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Quick & Foreign Food

How to chow down on quick Korean dishes and more.

Think America is the inventor getting a quick bite at low cost? Think again. Korea, China, and Japan created their own fast food or takeout options.

You’ll often stumble upon a McDonald’s or Burger King. But, don’t settle. Quicker and healthier options abound. We’ll tell you where to find them.

Quick Korean

The Korean diet has lots of healthy dishes. Plenty of vegetables, grains, and seafood. There are also quick (sometimes unhealthy) options.

Here are some fast meals to fill your growling gut.

Gimbap (김밥)

You’re forgiven if you mistake gimbap (김밥) for a California sushi roll. But you won’t find raw fish inside.

Let’s play the translation game! Gim (김) is a compacted and dried seaweed. Bap (밥) means rice. Easy! Seaweed rice!

Why is gimbap so popular in Korea? Flexibility and portability.

Need an extra banchan (side dish)? Gimbap fits the need. Going on a picnic? Buy a few rolls and split them with your friends in the park. Need a quick bite on your lunch break? Swing by a convenience store and buy a roll or triangle.

A few rolls of gimbap (김밥), a traditional Korean meal, sit on a plate.
Gimbap offers a healthy meal or snack on the go. Find rice, veges, and sometimes meat in a roll of rice and dried seaweed.

Chains like Bapuri fill a full page with assortments of gimbap. Tuna. Double cheese. Kimchi. Donkatsu.

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Tteokbokki (떡볶이)

A picture of tteokboki simmering at a traditional market. Sticks of fish cake (eomuk; 어묵국) boil one pan over.
Tteokboki,(떡볶이), Korean rice cake in spicy sauce, simmerers at a traditional market. Sticks of fish cake (eomuk; 어묵국) boil one pan over.

Visit any traditional Korean market (시장). You’ll spot pans of bubbling pepper paste. Say hello tteokbokki (떡볶이), a Korean snack stalwart.

Tteokbokki (떡볶이) is simple. Slivers of fishcake (어묵; eomuk) and cylindrical rice cake noodles (떡; tteok) rolling around in spicy, red pepper sauce.

Every shop varies the spiciness of their tteokbokki. But we’re warning you. The average spice level borders on “water, please.”

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Mandu (만두)

Mandu (만두) is Korea’s answer to the Chinese dumplings. Korean’s make mandu by folding a thin dough sack around clumps of vegetables and/or meat.

Where are the mandu shops? Easy. Go to a market. Search for hissing towers of stacked pans. On the bottom of the pans, holes let steam rise and bake the pouches of mandu goodness.

A picture of mandu (만두) at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea.
You'll find many varieties of mandu (만두) at traditional markets, including fried, kimchi, and steamed.

Pork and veggies fill gogi mandu (고기만두). Want a hint of spice? Try kimchi mandu. You can also find boiled (물만두) and fried (군만두) mandu.

If you dine in, check out the condiments. Take a palm-sized bowl. Mix some black soy sauce with the clear vinegar. Sprinkle a pinch of red pepper power. Dunk your mandu and enjoy.

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Korean Snack Shops

All around Korea, you’ll find Korean snack shops (분식집; bun-shik-jib). They might sling an assortment of quick food, like tteokbokki, gimbap, and more.

Sundae (순대) is tteokbokki‘s bedfellow. Chefs prepare the blood sausage by stuffing pig intestines with vegetables and rice cake. The black color makes it easy to spot.

Also, check out eomuk guk (어묵국), or fish cake soup. Next to the roiling tteokbokki, you’ll often see a deep pan with steaming broth and wooden skewers jutting out. For a few thousand won, you’ll get a cup of broth and a few sticks of wavey, savory fish cakes.

Quick Chinese

Korea has an extensive history of adapting Chinese culture. Before Korea had its own written language, they used Chinese characters. Korea’s Chuseok and Seollal holidays trace their roots back to Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival.

Same goes for their cuisine. Like love motels, you can discover countless Chinese restaurants (중화요리) in all corners of Korea. Inside, they serve up the holy trinity of dishes:

Jajangmyeon (자장면)

Jajang (자장) is a black fried bean sauce. It often arrives with veggies, scallops, and pork slices.

Korean’s sometimes pour it over rice (밥) and tteok (떡; rice cake). However, the most common pairing for jajang are noodles (면; myeon), or jajangmyeon.

A picture of a bowl of jajangmyeon.
A bowl of jajangmyeon (black noodles), paired with fried mandu, kimchi, and radish.

Also known as black noodles, both Koreans and foreigners lust over these simple, savory steaming bowls. It’s one of the most ordered takeout items on the peninsula.

Before you dig into a bowl, grab a chopstick with each hand. (Think murderous granny with knitting needles.) Jab your sticks into the heart of the noodles. Mix until the noodles gain a black tint. Stuff your face.

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Jjamppong (짬뽕)

Like seafood? Try jjamppong (짬뽕). Inside each bowl floats noodles, black clam shells, squid rings, and other 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea characters.

Unlike jajangmyeong, jjamppong brings the spice. You can guess the spice level by peeking at the red broth.

If you don’t employ a scorched tongue police, you can say:

Where can I put my empty clamshells? See that metal bucket on the table. Drop them in there.

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Tangsuyuk (탕수육)

Like sweet and sour pork? Tangsuyuk (탕수육) will hit the spot, with piles of fried pork drizzled in a tangy sauce.

In Korea, some restaurants take pride in brewing their own tangsuyuk sauce. Some taste tangier; some sweeter. Other restaurants drop lemon slices in for a sour punch.

A few restaurants deliver the dish in two parts. Fried pork on a plate. Sauce in a bowl. You have two options. Pour the sauce over. (Yes.) Dunk the pork bits in? (Dirty, dirty.)

An order of tangsuyuk comes in large, larger, and extended-family feast. This makes the prices and portions a little much for one person.

Here’s a time-tested  strategy among friends. Order a bowl of jajangmyeon or jjampong for each person. Split the plate of tangsuyuk between everyone.

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Quick Japanese

Japan maintains a troubled reputation In Korea. But, between imperial occupations and wars, the neighbors traded ideas, traditions, and recipes.

Here are a few favorites that dug deep into the restaurant scene. If there isn’t a boycott, they provide tasty, affordable meals.

Ramen (라멘)

A picture of a bowl of ramen in a Korean restaurant.
A bowl of ramen with thick noodles, savory broth, and hard-boiled egg.

What’s Japan’s most famous export? Cars? Cameras? Knives? How about ramen (라멘)? 

Countless packages of the stuff stock convenience store shelves. Food trucks parked on bike paths sling bowls it. But, If you want an authentic experience, hit up a ramen restaurant.

This ain’t your daddy’s ramen. A pile of noodles rise above a thick broth. Pork slices and a hard-boiled egg bump up the protein levels. Sprinkled green onions hint at a balanced meal.

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Donkatsu (돈까스)

Jajang (자장) is a black fried bean sauce. It often arrives with veggies, scallops, and pork slices.

Korean’s sometimes pour it over rice (밥) and tteok (떡; rice cake). However, the most common pairing for jajang are noodles (면; myeon), or jajangmyeon.

A picture of donkatsu (돈까스), fish cake soup (어묵), and side dishes in a Korean restaurant.
At your average food court, you'll find a range of Korean and foreign food, including A picture of donkatsu (돈까스) and fish cake soup (eomuk; 어묵)

Meat lover? Try donkatsu (돈까스).

Imagine a slab of breaded and fried pork. Overtop drizzle some Worcestershire. Add a bowl of miso soup and sliced cabbage with Thousand Island. There’s your meal.

Many restaurants practice the art of one-upmanship. Who can serve up the largest slab of donkatsu? A general rule: quality diminishes as the meat slab approaches face-size.

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Sushi (스시)

A plate of sushi in a Korean restaurant.
A ten piece plate of assorted sushi, including tuna, flatfish, octopus, and more.

Sushi (스시) started in Japan. It sure as heck didn’t end there. Every gentrified neighborhood around the world claims a premium eatery.

Sushi isn’t ‘fast casual.’ However, it’s found a spot in Korea’s dating scene. So, there are plenty of affordable restaurants.

For a little over ₩20,000, you can order a set. You’ll get twenty pieces of assorted sushi (ten per plate) and a bowl of jjamppong or udon (우동).

Common pieces of sushi include tuna, shrimp, flatfish, and octopus. Trade with your friends.

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