South Korea’s food culture is uniquely wonderful.
And it’s all thanks to banchan. While some countries ask you to pay for the bread that’s slyly placed on your table, in Korea you get free food. And lots of it.
Banchan are small side dishes provided with the main dish. Kimchi is guaranteed, but the rest varies. It’s typically an assortment of steamed and marinated vegetables, fish cake, seaweed and sometimes meat.
Banchan are refilled during the meal for free. It’s barely necessary though as Korean mains are huge. I never left a restaurant without feeling absolutely stuffed. No wonder why Koreans adore their food.
But what should you order with the banchan? To ensure you have the same experience as me, I’ve created this guide of the 10 Korean foods you have to try.
The 10 Korean foods you have to try
Kimchi is not something you’ll specifically need to order (it comes as a banchan) but it’s too important to leave off the list. Kimchi’s a fermented vegetable dish made with red chilli and seasonings like brine, garlic, ginger and fish sauce. The main vegetable is usually cabbage, but there’s hundreds of others used.
Kimchi has a strong taste because it’s fermented, salty and very spicy. It’s one of the world’s healthiest foods and is loaded with important vitamins and bacteria. It’s so esteemed by Koreans that the country’s economic growth is partly credited to kimchi. Whatever the truth, the most important thing is that kimchi is delicious.
2. Kimchi jiggae
Possibly my favourite dish, kimchi jiggae is stew made from kimchi, tofu, onions, and pork or seafood. The broth is rich and very spicy and can take time to appreciate. Those expecting tomato soup will be disappointed.
Kimchi jiggae is one of the cheapest dishes, costing around 5,000 won. It’s typically served in one large bowl when eating with friends. Seaweed is a common side dish. Rice and kimchi are placed on the seaweed and then eaten with your hands.
3. Korean barbecue
Korean barbecue comes a very close second to kimchi jiggae. First you pick the meat, usually samgyeopsal, which are thick slices of pork belly.
Next, you personally cook the meat on the element in the table’s centre. Very communal, it’s wonderful sitting in a packed restaurant as the pork sizzles and fried garlic aroma floats through the room.
4. Dak galbi
Dak galbi is stir-fried chicken. Like barbecue, it’s cooked at your table. The chicken is marinated in spicy chilli paste and accompanied by cabbage, onions, and rice cake. At the end of the meal you add rice to the leftovers to create a spicy fried rice and ensure nothing’s wasted.
Bipimbap is mixed rice. White rice, sautéed vegetables, chilli paste, raw egg, and meat is placed in a bowl then stirred together. My favourite restaurant served it with squid so spicy I wanted to cry.
Bipimbap’s secret is its simplicity – you throw the ingredients in a bowl and mix it around. It’s thought to have come from farmers who were working and needed an easy way to cook for many people. Whatever the origin, bipimbap is one of Korea’s great dishes.
6. Jaeyook bokum
Jaeyook bokum is pork loin marinated in chilli paste then stir-fried. Like most Korean dishes, it’s predictably spicy. The pork can be crisp or soft, but is always delicious.
7. Kimchi bokkeumbap and donkkaseu
This is actually two separate dishes, but some restaurants sell them together. Kimchi bokkeumbap is kimchi fried rice, the tastiest version of fried rice in the world. Donkkaseu is fried pork cutlet, a common dish that’s available everywhere. It’s most popular with guys looking for cheap protein.
Jokbal is a decadent dish of pig’s trotters cooked in soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and rice wine. The meat is tender and juicy, dripping in spices. Like most Korean dishes, it’s meant to be shared with at least two people, so the portion is massive. We struggled to finish the plate.
Jjimdak is an Andong specialty. It’s steamed chicken and vegetables marinated in ganjang (Korean soy sauce). Because it’s not cooked in chilli paste, it’s less spicy than the other food on this list. The dish is popular, not just because of its taste, but because there’s so much chicken for a relatively low price.
10. Dwaeji gukbap
Dwaeji gukbap is a humble pork and rice soup, most famous in Busan. The opaque broth’s flavour is plain, yet you’ll see queues out the door to buy it. Condiments of garlic chives, red pepper paste and salted shrimp are served alongside the soup. Tweak the spiciness and saltiness to your liking, throw in some rice, and you have one of Korea’s most satisfying dishes.
How was my guide of the 10 Korean foods you have to try? Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments below.
~The 10 Korean foods you have to try