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More so than ever, Korean culture has been launched into the forefronts of people’s minds throughout the world. Led by a music scene with a fanatical following, a recent Olympics, bustling cities, and an often talked about political situation, South Korea promises to continue being a player in global culture and a much sought-after travel destination. There is of course another reason to visit South Korea and its picturesque capital of Seoul: Korean food. While in the last decade Kimchi has been a trendy garnish for foodies and KBBQ continues to spread like wildfire, the Korean food we know in the United States is just the appetizer. We’ve arranged a guide to Seoul food (see what we did there?) and how best to eat your way through the city.
Traditional Korean Dishes
Let’s first do a crash course in tastiness. Below is a list of some of the best tasting and most traditional Korean dishes that can be found in Seoul.
This one everyone has heard of, but in South Korea most dinners are essentially considered incomplete without it. Kimchi is pickled vegetables, usually cabbage, that is fermented with chili and various oils.
Haejangguk is popular amongst locals and visitors because it translates to “hangover cure stew”. Those who have been to South Korea, or know someone from there, understand that Koreans like to drink. They also like to eat before, during, and after drinking. So this dish is essential. Haejangguk may cure hangovers but it may also cause food comas.
One of the many popular soups in Korea, this one happens to be made from Ox bones. Simmered for hours, the broth is usually served with some beef, noodles, and green onion — but it’s up to the eater to add additional spices.
One of the better-known dishes from Korea, and the most fun to say, Bibimbap is a mixed rice dish. Certain varieties are served in an extremely hot ceramic dish that requires the consumer to stir based on how crispy they want their rice.
Many people wince at the mention of blood sausage, but as a traditional dish of countries in Europe, Asia, and South America, can that many people be wrong about it being good? For those needing a reminder, Korean blood sausage is rice and pig’s blood that has been stuffed into an intestine.
To the untrained eye (and tongue), some folks might think “yum Mongolian beef” but they aren’t quite right. Bulgogi is a much more traditional dish and is usually marinated with more attention and flair. Often beef, Bulgogi also comes in pork and chicken varieties.
Straying away slightly from what people expect of Korean food, the Hoeddeok is a sweet treat. Basically a pancake, this street food is filled with brown sugar, peanut bits, honey, and cinnamon. Alternatively, bindaetteok is a savory pancake made from mung beans.
One of the most common features of a Korean barbeque, samgyeopsal are slices of pork belly that diners slap on a hot plate and cook to their liking. Rarely seasoned, before grilling people will usually dip samgyeopsal in sesame oil mixed with salt and pepper.
Fine, Fancy Dining
Have a few extra bucks (or Korean won in Seoul) to spend? Definitely splurge on these upscale establishments.
Opened in the elite Cheongdam-dong neighborhood of Seoul, Jungsik Dang is continually celebrated as one of the best dining experiences in all of South Korea. Having earned multiple Michelin stars, and been named to a list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2018, the owners have expanded to New York. Diners can expect reinterpretations of traditional Korean dishes into tasting menu style plates.
Nobu trained chef Mingoo Kang and team named this restaurant after their hope of “mingling” Korean and European cuisines. This “New Asian Cuisine” also earned Mingles a spot on the 2018 50 Best Restaurants in Asia list, and recently, a new Michelin star. While the menu is constantly changing, guests can anticipate trying things like pumpkin porridge and egg custard topped with burdock foam and served alongside a foie gras ginseng tart.
Other Restaurants in Seoul
Seoul has no end to restaurants and types of cuisine, however, these are a few spots that serve up real Korean food for a price most backpackers can feel good about.
The popular Netflix series Chef’s Table introduced the world to nun Jeong Kwan and “temple cuisine”. This type of food strictly adheres to Buddhist principles, meaning everything on the menu is vegan. Also, because they are said to “excite the senses”, work as an aphrodisiac, and may contribute to “distemper”, garlic, onion, and chives are not used. While it may sound boring, Balwoo Gongyang has become synonymous with temple cuisine and makes dishes exciting through the use of sauces, many of which are fermented.
Hadongkwan opened in 1939 and has only been serving a one-item menu during its whole existence. The one thing to order is gomtang — a lukewarm beef soup once served to kings. While it may be the only thing available, the plate is customizable as patrons can add meat, spices, and kimchi.
One of the best things to do in Seoul as a tourist is to take the cable cars up Nam Mountain. After disembarking the gondola at its summit, visitors are greeted by a stunning view of the city. Just a quick walk from there, inside a traditional Korean home, is Mokmeoksanbang. The restaurant claims to have one of the best bibimbaps in the city and it’s certainly a justified statement.
Food Markets and Street Food in Seoul
There is nowhere better in Seoul to experience food tourism and culture. A gastronomic Shangri-La, Gwanjang may have more flavors, unique dishes, and happy stomachs than anywhere else in the world.
Seoul Bamdokkaebi Night Market
Running from March to October, this city-sponsored night market embraces the growing food truck scene in Seoul. Taking place along the Han River at Yeouido Hangang Park and Banpo Hangang Park, there aren’t many better ways to spend a warm evening.
Founded back in 1414 and containing some 10,000 stalls, Namdaemun is Seoul’s largest and oldest market. The pedestrian-only streets are lined with vendors selling just about everything from jewelry and electronics to handmade crafts, while Food Alley has great street dishes. Those intimidated by Namdaemun’s size can find affordable tours that guide tourists around the market and other Seoul landmarks.