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Food and DrinkBack to top Back to main Skip to menu
South Korea - Food and Drink
Few fall in love with Korean food at first taste, but like most acquired tastes, it's an addictive one once you get used to it. While there are obvious influences from both China and Japan, Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine has extremely high salt contents.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan (??). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twelve. Typical banchan include bean sprouts (??? kongnamul), sauteed fishcake (???? eomuk jorim) and pickled cucumbers (???? oi-muchim).
The ubiquitous kimchi (?? gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and may be a bit of an acquired taste for visitors as it can be quite spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can be made from white radish (??? ggakdugi), cucumbers (?? ??? oi-sobagi), chives (?? ?? buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (??), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (???), a hot (or not so hot) chilli paste.
Most restaurants specialize in one or two dishes - so you need to agree with your friends what you'll be having for dinner. There are beef restaurants, pork restaurants, spicy chicken restaurants, and cow knee soup restaurants.
Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of stainless steel. Unfortunately for the chopstick learner, these thin and slippery sticks are not the best implements to practice with, but if you can eat with wooden or plastic chopsticks you'll manage with some fumbling. When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup.
Some etiquette pointers:
- Don't leave your chopsticks sticking into a dish. A spoon sticking downright into the rice bowl is also not a good sign, since that's how Koreans set up the dishes for their passed ancestors.
- Eating rice with your spoon is polite. Actually Korea is one of the few countries where eating rice with your chopsticks is considered rather rude, mostly by the elder Koreans (nowadays, this is no longer the case). This is not the case in Japan or China, where they usually eat rice with their chopsticks. However, eating rice with chopsticks is more accepted among the younger generation.
- Don't lift dishes up from the table. (This rule, too, is widely ignored by Korean youth.)
- But most of all, Koreans are generally very interested in foreigners. Most of them will look at you out of interest, not because you're eating the wrong way. So don't be self-conscious of whether you're doing something right or wrong. Just use your common sense of politeness and good manners, and everything will be fine.
"Korean barbeque" is probably the best-known Korean dish, split in Korea itself into bulgogi (???), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (??), which uses unmarinated ribs. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or sesame leaf along with shredded green onion salad (??? pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (?? muchae) and some chili-soya paste (?? ssamjang) and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.
The cost of a barbeque meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Beef is the most common choice but pork or chicken are also popular. You'll rarely see filet mignon, instead common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (??? samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (??? dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Hound by the pound
Yes, it's true — Koreans eat dog. While theoretically illegal, in practice the law is not enforced and dog meat soup (??? bosintang or ??? yeongyangtang) remains a popular dish among those looking to improve male virility or just beat the summer heat. Another option is suyuk (??), which is just meat boiled with spices to eliminate smell and make the meat tender.
Aside from the cultural taboo, there are some issues regarding how the dogs are raised, butchered, and processed. No, dogs are not beaten to death to improve the taste —, but some are hung and beaten as an old tradition. Calling the conditions in which dogs are raised and butchered humane would also be an exaggeration. Even in Korea people get quite opinionated on this matter, so take anything you hear with a grain of salt.
In any case, you're unlikely to end up chewing on Snoopy by accident, as dog is only served by speciality restaurants, and as they rarely advertise you will have to actively seek them out. If you do make the effort, a bowl can go for under W10,000 and you'll find that dog tastes broadly like beef or veal, if perhaps a tad gamier.
Bibimbap (???) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (??? chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (?????), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (??), sometimes (rather inaccurately) dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (???), which resembles red cylinders at first sight, but is actually rice dumplings in a sweet chili sauce.
Stews and soups
The Korean word for soup is tang (?), while the term jjigae (??) covers a wide variety of stews. Common versions include doenjang jjigae (????), made with doenjang, vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (????), made with — you guessed it — kimchi.
Sundubu jjigae (?????) is made with soft tofu as the main ingredient. The common meat version by frying ground pork with oil and dried chili powder, then pouring in broth and adding tofu and vegetables. There's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(?? ?????) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (????) has some contemporary history involved. It's known to have originated from the city of Uijeongbu where a US military base was located, and naturally there would be a lot of American canned food available, such as SPAM, sausages, and pork beans. Some got creative, and found out that these ingredients can be assimilated into the traditional Korean food of jjigae. Therefore, budae jjigae can be thought of as some sort of a fusion food in the past, which is now accepted and enjoyed by Koreans all over the nation. All restaurants have somewhat different recipes, but generally it's pretty spicy, and will usually have kimchi and spam-like American ingredients. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle (?? ??) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular soups include seolleongtang (???), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (???), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (????), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (???, pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Koreans are great noodle lovers too, and the terms kuksu (??) and myeon (?) span a vast variety of types, sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as W1000-2000.
Naengmyeon (??) are a Korean speciality, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (?? yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets.
Mandu (??) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (??) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (???) for example. Jajangmyeon (???) is a noodle with a black sauce that usually includes pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic. Finally, u-dong (??) are thick wheat noodles, similar to the Japanese udon.
Japchae (??)is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake).
Rice noodles, common in much of Asia, are seldom found in Korea.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (?? haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe (?), pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap (??) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese chirashizushi.
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (???), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Jeon (?), jijimi (???), jijim (??), bindaetteok (???) and buchimgae (???) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (??) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (pa ? is green onion). Haemul pajeon (????), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (???) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (?????) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (??). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (??, pron. "sun-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (??? sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".e
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. If you ask for "no gogi" (??) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (?????), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared!
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (??, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (???, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables.
On the bright side, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
Alcoholics rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (???). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Often times, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (??), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20%). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over W3000 at bars (as little as W900 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc, to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (?? ??) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (???). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro ??, Gyeongwol ??, Bohae ??, Bobae ??, Sunyang ??, etc), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - sports drink) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (??), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (??), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (???) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (???) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongju as a result.
Yakju (??) or cheongju (??) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (???) and 'Dugyeonju (???).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
Cheongju vs. sake
There are two major differences between Korean rice wine and Japanese rice wine. The first is that Korean wine uses nuruk, while Japanese wine uses koji. While both can be considered yeasts, nuruk contains various kinds of fungi and other microorganisms, while in koji a more selected breed of fungi does its job. The treatment of rice is also different: traditionally rice for making cheongju is washed "a hundred times" (paekse ??), but for sake, the rice is polished until the grain size is as little as 50% of its original size. Therefore, some people comment that in general cheongju tastes more complicated and earthy, while sake tastes "cleaner" and "sweeter".
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around 1500 won per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof (?? hopeu), which serve pints of beer in the W2000-5000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of W10000 or so.
Tea and coffee
Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (? cha), most of it green (?? nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
- boricha (???), roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
- insamcha (???), ginseng tea
- oksusucha (????), roasted corn tea
- yulmucha (???), a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job's tears
Coffee (?? keopi) is also widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as W300, usually sweet and milky. Latte snobs will also be glad to know that Starbucks and assorted copies are spreading like wildfire.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
- sikhye (??), a very sweet, grainy rice drink
- sujeonggwa (???), a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons
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