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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is a bibimbap in Andong with various side dishes, including marinated radish.
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.
There are many side dishes, as usual: beans in sweet sauce, kimchi, raddish, salted dried fish, seaweed and 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.
Korean restaurants often have two parts: one with usual tables and chairs, one with low tables, where people sit on the floor.
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.
Side dishes include soya sprouts in water, peanuts, mushrooms, eggplant, some kind of salted crabs, salad, spicy sauce and kimchi.
The overall taste of the dish seemed a little dull to us, and the texture was unusual because of the boiled squid.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We grilled mushrooms and onion with the meat.
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.
These mushrooms turned out to be especially tasty when grilled.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the same restaurant you could buy gimbaps — Korean rolls with fillings of ham, fish, vegetables, omelette.
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.
In Andong we went to the annual Mask dance festival, and there we saw all kinds of street food.
Dough boiled in broth on a skewer is also quite popular. Koreans put some soy sauce on it and eat near the cart.
Sometimes there are small chairs near the food carts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Korean desserts are also unusual. For example, waffle tubes made on these machines are filled with ice cream.
Man frying pancakes with Nutella on the streets of Seoul.
A lot of places sell cute ice cream like this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.