Do you like spicy food? What about onions and strong, salty flavors? Or maybe you’re swearing off all carbs to try that new paleo or whole 30 diet. Well if you can check off any of the above, Korea is the place for you. The champions of fermentation (seriously, kimchi will be your primary source of vitamins during any trip to Korea), mysterious red chili sauce, and two inch thick pork belly BBQ, Seoul is a meat lover’s dream.
In the 30 days we spent in South Korea’s booming capital, we ate enough BBQ and hot pot that would put us on PETA’s most wanted list, gorged ourselves on spicy kimchi and bapsang (the side dishes in Korean meals), tried to enjoy fermented tofu soup (we never quite warmed up to that one), and spent many tense evenings searching for my all-time favorite dessert — Korean bingsu (aka shaved ice).
Links to the places I visited are underlined below.
When I was young, my dad once said to me: “I love pickled vegetables. During the bad times when food was scarce, this was what you paired with rice to flavor the food because no meat or other vegetables were available.” The memory stuck to me, and since then, I’ve always enjoyed salty, pickled vegetables.
Kimchi is no different. Except I never realized how good kimchi could taste until this trip. Japan gave me a taste of authentic kimchi, but it was Korea – the motherland of all things spicy and fermented, where they’ve perfected the right combination of crunch, salt and spice – that has ruined me forever from enjoying kimchi in America. Yes, it is true that it is served in every meal and will likely prevent scurvy in an otherwise carnivorous country. Yes, it is spicy and you may regret it the next day. No, not all of it tastes the same.
Each restaurant’s kimchi is slightly different, and some form of fermented pickles are served at nearly every meal. I prefer the sweet and spicy kimchi or ones that have been grilled to take off some of the excess vinegar. Even western restaurants serving burgers or pizza will give you a small plate of American-style pickles as a side dish.
One of the things that stand out the most to be about having a Korean meal is the little side dishes – banchan – filled with picked vegetables, egg, and noodles served with rice. Banchan is served with the main meal whether that’s noodles, bbq, or bulgogi, and it’s okay to ask for more during the meal. Kimchi is considered to be a banchan dish. Banchan is what I get the most excited about when I eat a meal in Korea, since each restaurant will offer different side dishes.
Pictured Below: Banchan with our pork bulgogi.
Here: Banchan with our BBQ
Since we spent October in Korea when the temperatures dropped to a daytime high of low 50s (F)/11-13 (C), it was the perfect time to try out some soups. Just a month earlier, in September, the hot and humid weather would have made soup unbearable.
There’s a number of traditional Korean soups that range from clear pork bone broth soup to tofu bean paste soup. Bone broth – whether it’s beef or pork or ginseng chicken – is huge in Korea. Personally, I found some of the tofu to be a little too strong for my tastes, but a nice bowl of spicy soup filled with chicken (with the bones, of course), kimchi and noodles is a good fall option.
You can find soup shops nearly anywhere across Seoul. I picked the places that looked the most popular with lines out the door and smelled good from the outside, a method that hasn’t failed me yet. If you want some traditional sit-on-floor soup restaurants, check out the traditional neighborhood of Jongno-gu where you can .
BBQ, street eats (“Pocha”) and all things that moo, cluck and oink
A must try in Korea is an all-you-can eat BBQ joint (pictured below), where you grab a bib, pay per person (~$12-$20/pp) for huge slabs of all you can eat pork-belly. You grill the pork yourself (versus a lot of other BBQ places where the waitstaff does the cooking for you at the table), push the little “attention” button at the table, and order to your carnivorous heart’s delight. The place below is in a quiet neighborhood is at 6 Yangjae-daero 37 gil, Irwon-ro, Irwon-dong, Gangnam-gu. For 13000 won ($12) and no time-limit, this place is a great deal for meat-lovers. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of side dishes and salads to help pair with the pork belly. A big no-no: do not leave food at the table or over-order. My advice for finding a BBQ joint is similar to my other food advice – walk to where you see the most locals since the really good places aren’t on Google maps yet, download the Google translate app (it’s gotten MUCH better for translating Korean), and experience a real BBQ joint without the added tourist price.
BBQ chicken (picture below is a popping pocha in Sinsa-dong near exit 8) is another option if you get sick of pork belly. Pork and chicken are by far the most popular meats in Korea, and lamb, beef and fish tend to be more expensive. Chicken seems to be the go-to drinking food. Pictured below: chicken BBQ at one of our favorite pochas.
Chinese Lamb Skewers (left below) and seafood or beef BBQ (right below) are good options if you get sick of pork or chicken. These two places are next door to one another in Sinsa near the Sinsa Exit 8 which has a huge variety of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Western restaurants in addition to Korean options.
It would be a huge mistake to talk about Korean BBQ, dinners, and eating in general without mentioning how important drinking food/snacks are in Korean culture. Whether it’s suju, beer (meikju) or unfiltered rice wine (my favorite, makjeolli), you never drink without eating. This is how the concept of the pocha (short of pojangmacha) vendors came to be – an outdoor bar, covered with a clear plastic tarp during winters, with snacks kind of like Asian tapas. After our tapas gallivanting in Andalusia, we were trained pros to visit pochas and swing by street food vendors to grab some snacks with our evening beverages. Pochas typically get popular right after 10pm, and I have never in my entire life seen so many 100lb 5-foot-2-inch young professional women drink beers and eat BBQ in the pochas like I did in Korea. On a cold night, stepping into a packed pocha that has an electric heater stuck in the middle of the room with a mix of 1990s hip hop and kpop blasting while eating BBQ and drinking soju is one of my favorite travel memories.
The most famous bar-food of all, however, is Korean fried chicken. The history of Korean fried chicken dates back – like many Korean/American food influences (such as canned beans and spam) – to the Korean war. During the war, American soldiers would have roast chickens during Thanksgiving because turkey wasn’t available. Then in the 1980s, Korean mega-corp Doosan introduced KFC to the Korean peninsula, and it stuck. Like many of Korea’s fads, hype drove production and creation of fried chicken joints to a point where 1 out of every 4 restaurants opening was a fried chicken joint (kind of like the artisanal coffee obsession today). Over time, Koreans have proudly made these American introductions their own, adding on their own flares of spices and flavors to represent a history that’s still live today. My favorite fried chicken joint? Kkhanbu chicken hands down. Check them out all around the city.
American and Western
It’s reasonable to crave some western style food after a while in Korea. The strong flavors of raw garlic, onions, leeks and bean paste can wear down even the locals. Given that Korea – especially where we were staying in Apgujeong – has a lot of Western food influence, you can find almost any Western dish from tacos to biscuits to pizza or burgers.
The best burger joint is Seoul is Gilbert’s which has two locations in the city. Some Seoul burger aficionados have sworn by this place.
If you’re craving southern food and fried chicken alone isn’t hitting the spot, check out Buttermilk Biscuits and Company in Sinsa-dong which was started by two Korean-Americans originally from Virginia.
Bingsu and Dessert
Of course, this food journey would not be complete without sharing my entire photo album dedication to my new favorite dessert, bingsu (shaved ice). It’s a fluffier version of shaved ice with the perfect combination from the inside to out with condensed milk and flavored sauce, like matcha, black sesame, red bean, a fruit flavor, pumpkin, etc. I spent many cold evenings scouring my neighborhood in Seoul, trying to identify the Korean words for bingsu. One time, tensions ran so high as we were unsuccessful that my Company shuffled me into a gourmet gelato shop to placate me.
In the summers, bingsu is sold in almost every cafe, but there’s a few cafes dedicated to gourmet bingsu. Hands down my favorite is Tokyo Ice Flakes (I know, of course I pick the Japanese place) – there’s a few chains in Mapo-dong. As a purist, I prefer bingsu to be only shaved ice, versus the ice cream/sherbet combinations.
If you’ve saved a lot of room for dessert, go to Sulbing, the most popular Korean chain for bingsu. They serve huge portions and mix bingsu with ice cream, serve it with chunks of cheese and other goodies, or serve it straight out of a melon, like cantaloupe. I recommend sharing it with friends because bingsu waste hurts my heart (matcha and black sesame bingsu from Sulbing on the left and center below).
Finally, if you’re grabbing a late night coffee – it’s a thing in Korea – and you want some lighter bingsu options, a Twosome place has sherbert style bingsu, but I would say it gets a 2/5 on my picky food scale (shown on the right).
Of course, I didn’t just eat iced desserts in Seoul. I did my share of street vendor snacks, including “fish bread”, a pastry filled with red bean in the shape of a fish (shown on the left), and hotteok, a pancake mixed with cinnamon and honey (shown on the right).
Watching vendors make hotteok was therapeutic, and on a rainy cold afternoon in the market, the delicious sweet pancake is a memory that lingers for a long time.
Korean food had a lot to live up to given that we had just arrived from Japan, foodie paradise. While the variance of food quality is greater in Seoul (it can range from so-so to amazing while Japan is solidly great to amazing), the atmosphere for eating was just superb and quite frankly, like nothing else we’d experienced so far on this trip. It is lighthearted, fun, social, and characterized by late night snacks sitting around an open BBQ listening to music, drinking some Korean adult beverages, and laughing with the new friends you made.