bokkeumbap” (볶음밥) include rice, eggs, vegetables, and gochujang fried in a skillet for about 5,000W. For those seeking brown rice, white rice is the staple and main export of the country so while brown rice can occasionally be purchased from stores, you will likely not be able to have it substituted for white in a restaurant. (In almost all cases, however, you will be able to have certain ingredients removed or not added to your dish if you ask beforehand. It is generally not considered rude to ask, but explaining that you have an allergy or religious food preference will ward off potential looks of disdain.)

Doenjangjiggae, tofu soup in South Korea

The next category of food and another staple of the Korean food menu is soups and noodle dishes. One principle of the Korean kitchen is fermentation; most soups are fermented both to preserve their contents and to enhance their nutritive power. Two favorites are kimchijiggae (김치찌개), kimchi soup, and doenjangjiggae (뒨장찌개), soy bean and tofu soup. For the seafood lover, there are plenty of seafood combination soups available depending on the restaurant. Unless noted otherwise, these soups will always have a certain level of kick to them as all include either gochujang or pepper flakes. Unlike many Asian countries, Koreans typically do not eat noodles with sauce, but prefer noodles with broth. The ever-popular summer favorite naengmyeon (냉면) noodles are served in a vinegared mustard broth and topped with vegetables (with, of course, the option of added gochujang). The slightly rarer kalguksu (칼국수), makguksu (막국수) buckwheat noodles, and sujebi (수제비) hand-made noodles can be found at restaurants specializing in these dishes. None of these dishes will cost you more than 10,000W per serving.

Kimchi, a popular Korean food

For those who prefer more protein, meathouses known as galbijibs (갈비집) offer groups of two or more their own table with a grill and huge slabs of marinated pork or beef to grill to their heart’s desire. A variety of national beers or “cider” (read: Korean Sprite) are the preferred drinks of choice, and for 8-10,000W per person you can fill up with your share of grilled meat, vegetables, and other side dishes (all usually self-serve). If you want to arrange a party or need to eat after-hours, beerhouses or “hofs” remain open into the wee hours of the morning and provide a wide selection of alcoholic drinks served with fried chicken, fries, and other finger foods.

While the food options in the cities are endless, if you happen to find yourself wandering in the countryside, try to make an effort to stop by a country-style restaurant specializing in “Han(shik) jungsik” (한식정식) course menus. These restaurants serve patrons (usually in large groups) dish after dish of exquisitely-prepared, guiltlessly-healthy traditional dishes, tapas-style. As is the case for most meals, Korean culture encourages the sharing of food, including dishes. You will get your own small dish but will take your portion from the main dishes laid down before you to be served with the others at your table.

Gochujang

Keep in mind that all dishes in Korea are served with two or more side dishes (반찬) including kimchi, pickled radish, and whichever other vegetable assortments the restaurant has prepared that day. Portion sizes are smaller than in America and bigger than in or China; the health value and incorporation of vegetables and rice tends to make the meals filling nonetheless.

Lastly, if you are visiting South Korea seeking a variety of teas – renowned in many other Asian countries – you might be disappointed. Modern Koreans are by and large huge coffee fanatics, and aside from one or two Korean-style teas (“boricha” barley tea or nutty green tea with brown rice), the availability of it is sparse. Coffee shops pop up in Seoul by the thousands and both large chain coffeehouses as well as smaller breweries can be found on nearly every block, forcing tea and the tea ceremony gradually into the country’s forgotten past. If in a Korean workplace, you will likely be offered a cup of (mix powder) coffee and it will be difficult to refuse.

Historically Koreans have subsisted on a diet low in sugar, additives, and preservatives. Therefore, almost all food is automatically “organic” and traditional desserts are sweetened with honey or other natural ingredients. The most famous snack of choice is sticky rice cake known as “ddeok” (떡), which you will likely be offered as a gift in your workplace or given freely during major holidays or events. Sodas and juices are widely available in convenience stores but are not usually served in most restaurants (so if you don’t want water, bring your own).

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What did you eat when you traveled to South-Korea? How much did it cost? Where did you find it? Where are the cheapest places to eat in South-Korea? The best places? Submit your information below.

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Filed under: Asia, Food, South Korea

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.