Where can you get the freshest meal in Korea? Simple. Korean restaurants.
Korea’s fast food and Western-style restaurants serve familiar dishes: burgers, pizza, pasta. But the nation’s limited farmland makes cow and pig bits scarce. Owners often “substitute” ingredients to save a few won (₩).
Want organic and locally sourced? Search for traditional Korean spots. Dine on almighty kimchi, Korean barbecue, and savory noodles in their purest forms.
How To Eat
So you plop down on the floor of a Korean restaurant. Take off your helmet and glance at the menu on the wall. Oh, no! Where’s the English? All you see are rows of Hangul (한굴) priced any between ₩6,000 ($5) to ₩50,000 ($42).
₩50,000 for lunch? Don’t worry. We’ll explain.
Let’s Break It Down
Before you step into a restaurant, glance at the sign above the door. Most traditional Korean restaurants serve one type of dish. No Tolstoy-thick menus.
Restaurants spell out their specialty in their name. A noodle restaurant serves noodles. Not soup. Not fried chicken. Not ice cream.
Become familiar with Hangul, the Korean writing system, and you can decode most signage.
Here’s a breakdown:
- 찌개 /jjē-gāe/ — thick stew
- 국 /gūk/ — less thick soup
- 밥 /bap/ — rice
- 면 /myeon/ — noodles
- 닭 고기 /dalg gō-gē/ — chicken
- 소 고기 /sō gō-gē/ — beef
- 돼지 고기 /dōā-jē gō-gē/ — pork
Let’s take apart an easy one: 김치찌개.
Look hard? Well, check out the last two characters: 찌개 /jjē-gāe/.
Oh, soup! So, “blah blah” soup.
Wait! Use the phonetic alphabet chart to sound out the first bit: 김치.
- 김 = kim
- 치 = chē.
Oh. “Kimchi soup!”
Not all signs are this easy. But now you have the super-secret enigma decoder.
Sharing Is Caring
Confident about dining? Okay gears. Here’s your wrench.
Companies and schools often have end-of-year, end-of-quarter, mid-of-week outings.
From boss to temp, employees gather in the back of a restaurant. They order a mound of meat and a bottle or twelve of soju and burn the candle to its midnight stub.
Restaurants depend and cater to these communal meals. A single-night expense account swipe from one of these companies outings can keep the lights on and stoves cooking for the month.
So when you glance at the menu at a samgyeopsal (삼겹살; pork belly) restaurant, you’ll see a price (₩29,000) followed by an amount of meat (400 grams). This ain’t a single serving. It’ll feed two, three, or more.
As a bonus, restaurants throw in bottomless side dishes (banchan; 반찬).
Those little plates of goodies that come with traditional Korean meals are called banchan (반찬), or side dishes. The quantity and types of banchan depend on the restaurant and region. Here are some typical examples:
In a group of two or more? Try these traditional restaurants.
Galbi & Samgyeopsal
Galbi (갈비) and samgyeopsal (삼겹살) are meat dishes usually cooked and served from grills in the middle of your table. What the West calls “Korean barbecue.”
Samgyeopsal is pork belly presented in long strips. Think thick bacon. As you cook, the designated griller cuts the strips into thumb sized bits.
Galbi is pork or beef ribs. The butcher includes the bone; an oval fragment embedded at the end of each meat strip.
A Typical Meal
Want galbi or samgyeopsal? Finding a restaurant couldn’t be easier. Stroll around any weekend hotspot and peak through the windows. See aluminum tubes draped from the ceiling? (Vents for the tabletop grills.) You’re in the right spot.
Once you’re seated, workers cover your table with side dishes. No space for large plates. So grab a pair of metal chopsticks (젓가락; jeok-ga-lak) from the box near the napkins and pinch your desired side dish into your undersized bowl. A Western solution. Older Koreans double, triple, quintuple dip. banchan to mouth and back again.
Now order an amount of meat. Throw in some rice (밥; bap) and beer (맥주; maekju) if you’d like.
Lean back! A worker will swing by and drop a searing bucket of coals in the center of your table. (Gas grills are common nowadays.)
Once the workers bring out your meat, it’s your turn. Whip out the scissors and tongs. Start grilling.
(Being a clueless foreigner has advantages. Workers often drop by to lend a hand.)
As the samgyeopsal cooks, arrange the meat around the center — the hottest part — of the grill.
Next, cut the strips into half-finger lengths. Once they turn golden brown, push pieces to the edge — the colder part — of the grill.
With galbi, keep on your toes. The meat’s marinade masks the color. If you get lost in conversation, it’ll burn and stick fast.
Don’t worry. Workers often come by to change grill grates. If you’re unsure if the meat’s ready to chow, ask, “/mū-geo/” (먹어; eat)?’
Hungry now? Grab a piece, dip it in the red gochujang (고추장; /gō-chū-jang/) paste, chew.
Want to be authentic? The full experience? Make ssam (쌈). Korea’s taco.
Grab a leaf of lettuce (상추; /sangchū/) or sesame (깻잎; /ggāet-ēp/) from a nearby basket. Place it flat in your palm. Now throw a piece or two of meat, rice, and kimchi. Dab some gochujang. Fold it like a taco. Stuff your air hole.
Peek at the Hangul phonetic alphabet chart one more time. Bul (불; /būl/) equals fire. Gogi (고기; /gō-gē/) equals meat. Sounds delicious? You bet.
Quality of meat ranges from prime rib to ready-to-eat heaps on Styrofoam platters.
A budget friendly bulgogi restaurant will serve dishes cooked in the kitchen. A premium eatery will offer a pile of pre-marinated meat and you the title of tabletop chef.
Compared to galbi, bulgogi is straightforward to cook. The marinade regulates the temperature.
Want a spicy drinking companion? Find a /dalk/ (닭; chicken) /gal-bē/ (갈비; grilled meat) joint. Weekend nights, spot flocks of youth migrating to these watering holes, ordering monsoons of beer and soju (소주; /sō-jū/; rice liquor).
Workers set a large pan on a tabletop grill. Inside lie clumps of chicken, tteok (떡; savory rice cake), vegetables, and spicy sauce. You can order cheese for added McTaste.
At some restaurants, workers drop by your table and stir the meat mixture as it cooks. They’ll also cue you when it’s dig-in time.
At other dak-galbi restaurants, you’re the cook.
After you devour the chicken and goodness, order rice (밥; /bap/) and toss it in the pan. It’ll soak up the greasy, saucy remnants. Recycling at its finest.
Want to dive deep into Korean cuisine? Visit a traditional street market (시장; /shē-jang/). Besides selling brand-less merch, you can see, smell, and taste authentic Korea.
Seoul’s Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장), slings still-writhing octopus (산낙지).
Every city in Korea has a traditional market. Just click here. Zoom into your location and check it out!
Dinner for One
Alone? Hate sharing? Want to save a few won (₩)? You have options. Here are some healthy, single serving meals in Korea.
Kimchi Jjigae (김치찌개)
What is kimchi? Take a head of cabbage. Split it. Salt it. Slather spicy red pepper paste between each leaf.
Kimchi jjigae (김치찌개; kimchi soup) is just as flexible.
The basic form? Take soup with a kimchi. Toss in tofu, veggies, sausage, or whatever else your tongue desires.
On the menu of kimchi jjigae restaurants, you’ll spot a Subway-style list of add-ons. Buy some mandu (만두), packaged ramen, pork slices, and more to add to your soup.
While Koreans usually serve kimchi cold, kimchi jjigae is a winter time staple. Warms the belly. Singes the tongue.
Don’t like spice? Order rice. Say /jō-keum māe-ūn/ (조금 매운; “a little spicy”).
Some Koreans drink to socialize. Some drink to network. Many drink because of work mandated group dinners, where the boss dawdles from table to table, bottle of soju in hand, imbibing one-by-one with each underling.
So how do beleaguered office workers cure their hangovers on a blurry Wednesday morning? Haejang-Guk (해장국). It translates to hangover cure (해장; /hāe-jang/) soup (국; /gūk/).
Originating from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), the ancient recipe called for a hearty broth with meat slices, noodles, onions, scallions, and zesty spices that’ll wake the recently dead.
Today’s recipes vary. If you’re in Seoul, expect a thick soup cooked with ox bones and coagulated blood. Near the coast, cooks prepare haejang-guk with noodles, cold broth, squid, and other sea monsters.
Bibimbap (비빔밥; /bē-bēm-bap/) translates to “mixed rice.”’ It’s often served in a sizzling stone bowl. (Don’t touch!)
Once your bibimbap arrives, clinch one chopstick in each fist and mix the bowl until the rice glows a light shade of red.
Not spicy enough? Drop in another pinch of gochujang.
In Korea, bibimbap is a vegetarian’s savior. However, some shops include a meat variant. Others split a raw egg on top: a pre-meal mini game. As you stir, the yolk cooks in the blazing bowl.
Every Asian country and Asian inspired restaurant in the West offers a fried rice dish. Bokkeum-bap (볶음밥; /bōk-eum-bap/) is Korea’s version.
How’s it made? Get a pan. Drop in some rice. Pour sesame oil. Check the fridge. Whatever’s in there, toss it in. Fry it up.
Bokkeum-bap is the do everything tool in Korea. Parents stir up leftovers with it. Dak-galbi (닭갈비) restaurants drop rice into your finished pot to mop up the extra juices.
As a standalone dish, you’ll see bokkeum-bap written with their key ingredient as a prefix.
- Kimchi Bokkeum-bap (김치볶음밥)
- Sae (/sāe/; shrimp) Bokkeum-bap (새볶음밥)
- Beoset (/beo-set/; mushroom) Bokkeum-bap (버섯볶음밥)
Naengmyeon (냉면). Let’s take the word apart. Naeng (냉; /nāeg/) reads as cold. Myeon (면; /myeon/) translates to noodles. “Cold noodles.”
Don’t skip this line item so quickly? It’s not as bad as it sounds.
Your first impression might remind you of your mom’s refrigerated leftovers. But a few icy bowls of hearty buckwheat noodles in the scorching summer will rewrite that memory.
Many bowls of naengmyeon have a hard-boiled egg anchored in the depths of the meaty broth.