Food Culture in Korea

Korea has a very rich foodie and street food culture. Food in Korea takes a very important place in Korean culture. When you meet up with people they always ask you, Have you eaten yet? Some say that it comes from the time after the Korean War when Korea was a very poor country and people didn’t have much to eat. Today, Korea’s food culture has developed to a degree where is has become very famous worldwide.

Korean cuisine is mainly rice, a main dish and 반찬 banchan, which are 4 to 5 small dish with small portions of vegetables with sauces. But not the normal vegetables we westerners are used to like carrots, asparagus, peas, broccoli, celery, eggplant, etc but all kinds of leaves and roots accompanied with some spicy sauce. The first time I saw this at the University’s cafeteria I though they were just picking up grass from the garden.

Kimchi 김치 can be considered one of the most representative dishes of Korea. They always have to have Kimchi on the table and all restaurants offer it. Sometimes accompanied with 단무지 Danmuji (yellow pickled radish) and 육수 Yook su (beef broth soup) as well. All these banchan and drinking water are offered and refilled for free in all restaurants. Kimchi is made of salted, fermented cabbage with spicy sauce. And it is said that there are more than 180 varieties of Kimchi in Korea.

The most common known Korean dishes are 돌솥 비빔밥 Dolsot Bibimbap (rice mixed with vegetables and red chili paste on a hot stone bowl) , 불고기 Bulgogi (kind of a beef stew) and 냉면 Nengmyeon (cold noodles). A very popular place to eat these is 육쌈냉면 Yookssam Naengmyeon. Apart from the main this you can also get beef on the side set for 6,000 won.

Then there is also 갈비탕 galbitang (short rib soup) or 갈비찜 galbijjim (short rib stew). I love this restaurant called 장항선본가 where you can get a lot of side dishes and they give u a good amount of meat.

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At 북창동순두부 BukChangDong Soondubu you can find different kinds of Traditional Tofu stews 순두부 찌개 Soondubu Jiggae. I also like this place because they offer good side dishes, they even give a fried fish as a side dish. A good tip to knowing if a restaurant is good or not is by the amount and quality of side dishes they offer.

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산낙지 Sannakji is raw live octopus served with garlic, peppers, sesame oil and sesame seeds. If you do venture to try this one, the best place to go is to the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul. There are several restaurants offering seafood dishes and sannakji around the market. You wont find any other restaurant that serves as fresh as these ones. When we ordered this dish the waiter went out next door to the market and brought a live moving octopus.

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There were many Muslims students from Malaysia coming for exchange programs at my University and especially for them it was difficult to find food that they could eat. I haven’t met vegetarians in Korea but Korea is not really an easy destination for vegetarians as well. Many sauces and dishes have either cow or pork broth in it. In Korean food culture in general pork is consumed a lot. Specially for gatherings (at school or work) where people usually eat 삼겹살 Samgyeopsal. These are very fatty slices of pork belly meat cooked on a grill at the table which usually comes with a lot of heavy drinking of 소주 Soju. Soju can be considered the cheapest alcohol there is in the world. A bottle of Soju can cost $1 at the supermarket. If you order it in a restaurant it can cost from $3 to $4. Soju is widely consumed in Korea as a shot or sometimes mixed with beer.

Another popular pork dish is 보쌈 Bossam which is boiled pork belly. It is usually eaten wrapped in lettuce with 쌈장 Ssamjang paste, 새우젓 Saeujeot (pickled fermented shrimp), garlic, green chili pepper or Kimchi.

If you notice in the pictures there are not really individual plates. Usually restaurants offer a big dish for 2 or 4 people to share. This might be unfamiliar for western people and even considered unsanitary but its part of Korean culture to share all as a family. Don’t even get my started about birthday cakes. They give out spoons and people just scoop piece by piece until the whole thing is gone.

막걸리 Makgeolli is another type of alcohol but more on the traditional side. It’s made of fermented rice or corn and it’s sweater and softer than Soju. It is usually consumed along with 파전 Pajeon which is a Korean fried pancake made of eggs, flour and green onions. 안주 Anju is what Korean people call side dishes that are consumed while drinking. You know when you go to a bar and they give you salted nuts. Well I once went to a bar in Korea and they gave me 김 Kim (dried seaweed) with soy sauce!!! These are usually eaten with rice but they can also be eaten alone as a snack.

Another common combination is fried chicken and beer = 치맥 Chimek. Which literally means chicken and beer. Fried chicken is consumed in a completely different level in Korea. Korean people just love fried chicken and it is actually very delicious and addictive.

Which comes to the next subject of 야식 Yasik which is a late-night dinner around midnight. Specially it is very popular among university students when they study until late at night and get hungry. We always had fliers stuck to our doors for all kinds of ordering food. But fried chicken was definetely the most popular one. When you order chicken, you order one chicken. Like literally it is one whole chicken.They chop all parts of the chicken, like the neck and the tail. Some Korean students during exam time when they get very stressed they like to eat 불닭 Buldak which means fire chicken. This is one of the most spiciest Korean dishes that there are. Fried chicken is also served with pickled white radish because of its vinegrary taste helps with the digestion. You can also order your chicken with or without bones.

Pizza is also very common to order but I personally didn’t really like Korean Pizza. There were some pizzas that were just an overload of topping and weird ones like mustard and sweet potato.

Chinese-Korean Food is also very popular to have it delivered. 짜장면 Jjajangmyeon is noddles in a salty black soybean paste, 탕수육 Tangsuyuk is deep fried pork in a sweet and sour sauce and 짬뽕 Jjamppong is spicy seafood noodle soup. Another Chinese food that is also popular as street food is 양꼬치 Yangkochi which is BBQ spicy lamb bites on a stick.

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And of course it couldn’t be missed the classical 라면 ramyeon. My favorite one is Black Shin Ramyeon. Most people add egg and a slice of cheese on top to make it more flavorful.

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A recent trend that has become very popular is Mokbang Shows which are food broadcasting shows. A person, the BJ (broadcasting jockeys), broadcasts from their home and eat a large amount of food. Usually Yasik for the amount of 4 people and talks on a live chat. Viewers comment on the food or ask about the food the BJ is eating. People watching can also send money through the chat. It is though that it might have to do with Korean people not wanting to eat alone or just how amazing it is that a skinny girl can eat fried chicken for the amount for 4 people. But the BJs have been known to make lots of money out of this eating program.

Coffee shops

One thing i really loved when I lived in Korea was the cute themed coffee shops. There is a very strong coffee shop culture in Korea. People just go there to hang out, study for hours, read and hang out. Some have very comfortable sofas and blankets if you get cold. There are also Dog and cat coffee shop where you can have a cup of coffee or tea while playing with them. You can find coffee shops in every corner. The popular brands are Angel-in-us, Starbucks, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Dunkin’ Donuts, Caffe Bene, A Twosome Place, Hollys Coffee, Tous les Jours, Paris Baguette, etc. Starbucks in Korea offers Green Tea Latte,  seasonal Strawberry festival drinks and pastries between March and April and Sakura Lattes in March.

If you are more into strong coffees then you probably won’t like Korean Coffees. Korean Coffees are watered down, like their favorite Americano Coffee. And also relatively sweet with a lot of whipped cream and syrups. Bubble teas have also become very popular. Bread is not really like western hard grain bread. Bread is very soft and sweet. I really like the donuts made of rice flour, they are very chewy and delicious. They also like a lot of cheese bread or bread stuffed with red bean paste. Butter is also not salty in Korea. They really like sweet stuff. They even poured honey in my cheese and ham toast. Another thing that also shocked me was how they use Sweet potato. They have Sweet Potato Lattes and Sweet Potato cakes. Not to mention they eat tomato as a fruit. Its very common to see cherry tomatoes used as topping for fruit cakes along with kiwi, grapes and strawberries.

A popular summer dessert is 팥빙수 Patbingsu. A traditional Patbingsu is shaved ice with condense milk topped with Azuki red beans, Tteok 떡 (rice cake) and Misugaru 미숫가루 (grain powder). 설빙 Sulbing is one of my favorite places to go eat Patbingsu because they use frozen shaved milk instead of shaved ice which gives the bingsu even more flavor.

Street Food

Koreans love Fast Food and Street Food since its very convenient when they are on the go. Koreans have a very busy lifstyle and they like things to go fast. As many call it the 빨리빨리 Pali Pali Culture. When you go to traditional markets like 광장시장 Gwangjang Market or busy streets  you will find carts selling all kinds of Korean snacks. The most common ones are 떡볶이 Tteokbokki, 순대 Sundae and 튀김 Twikim which is deep fried shrimp, egg, vegetables, etc. There are also some options on a stick like 오뎅 Odeng닭꼬치 Dakkochi and Squid Lollipops. 뻥튀기 Ppeongtwigi, 붕어빵 Pungopang, 호떡 Hotteok and 뽑기 Ppopki are also some of the sweets you can find on the streets.

In some American Fast Food chains you can also find Koreanized items like BBQ Bulgogi Burger and several kinds of nuggets, chicken wings and tenders at Mc Donalds. As well as Green tea lattes, Tomato juice and seasonal McBingsu. The Korean version of McDonalds is Lotteria where you can find cheaper burgers. It’s also open 24/7.

Many things in Korea are open 24/7. Korea is also considered the city that never sleeps. There is a very active night life and that’s why you can always find street food to snack on or just go to a convenience store. People usually go there to get Kimbap and Ramyeon. There is also other things like sandwiches, sausage on a stick, microwave rice and curry, etc. The thing is Korea is that you will never find yourself hungry when there is a coffee shop, a fried chicken place or a convenience store in every corner. Safe Travels.

Yookssam Naengmyeon



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