Where can you get the freshest meal in Korea? Simple answer. Korean restaurants.
Western-style restaurants serve familiar dishes like burgers with cheese. But Korea’s limited farmland makes scarce cow and pig bits. Owners often substitute sub par ingredients to save a few won.
If you want organic and locally sourced, search for traditional Korean spots. Here, these dishes exist in their purest form.
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? You see rows of Hangul priced anywhere from ₩6,000 to ₩50,000.
₩50,000 for lunch? Don’t worry. We’ll explain.
Let’s Break It Down
Before you even step foot into a restaurant, glance at the sign above the door. Most Korea-style restaurants serve one type of dish. No thick Russian novel menus.
Restaurants spell out their specialty in their name. A noodle restaurant serves noodles. Not soup. Not fried chicken. Not ice cream.
If you gain a familiarity with Hangul, the Korea writing system, you can decode any restaurant sign. Here’s a breakdown.
- 찌개 (jjigae) — thick stew
- 국 (guk) — thin soup
- 밥 (bap) — rice
- 면 (myeon) — noodles
- 닭 고기 (dalg gogi) — chicken
- 소 고기 (sow gogi) — beef
- 돼지 고기 (dalg gogi) — pork
Let’s take apart an easy one: 김치찌개.
Look hard? Well, check out the last two characters: 찌개 (jjigae). Oh, soup!
So, ‘blah blah’ soup. Wait! Use the phonetic alphabet chart to sound out the first bit: 김치.
김 = kim. 치 = chi.
Oh. Kimchi soup!
Not all signs are this easy. But now you have the super-secret enigma machine.
Sharing Is Caring
Now that you’re getting more comfortable dining, let’s throw a wrench in the gears.
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 deep into the night.
Some restaurants bank on these types of communal meals.
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). It’ll feed two, three, or more. Not one person.
As a bonus, restaurants throw in bottomless side dishes (banchan; 반찬).
Those little plates of goodies that come with traditional Korean meals are call banchan (반찬), or side dishes. The quantity and types of banchan depend on the restaurant and region. Here are some famous examples:
If you find yourself in a group of two, three or more, and don’t mind spending a little extra, try these traditional restaurants.
Galbi & Samgyeopsal
Galbi (갈비) and samgyeopsal (삼겹살) are meat dishes cooked and served from grills in the center of your table. This is what western countries call Korean barbecue.
Samgyeopsal is pork belly. It comes in long strips. As you cook, you cut the strips into thumb sized bits.
Galbi is pork or beef ribs. The butcher includes the bone in their cut. So, you’ll often find an oval calcium bit in each meat strip.
If you want galbi or samgyeopsal, finding a restaurant couldn’t be easier. Stroll around any weekend hotspot and peak through the windows. If you see aluminum tubes draped from the ceiling, you’re in the right spot.
Once you’re seated, workers will chuck side dishes on your table. 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.
(Looking like an ignorant foreigner has advantages. Workers will come by to lend a hand.)
As the samgyeopsal cooks, arrange the meat around the center of the grill. The hottest part.
Next, cut the strips into half-finger lengths. Once they turn golden brown, push pieces to the edge of the grill.
Be on your toes when cooking galbi. The marinade masks the color of the meat. If you get lost in conversation, it’ll burn fast.
Don’t worry. Workers often come by to change grill grates. If you’re unsure if the meat’s ready, ask, ‘mogo (먹어; eat)?’
So, the meat’s ready. You can grab a piece of finished meat, dip it in the red gochujang (고추장) paste, and eat as is.
But if you want to be authentic, make ssam (쌈), a kind of lettuce taco.
Take a leaf of lettuce (상추, sangchu) or sesame (깻잎; ggaet–eep) from the basket on your table. Place it flat in your palm. Throw some meat, rice, and kimchi on it. Dab some gochujang, fold it like a taco, and stuff your pie hole.
Peek at the Hangul phonetic alphabet chart one more time. Bul (불) equals fire. Gogi (고기) equals meat. Sounds delicious? You bet.
Bulgogi (불고기) comes in many forms and recipes. Expect thin strips of beef or pork (sometimes chicken) marinated in soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, and more. Onions and carrots add a dash of sweetness.
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 give a pile of pre-marinated meat and the title of chef.
Compared to galbi, bulgogi is a pinch to cook. The watery marinate regulates the temperature. And, if you’re not sure, workers often come by to tell you soups up!
Want a spicy drinking companion? Find a dak (닭; chicken) galbi (갈비; grilled meat) joint. Weekend nights, you’ll spot flocks of youth migrating to these watering holes, ordering monsoons of beer and soju (소주; rice liquor).
Workers set a large pan on a grill in the center of the table. In the pan, you’ll spot 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 chow time.
At other dak-galbi restaurants, you’re the cook.
After you devour the chicken and goodness, order rice (bap; 밥) and toss it in the pan. It’ll soak up the greasy, saucy remnants. The best way to recycle.
Dive deep into Korean cuisine. Visit a traditional street market (시장). Besides selling brand-less merch, you can see, smell, and taste authentic Korea.
Seoul’s Dongdaemun Market (동대문시장), slings still-writhing octopus (산낙지). In Busan’s Jagalchi Market (자갈치시장), pick a fish and an ajumma (아줌마) will chop it up and serve you hoe (회; raw fish) at your table upstairs.
Every city in Korea has a market. Just click here. Zoom into your location and check it out!
Dinner For One
If you’re alone, hate sharing, or want to save a few won, you have options. We present healthy, single serving meals in Korea.
Kimchi Jjigae (김치찌개)
What is kimchi? Koreans make the most common type by slathering spicy red pepper sauce between leaves of fermented cabbage. There are many iterations, though. Radish kimchi. White kimchi. Green onion kimchi.
Kimchi jjigae (김치찌개; kimchi soup) is just as flexible.
How’s it made? Start with a soup base. Throw in kimchi, hot pepper sauce, tofu, and 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 toss into your soup.
Don’t be scared! While Koreans serve kimchi cold, kimchi jjigae warms the belly. If you don’t like spice, order rice. The mix of hearty grain and tang will warm your limbs on a winter’s night.
For some, drinking is a way to socialize, relieve stress, and network. So, what’s the best cure for a Wednesday morning hangover after a mandatory company outing? Haejang-Guk (해장국).
The name is a literal translation. Haejang (해장): hangover cure. Guk (국): soup.
The soup originated during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). The recipe called for a hearty broth with slices of meat, noodles, onions, and scallions. Cooks added zesty spices to wake the recently dead.
Today, recipes vary. If you’re in Seoul, expect a thick soup cooked with ox bones and coagulated blood. Near the coast, some cooks prepare haejang-guk with noodles, cold broth, squid, and other sea monsters.
Bibimbap translates to ‘mixed rice.’ It’s often served in a sizzling stone bowl. (Don’t touch!)
Once your dish arrives, mix everything until there’s got a light shade of red. Add more gochujang if you like spice.
In Korea, bibimbap is a vegetarian’s savior. However, you can find meaty bibimbap variants.
Some restaurants split a raw egg on top. Think of it as a mini-game. Stir and the yolk will cook in the blazing bowl.
Every Asian country and Asian inspired restaurant in the west has a fried rice dish. Bokkeum-bap (볶음밥) is Korea’s version.
How’s it made? Easy. Get a pan. Drop in some rice. Pour sesame oil. Check the fridge. Whatever’s in there, toss it in and 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 (김치), sae (새; shrimp), and beoset (버섯; mushroom) bokkeum-bap are common examples.
Naengmyeon (냉면). Let’s take the word apart. Naeng (냉) reads as cold. Myeon (면) translates to noodles. So, cold noodles.
Still there? It’s not as bad as it sounds.
Your first impression might remind you of mom refrigerated leftovers. But, I’ll bet a few icy bowls of buckwheat noodles in the scorching summer will override that memory.
Many bowls of naengmyeon have a hard-boiled egg anchored in the depths of the meaty broth.