Korean cuisine: a spicy adventure

Everybody knows that eating great food is the most interesting part of a trip. Okay, that’s a joke, but local food really is a great source of new impressions. We spent three weeks in South Korea, and we will remember Korean cuisine forever: the feeling that you’re on another planet only gets stronger when you try Korean food.

Kimchi

Andrei was familiar with Korean food before our trip. When he was in school, he often visited his parents’ friends who are Korean. There he ate a lot of homemade kimchi with rice, and Natasha heard a lot of stories about these wonderful days. So we were ready for at least one important part of Korean cuisine — kimchi. Kimchi is fermented vegetables with spicy seasoning. Kimchi made from napa cabbage (a type of Chinese cabbage) is the most popular kind.

Kimchi
Kimchi

There are many kinds of kimchi at local markets: fermented and spicy seaweed, beans, green onions. We liked napa cabbage kimchi the most. By the way, in Russia there is a popular dish called Korean carrot — sliced carrots with spices. We knew that this dish has nothing to do with Korea, and Aran, a Korean girl from Andon that we became friends with, confirmed our knowledge: kimchi is made from all kinds of vegetables, but for some reason not from carrots.

Market in Sokcho, South Korea

Seaweed at Sokcho market, South Korea
Seaweed
Green onion kimchi at Sokcho market, South Korea
Green onion kimchi
Cabbage kimchi at Sokcho market, South Korea
Cabbage kimchi
Napa cabbage kimchi at Sokcho market, South korea
Napa cabbage kimchi
Sokcho market
Sokcho market

Korean salting at Sokcho market, South Korea

Bibimbap

There are several super-popular traditional Korean dishes, and bibimbap is one of them. Bibimbap consists of rice topped with raw or fried egg, different vegetables (cucumber, soya sprouts, zucchini, salad, carrots), meat (not always). The bowl is often made from stone and is served hot so that rice got a little fried. When the dish is served, you have to mix all the ingredients together with spicy soy bean paste.

This is how bibimbap was served in a small restaurant in Seoul.

Bibimbap in Gangnam neighbourgood in Seoul
Bibimbap in Seoul

All Korean dishes are served with 5 to 10 small side dishes, one of them always being kimchi. We think that Koreans like to mix sweet, sour and spicy, warm and cold, soft and firm food. For example, bibimbap in a small joint in Incheon is served with kimchi, dried fish, seaweed, soup and a dish that we called “boiled omelette”: an egg is added to boiling chicken broth, and you get something like a soup with an omelette.

"Boiled omelette", bibimbaps and side dishes in Incheon
“Boiled omelette”, bibimbaps and side dishes in Incheon
Bibimbap in Incheon
Bibimbap in Incheon

We tried our best bibimbap in Yeosu, a small city on the southern shore of South Korea, where people looked at us like we were aliens. Bibimbap in a small restaurant was served without meat, and the rice was a little pink. We were very hungry, so we took a photo of bibimbap only when we already mixed the ingredients.

Bibimbap in Yeosu
Bibimbap in Yeosu

This is a bibimbap in Andong with various side dishes, including marinated radish.

Bibimbap and side dishes (soup, marinated radish, kimchi, something spicy, rice and pepper paste) in Andong
Bibimbap and side dishes (soup, marinated radish, kimchi, something spicy, rice and pepper paste) in Andong

Bibimpap is usually tasty, you always know what you’re getting, and it’s quite cheap by Korean standards — around 6 dollars for one portion.

Yeosu traditional dish with raw fish

Every city in Korea is famous by some local dish, and it often resembles bibimbap — some ingredients are mixed with rice. In Yeosu everyone recommends trying local dish with raw fish, sliced carrots and salad with very spicy sauce, that you need to mix in a bowl with rice and dried seaweed.

Traditional raw fish dish in Yeosu (carrot, cabbage, raw fish, green onion and extremely spicy sauce)
Traditional raw fish dish in Yeosu (carrot, cabbage, raw fish, green onion and extremely spicy sauce)
Rice with seaweed that is mixed with the raw fish
Rice with seaweed that is mixed with the raw fish

There are many side dishes, as usual: beans in sweet sauce, kimchi, raddish, salted dried fish, seaweed and tofu.

Pickled beans
Pickled beans
Kimchi
Kimchi
Marinated radish
Marinated radish
Dried salted fish
Dried salted fish
Strange seaweed
Strange seaweed
Spinach, probably — taste is a little sour
Spinach, probably — taste is a little sour
Some kind of tofu
Some kind of tofu

Honestly, we didn’t like this dish very much. But we will surely remember it for a long time, because it was extremely spicy! We also ordered a soup with eel, and it didn’t make the situation much better as it was very spicy too. Not even Indian food can be compared to how spicy this dishes were. Overall, we can’t say that we enjoyed this food very much, but we took it as a kind of a challenge that we had to go through to get some interesting memories.

Soup with eel in Yeosu
Soup with eel in Yeosu

Korean restaurants often have two parts: one with usual tables and chairs, one with low tables, where people sit on the floor.

It was very, very spicy
It was very, very spicy

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Dish with squid is Gwangju

In Gwangju, a city in the south-western part of Korea, there is another popular local dish: boiled squid with onion and vegetables that is mixed with rice.

Boiled squid with onion and vegetables in Gwangju
Boiled squid with onion and vegetables in Gwangju

Side dishes include soya sprouts in water, peanuts, mushrooms, eggplant, some kind of salted crabs, salad, spicy sauce and kimchi.

Dish with boiled squid in Gwangju

Soya sprouts in Gwangju
Soya sprouts
Peanuts
Peanuts
Mushroom salad
Mushroom salad
Marinated eggplants
Marinated eggplants
Crab meat
Crab meat

The overall taste of the dish seemed a little dull to us, and the texture was unusual because of the boiled squid.

Korean barbecue

Barbecue is very popular in Korea. We both didn’t eat meat for a while before we started travelling, but we decided to eat meat during our trip. Vegetarians are going to have a tough time in Korea: almost every dish includes some kind of meat or fish.

The best barbecue that we tried was in Gueongju — a famous city in the south-eastern part of the country that used to be a capital of the Silla kingdom.

We found the place with great barbecue by accident. We asked the owner of our hostel to give us directions to get to a restaurant marked on our map. Turned out, it was closed. But the hostel owner brought us to another place that he highly recommended. We came to a small restaurant that truly didn’t look like a safe place to eat. We felt that it would be rude to leave, so we stayed — and we made the right choice. The food turned out to be excellent, and the lady owner of the place was very nice. We came to the place twice and remembered it as one of the best that we’ve been to in Korea.

Restaurant in Gueongju

Restaurant in Gueongju

Restaurant owner in Gueongju

There are special tables with grills in the middle in the restaurants that specialize in Korean barbecue. When you order the barbecue, you get slices of raw meat that you cook and the grill and many side dishes, as usual.

Barbecue table in Gueongju
Barbecue table in Gueongju
Barbecue in Gueongju
Barbecue in Gueongju
Pork and beef for barbecue in Gueongju
Pork and beef for barbecue
Barbecue in Gueongju
Meat and slices of potato

The side dishes in this place in Gueongju were pretty simple: onion in marinade, fresh garlic (we ate all of it), salad with green onions (perfect!), kimchi, salad leaves and the “boiled omelette” soup that we already told about. You can put all the ingredients on the salad leaves and eat theml together.

Marinated onions, garlic and pickled cabbage as side dishes to barbecue in Gueongju
Marinated onions, garlic and pickled cabbage
Onion salad as a side dish to barbecue in Gueongju
Onion salad
"Boiled omelette" soup as a side dish to barbecue in Gueongju
“Boiled omelette”

After we’ve already eaten the barbecue, the owner of the restaurant brought us two bowls of rice and a pot of the tastiest spicy soup with tofu and mushrooms. No one leaves this place hungry.

Spicy soup with tofu, mushrooms and onion in Gueongju
Spicy soup with tofu, mushrooms and onion

So if you want to find a place with great food, you should look for the one that looks weird, has tiled floors and walls, metal chairs and tables and white flickering light. It’s also promising if there’s no menu. Our experience shows that the best food comes from places like this, and this rule doesn’t only work in Korea, it’s universal.

On the next day the same owner of the hostel recommended us another barbecue place. We waited for about an hour to get in, but it turned out to be not so great, although everything looks impressive. In the middle is the dish with duck and vegetables. Among the side dishes, except the usual ones, are omelettes, salted fish, mashed potatoes.

Duck with vegetables and various side dishes in Gueongju
Duck with vegetables and various side dishes in Gueongju
Duck with vegetables in Gueongju
Duck with vegetables
Duck with vegetables in Gueongju
Duck with vegetables
Mashed potatoes, salted fish, tofu soup, funchoza in Gueongju
Mashed potatoes, salted fish, tofu soup, funchoza
Some kind of paste, marinated leaves (they are often served with barbecue) and translucent noodles in Gueongju
Some kind of paste, marinated leaves (they are often served with barbecue) and translucent noodles
Mashed potatoes in Gueongju
Mashed potatoes
Funchoza in Gueongju
Funchoza
Salted fish in Gueongju
Salted fish

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We also had great barbecue in Yeosu. Actually, we ordered a bibimbap there and a barbecue for one, but the owner made us two bibimbaps and a barbecue for two by mistake. But everything was very tasty, so we didn’t complain.

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Barbecue in Yeosu: pork, onion, mushrooms
Barbecue in Yeosu: pork, onion, mushrooms

Barbecue in Yeosu: pork and mushrooms

We grilled mushrooms and onion with the meat.

Barbecue in Yeosu: pork, onion, mushrooms

The side dishes: dried salted fish, green pepper, seaweed, beans in sweet sauce, sweet dried squid, soya sprouts and soya paste as a sauce for meat.

Barbecue side dishes in Yeosu
Barbecue side dishes in Yeosu
Dried salted fish in Yeosu
Dried salted fish
Kimchi in Yeosu
Kimchi
Pickled beans in Yeosu
Pickled beans
Soy paste for barbecue in Yeosu
Soy paste for barbecue
Spinach as a side dish for barbecue in Yeosu
Spinach
Spicy pepper as a side dish for barbecue in Yeosu
Spicy pepper
Dried sweet squid as a side dish for barbecue in Yeosu
Dried sweet squid
Soy sprouts as a side dish for barbecue in Yeosu
Soy sprouts

These mushrooms turned out to be especially tasty when grilled.

Mushrooms for grilling in Yeosu
Mushrooms for grilling
Mushrooms on a grill in Yeosu
Mushrooms on a grill

We weren’t very lucky with barbecue in Busan, a big city in the south of Korea. We were expecting more from barbecue after our experience at Gueongju — the meal seemed unfinished without the tofu soup! In every place that we tried the barbecue the side dishes were a little different.

Beef barbecue in Busan
Beef barbecue in Busan
Beef for barbecue in Busan
Beef for barbecue
Marinated beef for barbecue in Busan
Marinated beef for barbecue
Salad leaves
You can wrap the ingredients in salad leaves
Marinated leaves as a side dish for barbecue in Busan
Marinated leaves
Kimchi
Kimchi
Spicy paste
Spicy paste
Spicy marinated pepper
Spicy marinated pepper

Salad as a side dish for barbecue in Busan

Salad with spicy pepper as a side dish for barbecue in Busan
Salad with spicy pepper

Another example of a Korean meat dish is something we tried in Seoul. It is pork with a lot of fat that is served with side dishes and noodles that you have to cook in the broth. We didn’t like the meat very much — too much fat for our taste.

Side dishes for pork in Seoul
Side dishes for pork in Seoul
Pork in Seoul, Hongdae neighborhood
Pork

Restaurant in Hongdae neighborhood in Seoul

Dumplings and gimbaps

Dumplings are pretty popular in Korea — small pieces of thin dough with different fillings, boiled, steamed or fried. We tried dumplings in two small places in Seoul, and they were quite tasty. But you have to be prepared that even if you order dumblings with vegetables, there can be meat and shrimp in the filling too.

In the first place in Seoul we tried fried dumplings.

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Steamed dumplings with shrimps and meat
Steamed dumplings with shrimps and meat

Steamed dumplings with shrimps and meat

Fried dumplings with vegetables
Fried dumplings with vegetables
Fried dumplings with shrimp and meat
Fried dumplings with shrimp and meat

The second time we tried steamed dumplings in Seoul’s neighbourhood Gangnam (by the way, we wrote a post about Gangnam). Andrei liked the fried dumplings more.

Steamed dumplings
Steamed dumplings

Restaurant in Gangnam, Seoul

In the same restaurant you could buy gimbaps — Korean rolls with fillings of ham, fish, vegetables, omelette.

Gimbap preparation

Gimbap preparation in Seoul

Street food

Korea is a country of street food. In every city there are hundreds of carts with street food like skewers, sausages, deep fried vegetables, shrimps and so on.

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea

Bread with eggs in Hongdae, Seoul
Bread with eggs in Hongdae, Seoul
Shrimps in batter and stuffed squids
Shrimps in batter and stuffed squids
Shrimps in batter
Shrimps in batter

Shrimps in batter

Omelettes at Sokcho market
Omelettes at Sokcho market
Donuts in Andong
Donuts in Andong

Battered food in Andong

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea

In Andong we went to the annual Mask dance festival, and there we saw all kinds of street food.

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea

Street food in South Korea
Street food in South Korea

Dough boiled in broth on a skewer is also quite popular. Koreans put some soy sauce on it and eat near the cart.

Dough boiled in broth

Sometimes there are small chairs near the food carts.

Street food cart in Seoul

Spiral fried potatoes are very popular. Some people in Instagram told us that such snack is also popular in other parts of the world, Prague or Naples for example.

Spiral fried potatoes in South Korea

Spiral fried potatoes in South Korea

Spiral fried potatoes in South Korea

Spiral fried potatoes in South Korea
Potatoes

You can get a snack almost anywhere in Korea, including parkings of intercity buses (by the way, bus transportation system in Korea is pretty much perfect). We bought there some dried sweet potato and a spicy omelette on a stick.

Food at an intercity bus stop, South Korea

Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Omelette on a stick
Omelette on a stick

There are culinary know-hows in different parts of Korea, like stuffed squids in the cities near the sea. We didn’t try them, to tell the truth.

Stuffed squids in South Korea
Stuffed squids

There is a lot of seafood in Korea. A lot of dried seafood is sold at the markets. We bought a large pack of dried squids (that we only finished in Hong Kong) from this nice lady in Sokcho for about 10 dollars.

Dried fish seller at Sokcho market

Dried fish at Sokcho market
Dried fish
Dried shrimps at Sokcho market
Dried shrimps
Dried small fish at Sokcho market
Dried small fish

Desserts

Korean desserts are also unusual. For example, waffle tubes made on these machines are filled with ice cream.

A machine for making waffle tubes that are filled with ice cream
A machine for making waffle tubes that are filled with ice cream

Ice cream shop in Seoul

Man frying pancakes with Nutella on the streets of Seoul.

Pancakes with Nutella in Seoul

A lot of places sell cute ice cream like this.

Ice cream in South Korea

In Seoul we tried a really strange dessert: a waffle made from rice dough, covered with honey. Honestly, we didn’t like it very much, but rice cakes and sweets are pretty unusual in general: chewy and not too sweet.

Cart with rice waffles in Seoul

Rice waffle with honey
Rice waffle with honey

Our friend Aran gave us these rice cakes. Thanks to her we also tried something like Korean pizza with kimchi and rice wine, but we didn’t take photos of it.

Rice cakes in South korea

In Sokcho we tried traditional Korean pies — hondoks. It has filling made of sugar, sunflower seeds, some grains and is cooked in oil. The owner of our hostel told us to try hondoks in a local legendary place: there was a long line, and everybody bought about 10 hondoks. We bought 3 when our turn came, and it was too much for us. Hondoks are very tasty! Although while standing in line we actually thought that hondoks are pies with vegetables, so the sweet taste was a bit if a surprise.

A line for hondoks in Sokcho

Hondoks preparation in Sokcho

Hondoks preparation in Sokcho

Traditional Korean pie hondok
Traditional Korean pie hondok

It was a common problem in Korea for us: we often ate something that we didn’t expect to eat. For example, we bought garlic bread in a bakery — it seems like nothing can go wrong, right? But although the bread really was with garlic, it was also sweet — with honey or sugar.

A bakery in Gueongju
A bakery in Gueongju

A bakery in Gueongju

Fruits in Korea are quite expensive. It’s probably because fruits are mostly imported by the sea — on the north South Korea borders with North Korea, and the transportation is difficult if possible at all. Local tangerines are quite famous — small and sweet, but they are also not cheap.

A truck with tangerines in Sokcho

We didn’t try a lot of other Korean dishes, but we got some picture of Korean cuisine. Korean cuisine is so complex that sometimes it’s even hard to say whether you like something or not; you spend a lot of effort trying to feel all the nuances of the taste. Sometimes we wanted to take a time-out and just eat some rice with kimchi — our favorite Korean food. We got used to the local cuisine after all, and European dished started looking kind of strange: just a bowl of pasta? What about the beans in sweet sauce, marinated leaves and kimchi? So we are thankful to Korea for this great and unusual experience.

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