We devoured this home-cooked Korean dinner that our student Young cooked for us
This is Part 2 of a 3-part trip report. Click below for Parts 1 and 3:
What to eat in South Korea
Okay, full disclosure: our main reason for visiting Korea, besides visiting our student Young, was to EAT! If you didn’t already know it, we’re huge foodies—even our kids. We’re game to try just about anything (including very fresh, still-twitching seafood—yikes!)
In this post, I’ve listed all the things we ate during our 21-day trip to Korea.
- Some items have specific location info, but some don’t. (If you do a Google search, you should be able to find recommendations for where to find each type of dish we tried.)
- I’ve listed the food we ate under the city we ate it in, but you can likely find all the dishes (or something very similar) in any Korean city.
I hope you’ll be inspired to eat your way through Korea after reading this post! If you’d like more info on anything listed, feel free to ask me in the comments below.
What to eat in Seoul
1,000 won noodle bowl (Namdaemun Market)
This is a cheap, satisfying eat! (1,000 won is about $0.90 USD.) There’s no meat, but you don’t miss it with the tofu and seaweed. We ate at this place on Namdaemun Noodle Soup Alley (which starts at Gate 5 of Namdaemun Market):
7 Cafe (near Namdaemun Market)
Convenience stores are famous in Korea and Japan for quick, cheap meals. 7 Cafe (a 7-Eleven with a loungey area upstairs) takes this to whole other level!
They offer a huge selection of premade food that you can buy, then take upstairs to heat and eat. We tried the kimbap, bento boxes, instant noodles, kimchee, and mandoo. All were delicious. (There are also burgers, onigiri, and a huge selection of drinks to choose from.)
While not the most eco-friendly (there’s a lot of packaging) and not the most healthy (you’re microwaving your food in plastic) it was a fun and delicious experience. It’s also really cheap—we fed the family for a little over 10,000 won (about $9 US).
Bingsu (Sulbing—various locations)
Bingsu is Korean shaved ice, and Sulbing is the most popular place in Korea to eat it. There are more than a dozen flavours to choose from (it’s hard to pick!)
Our favourite was the matcha, followed by mango, cookies and cream, then traditional. We also tried the injeolmi toast, which is a sweet toasted sandwich with gooey, sticky mochi inside. So yummy!
Note: Keep in mind that Sulbing’s portions are HUGE and filling. We split two orders amongst the four of us and struggled to finish it all.
Bulgogi is a classic Korean dish, but new for us this time because we got to cook it ourselves on a tabletop grill. We enjoyed this for lunch with Michelle, one of our other Korean students. It was a fun, delicious experience.
Chaegundaam Michelin Star Restaurant (Gangnam)
We’re pretty frugal, so dining in Michelin Star restaurants isn’t something we’d normally do! We were treated to this traditional Korean meal by the family of one of Kid 2’s Korean friends. (Koreans are, hands-down, the most generous people we know.)
The food was outstanding, as were the presentation and service. It was an amazing, memorable, and educational experience.
Chapssal doughnuts (King Dumpling at Namdaemun Market)
Chapssal doughnuts are deep fried and made of chewy glutinous flour. Some have red bean paste inside, and some have no filling. All are covered in white sugar and delicious! At King Dumpling, there’s a wide variety to choose from, and if you buy in bulk, you get a better deal.
Daeji galbi is grilled pork spareribs, and it is divine! We had it as our first Korean meal after we landed in Seoul, and we ate way more than we thought we could. The meat is marinated, then you cook it yourself on a grill over hot charcoal. What an experience!
Donkkaseu, aka Korean pork cutlet
Koreans have created their own version of Japan’s tonkatsu, and it’s every bit as yummy! The sauce is slightly different, and it usually comes with banchan (Korean side dishes). We ate this at a restaurant near the Namsan Cable Car.
Gopchang and makchang
Gopchang is the small intestine of cows or pigs, and makchang is the fourth stomach of a cow. I know—to most people this sounds really gross! But offal meats like this are delicious (when prepared right) and full of nutrients.
You can find gopchang and makchang all over the place, but we ate it at a restaurant in Ikseondong where we grilled it ourselves. It was a bit chewy, but so yummy!
Hairtail Fish and Grilled Mackerel (Namdaemun Market)
If you’re wandering around Namdaemun Market, you’ll likely come across Hairtail Fish Alley. Down this alley, you’ll find a cluster of restaurants that serve the meaty hairtail fish.
We were told this fish is a must-try, so we had it for dinner one night. Personally, I found the sauce a little overpowering, and the fish a bit mushy (it tastes a lot like canned sardines).
But it wasn’t all bad! We also ordered a grilled mackerel, and that was amazing! It was crisped to perfection, and we could even eat the fins and small bones. Sooo good!
Juk (Bonjuk—various locations)
Juk is Korea’s version of Chinese congee/rice porridge. We were slightly shocked by how expensive it was! After all, it’s made of rice, and rice costs pennies a bowl! But Bon Juk came highly recommended, so we gave it a try… and we’re so glad we did.
We tried the oyster and red crab juk, and both were DELICIOUS! Korean juk is quite different from the Chinese version we’re used to. There’s more texture due to the whole, intact grains of rice that are mixed in. You also get a bunch of yummy banchan (side dishes) with your order.
If you like congee, Korean juk is definitely worth trying!
Kalguksu, aka knife cut noodles (Gwangjang or Namdaemun Market)
We first came across kalguksu when we saw it being made in Gwangjang Market. There, you can watch the little old ladies cutting up the noodles with lightning speed. Some of them don’t even look down as they’re cutting! (It seems so dangerous, but they’re obviously old pros.)
We were too full to try the kalguksu at Gwangjang Market but were happy to find it at Namdaemun Market on our last day. These noodles are definitely worth a try. They have just the right amount of chewiness, and the inconsistent width and thickness make for a very interesting texture.
This is another classic Korean dish. Kimbap looks like sushi, but it’s quite different. To start with, kimbap rice is seasoned with sesame oil instead of vinegar. Additionally, kimbap is filled with pickled veggies and cooked meat or seafood instead of sushi’s typical raw fish.
Here are three places we tried kimbap in Korea:
- Gwangjang Market: Dozens of food stalls sell what’s been dubbed ‘Crack Kimbap’. Apparently, this type of kimbap is so good that it’s as addictive as crack! (We tried this uniquely-named kimbap and enjoyed it—but it wasn’t any tastier than other kimbap.)
- Convenience stores: Since it’s not fresh, you need to give convenience store kimbap a quick zap in the microwave. To us, this kimbap tasted almost as good as fresh!
- A dumpling and kimbap restaurant next to the Ramada City Hall on Jeju Island (photo below): All three of the rolls we ate were delicious!
Lotte Mart food samples (Seoul Station)
Looking for a free meal? Drop by the Seoul Station Lotte Mart to try all kinds of yummy Korean food. We tried ramen, kimchee, a yogurt drink, candies, and cookies. It’s fun and free. But be prepared for crowds—this Lotte Mart gets insanely busy in the late afternoons and evenings.
Moksal, aka pork neck/collar
Pork neck is tender, moist, and slightly chewy. It’s a cut we don’t often see in North America, but it really should be more popular. We tried it grilled, and it was delicious. If it’s ever an option when you have Korean barbecue, order it!
Noona Holdak Chicken (various locations)
KFC isn’t Kentucky Fried Chicken in Korea. Instead, it’s Korean Fried Chicken. Koreans have an (understandable) obsession with fried chicken—and they sure do it well!
We ordered the assorted platter at Noona Holdak and added an order of giblets. It was way too much food! As much as we wanted to, we couldn’t finish it all.
Here are a few things you should know about Korean fried chicken so you’re not surprised:
- It can be ordered plain, but it also comes in sweet, sticky varieties.
- Koreans use different chicken pieces for their fried chicken, including bony pieces like the backs. While we enjoyed it all, you might want to stick to ordering wings and drums if that’s your preference.
- Often, Korean fried chicken’s actually baked, not fried. (That’s the case at Noona Holdak.)
What to eat in Busan
Chicken Couple restaurant (Gwangalli Beach)
We’re totally on board with Korea’s obsession with fried chicken, and ate as much of it as we could! This was our second meal of KFC, and possibly the best. The chicken came perfectly browned and crisp, without a trace of oil! (Probably because, like Noona Holdak’s chicken, it’s baked, not fried.)
Korean sashimi (Street Market Village at Haeundae Beach)
I’m pretty adventurous with food, but this really challenged me. The sashimi here is very fresh. As in killed-seconds-ago fresh. You pick your dinner from tanks of live seafood, then the lady prepares it for you.
I silently freaked out when we were presented with the dish of still-twitching small octopus, abalone, and sea cucumber. I thought I’d have to go hungry that night! But Kid 1 dove right in and tried the octopus. He liked it and ate some more, so I relaxed and let myself try some.
The octopus was tender and easy to chew. But I didn’t enjoy the hard crunchiness of the abalone and sea cucumber. We also tried the ‘penis fish’ (made famous by Conan O’Brien). It had an interesting sweetness to it.
Our student Young and her husband Black Bear generously treated us to this dinner. (It was shockingly expensive!) While it wasn’t my favourite, it was an incredible, authentically Korean experience that we’ll never forget.
Pufferfish Stew (Haeundae Beach)
Ever since I saw this Simpsons episode in high school, I’ve really wanted to try fugu (aka pufferfish). When we visited Japan last year, I thought I’d have my chance! Sadly, we ran out of time and appetite, so I never did.
Fortunately for me, pufferfish is also popular in Korea! I was thrilled when Young and Black Bear took us we to a pufferfish restaurant near Haeundae Beach for breakfast.
My verdict: pufferfish is surprisingly meaty, and the stew is filled with huge chunks of it. It’s a little plain, so the stew isn’t a must-try if for the flavour alone. Still, it’s fun to say you ate the potentially-deadly fugu, so I’d try it just for that reason!
Spicy soondae and tteokbokki (Gukje Market)
Soondae looks awful before it’s cooked, and sounds awful when you hear that it’s pork blood sausage! But there’s actually very little blood in it. It’s mostly filled with glass noodles and other ingredients. You won’t really taste any blood in it either.
I didn’t love the mushy texture, and this soondae with tteokbokki was way too spicy for me to eat more than a few bites. But M really enjoyed it and happily finished most of the serving himself.
Wandang (18 Wandang House at Gukje Market)
Wandang is Korea’s version of Chinese wontons—that is, soup dumplings. This restaurant is famous, so Young said we should try it. We’re glad we did!
Wandang are actually quite different from wontons. They have thicker skin and are softer. The noodles are also thicker and softer than wonton noodles. It was a yummy dinner—especially for Kid 2 who’s always happy to eat noodles of any kind.
What to eat on Jeju Island
Jeju Island is known for its black pork (named so for the black hair of the pigs, not for the colour of the meat). It’s apparently more elastic and fatty than regular pork, with a deeper flavour.
We wondered if black pork was just a marketing gimmick until we tried it for ourselves. It definitely lived up to its reputation—so I say try it!
Crab skewer and crab gratin (Dongmun Market)
We came across a little stall in Dongmun Market selling crab ‘skewers’ (moulded onto a crab claw) and crab gratin (served in a crab shell). We tried both, and they were delicious!
This was our third and final meal of Korean fried chicken, and like the other two, it was delicious! Kyochon is one of the most famous KFC chains in Korea. (They even have locations in other countries, including the US.)
Peanut Ice Cream (Udo Island)
Udo Island is known for its peanuts (apparently nuttier and crunchier than other peanuts). So we had to try the peanut ice cream!
It was yummy, but nothing to write home about. I don’t even think the ice cream itself was peanut-flavoured. I think it was just vanilla soft serve with crushed peanuts on top. It was also a bit pricey. But it helped to support the local economy of this tiny island, so I’m still happy we tried it.
Sashimi (Dongmun Market)
Our student Young and her husband Black Bear took us to Dongmun Market around 8 pm one night, just as the market was closing. All the seafood vendors were ready to wheel and deal, hoping to sell off their remaining sashimi platters at a discount.
I was really worried about eating sashimi that had been sitting out for so long (it was on ice, but not refrigerated). But Young and BB seemed to have no issues with it, so I let it go. And I’m so glad I did!
We tried some kind of white fish and some sort of shrimp (or other crustacean—the shells were really hard). Both were delicious, and no one had any tummy problems afterwards.
Squid cheese skewers (Cheonjiyeon Falls)
We stumbled upon this yummy little snack as we walked back to the car after seeing Cheonjiyeon Falls. The stand is right in front of the gift shop. I didn’t taste any squid in it, but the slightly sweet, cake-like outside combined with the gooey melted cheese inside was really good.
Mulhoe, aka water sashimi
Water sashimi is raw seafood that’s served in a cold noodle soup. It reminded me of gazpacho. But it had the same crunchy-hard sashimi we tried at the Street Market Village at Haeundae Beach. Not my or Kid 1’s favourite, but M and Kid 2 liked it. It’d be really refreshing to eat in the summer!
Korean traditional markets
I reviewed these markets in Part 2: What to See and Do in South Korea. But they’re such great places to find yummy, affordable food that I thought it’d be helpful to list them all together so you can make sure you see them all!
- Gwangjang Market (Jongno District)
- Mangwon Market (Hongdae)
- Namdaemun Market (Jung District)
- Tong-in Market (Jongno District)
- Gukje Market (Nampo-dong)
- Jagalchi Fish Market (Nampo-dong)
- Street Market Village (Haeundae Beach)
- Dongmun Market
Hotteok—our favourite Korean food
Hotteok are so awesome that they get their very own section! If you’ve never tried hotteok, you haven’t lived! Here’s an article that describes hotteok exactly as I would. Yes—they’re really that amazing (and gooey, and dangerous!)
Here are all the varieties of hotteok we tried:
Simply filled with brown sugar and cinammon, these are the classic variety of hotteok. (And my personal favourite.) They were the first hotteok we tried in Korea, and on our first bite, we wondered how we’d lived this long not knowing about hotteok!
Read about ‘Hotteok Disaster 2019’ in my tips article. (Scroll down to #20: Wet wipes are your friends!)
Cheese hotteok (Gamcheon Culture Village, Busan)
This wasn’t what we expected—the hotteok wasn’t filled with cheese. Instead, the fried dough was broken into pieces, then served with melted cheese on top. It couldn’t have been anything but yummy! Kid 1 and M especially enjoyed it since they were craving melted, gooey cheese.
This chive hotteok has the classic brown sugar filling (with the nice addition of some crunchy seeds). However, the dough differs from classic hotteok in that it’s slightly savoury and has minced chives in it. The sweet and savoury flavours make for a very yummy combo!
In my ajumma story (scroll to #22 in the list of tips) I wrote about our first time trying chive hotteok. It was a lovely, funny experience!
Japchae hotteok (Namdaemun Market Gate 2)
These japchae hotteok are famous (hence the long lineup) and the first hotteok we tried with a savoury filling. We enjoyed them, but sweet hotteok are really the best!
Nutella hotteok (Tong-in Market)
This tasted a little too western for M and me, but Kid 2 said it was his favourite hotteok.
I never figured out what made these purple as they don’t have a distinctive taste. (Our guess would be purple yam.) They taste just like classic hotteok.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a photo of the purple hotteok, but we have a photo of the stand we bought them from. We’ll always remember it because the lady who sells them is mean and scary!
(Don’t make our mistake of eating your hotteok on the spot if you ask for a takeout tray! Otherwise, you’ll be loudly scolded and ordered to return to the stand to trade the takeout tray for cups.)
Our Japanese student Misato (who flew from Tokyo to see us) said, “I guess I’d be grumpy too if I made hotteok all day.”
Red bean hotteok (Namdaemun Market Gate 3)
These hotteok were filled with red bean paste and chunks of gooey, molten mochi. So yummy! They were another favourite (but try to resist the temptation to eat it immediately—the filling’s super-sticky and extra ‘gushy’!)
Seafood hotteok (Namdaemun Market Gate 3)
These were just okay. We couldn’t tell if there was actually seafood in it, and the flavour was only meh. Again—sweet hotteok are the best!
Seed and nut hotteok (Gukje Market, Busan)
This is the must-try food in Gukje Market—and the long lineup proves it! These hotteok aren’t gooey, but instead filled with seeds and nuts (along with some of the typical melted brown sugar).
You’ll find the stand for these famous hotteok in BIFF Square. Apparently, there are copycats, so make sure you try the original! (Hint: it’s the one with the longest lineup.) Or look for the stand that looks like this:
Korea is a food-lover’s paradise! Ingredients are fresh, dishes are relatively cheap, and the variety’s seemingly endless. We ate our fill (and then some) at every meal!
We also loved the ‘interactive’ aspect of Korean food: many dishes are served raw, with tabletop grills and griddles for you to cook your own food. Some dishes are also eaten wrapped in lettuce and perilla (sesame) leaves—another fun and unique way to enjoy new dishes.
While Korean food’s quite different from other types of cuisine, I urge you to venture out of your comfort zone and try everything you can. Even we (who love and regularly eat Korean food) discovered new dishes—including some that challenged us.
In the end, even if we didn’t enjoy it, it was all part of the experience and made for unforgettable memories!
Check out the rest of the trip report:
What about you?
Have you ever been to Korea? What were some of your most memorable or unusual eats? I’d love to hear about it—comment below!
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