Korean Cuisine

Although a few Korean dishes are well known internationally, most visitors are surprised by the diversity of “Korean food” in Korea.  With so many great options to choose from, you could eat exclusively Korean cuisine three meals per day for a month and get tired of it.  When I hear expats grumble that they are sick of Korean food, I know it’s because they only know a few dishes, and are afraid to try something new.  This list is far from comprehensive, but it includes a few of our favorites.

순두부 찌개 Sundubu Jiggae (Soft Tofu Stew) 

Description:  Soft tofu in a red pepper and seafood based broth.   Usually served in an individual sized hot-pot.  Crack an egg over the soup when it arrives at the table, and it will cook from the heat.

SPICE LEVEL: 4/5

삼겹살 Samgyupsal (Grilled Pork Belly)

Description:  It’s basically bacon on steroids.  The name literally means 3-layer cut, referring to the two layers of fat and one layer of actual meat.  Not the healthiest meal around, but it’s by far the most common and popular version of Korean Barbecue.  Of course, you cook it yourself at the table, and eat it piping hot off the grill.  For a big and delicious bite, you can dip a piece of meat in red pepper paste and wrap it in a lettuce leaf along with garlic and beansprouts.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

김치 Kimchi

Description:  Kimchi is an acquired taste, but it’s probably the most famous Korean food because of it’s ubiquity–it’s served as a side with just about everything.  Kimchi is never a main course, although it’s unique flavor makes it a central ingredient in many main dishes.  There are many different types of kimchi, such as cabbage kimchi (the most common), cucumber kimchi, radish kimchi, cubed radish kimchi, green onion kimchi, and more.

SPICE LEVEL: 3/5

비빔밥 Bibimbap (Rice Mixed with Vegetables and Beef)

Description: Bibimbap is a simple dish.  In essence, it’s just rice mixed together with whatever ingredients are available.  Traditionally, these ingredients include mostly vegetables, fungi, and egg.  Sometimes small amounts of meat are also included.  These mundane ingredients are literally spiced up by red pepper paste, which is usually added by the diner according to his or her own tastes.   The most famous version of Bibimbap comes from Jeonju, since this city was historically the capital of Korea’s most fertile agricultural region and had the widest variety of fresh ingredients available.  Bibimbap is especially delicious when served in a hot stone pot, which keeps the ingredients warm and gives the rice at the bottom a nice crispy texture.  This variation is known as Dolsot Bibimbap.

SPICE LEVEL: 3/5

불고기 Bulgogi (Beef in a Soy sauce Marinade)

Description: Bulgogi technically means fire-meat.  Usually it is thinly sliced or shredded beef.  What makes bulgogi special is the salty soy-based sauce in which it is marinated.   When served over rice, it is often called Bulgogi Dop Bap.

SPICE LEVEL 1/5

갈비 구이 Grilled Galbi (Seasoned ribs)

Description: Like Bulgogi, Galbi is defined by it’s salty soy-based marinade.  The word galbi means ribs, and may be either pork or beef.  Sometimes it is served sliced and sometimes it is served on the bone.  Often Galbi is served Korean-Barbecue style, and grilled at the table.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

삼계탕 Samgyetang (Ginseng Chicken soup)

Description:  Samgyetang a gourmet spin on the chicken soup your mother may have made for you when you were sick.  Typically, it includes a whole small chicken that has been cleaned out and stuffed with glutanous rice, garlic, dates, and other spices.  If you’re feeling under the weather, or even if you’re not, this dish is truly soothing and delicious.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

냉면 Naengmyeon (Buckwheat noodles in a cold broth)

Description: Noodles served in cold beef broth- the soup is refreshing. There is also bibim naengmyeon, which doesn’t have soup but is mixed with red pepper paste instead.

SPICE LEVEL: 2/5

해물탕 Haemultang (Seafood stew)

Description: Various seafood are boiled before adding red pepper paste and red pepper powder. The broth is both refreshing and very spicy.

SPICE LEVEL: 5/5

김치찌개 Kimchi jjigae (Kimchi stew)

Description: Kimchi Jiggae gets its rich broth from pork browned in the bottom of the pot before water and kimchi and red pepper paste are added.  This dish tastes better when sour (read: old) kimchi is used.  Other important ingredients include tofu and scallions.  Kimchi Jiggae can be served in individual portion stone bowls or simmered in larger portions at the table.

SPICE LEVEL: 4/5

닭갈비 Dakgalbi (Chicken ribs)

Description: Dalk Galbi involves chicken ribs, usually boneless, grilled at the table in a red pepper and garlic sauce.  Other common ingredients include cabbage, sweet potato, ddeok (rice cake), and scallion.  The city of Chuncheon, as the poultry capital of Korea, is especially famous for this dish.

SPICE LEVEL: 4/5

설렁탕 Seolleongtang (Ox bone soup)

Description: Beef is added to beef broth and stewed for a long time before being served with rice and various seasonings. The deep, rich taste of the broth, boiled for over 10 hours, is simply delicious.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

갈비탕 Galbitang (Short rib soup)

Description: Ribs are boiled with radishes to create a savory soup. Eaten together with rice, the broth is a delight.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

죽 Juk (Porridge)

Description: Juk is a rice porridge, similar to Congee.  The rice gets is soft texture after being boiled for a long time, along with sesame oil. There are many variations of juk such as pine nut juksesame jukjujube jukred bean jukbeef jukpumpkin juk, and abalone juk.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

감자탕 Gamja Tang (Potato Stew)

Description: The name Gamja Tang means potato stew, but this dish is more accurately characterized by its soft slabs of pork spine and rich broth.  Other important ingredients include scallions, ddeok (rice cake), sesame leaves, potato noodles, and hot pepper.  Gamja Tang is typically served in a large pot for two or more and simmered at the table.  A smaller and simpler version known as as Beo Haejangguk is served in individual-sized hot bowls and is especially popular for breakfast, after a night of heavy drinking.

SPICE LEVEL: 3/5

김밥 Kimbap

Description:  Similar to sushi rolls, but usually made with vegetables instead of raw fish.  Kimbap is the quintissential Korean picnic food.  Make it at home or buy a whole roll of it wrapped in tin foil for about W2000 and eat it on the go.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

찜닭 JjimDak (Marinated Chicken)

Description: Jjimdak is a hidden gem of Korean cuisine. Although it’s widely enjoyed by Koreans, few north americans are familiar with this toothsome dish. Chicken, potatoes and carrots are perfectly cooked in a deletable sweet and savory sauce with a hint of spiciness. Glass noodles in this dish are to die for. All you need is a bowl of rice to complete this celestial meal and soak up the extra sauce.

SPICE LEVEL: 3/5

PRICE: ~20,000KRW for two

떡만두국 Ddeok Mandu-guk (Rice Cake and Dumpling Soup)

Description: Ddeok Manduguk is a mild but savory soup (guk) made by boiling mandu (dumplings) and ddeok (rice cakes) in a beef broth or anchovy broth mixed with beaten egg.  It’s especially delicious and soothing on a cold day.  IN fact, this soup is ritually consumed on the lunar New Year.  However, it’s a popular entrée year round.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

PRICE: ~6,000 KRW

순대국 Sundae-guk (Sausage Noodle Soup)

Description: Sundae is Korean blood sausage that is typically stuffed with cellophane noodles and other various ingredients.  It is a primary ingredient in Sundaeguk, which has a mild and deeply flavored broth.

SPICE LEVEL: 1/5

PRICE: ~6,000 KRW

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