My love affair with South Korean food started way, way back. As a teenager, I grew up in a community dominated by South Korean immigrants in California. Many of my high school friends were either immigrants from South Korea or descendants of one. When I got to college, my roommates were both Koreans who loved going for a meal in LA’s Korea town or cooking meals at home. It was from hanging out with them that I became very well-versed in South Korean cuisine despite not speaking much Korean.
So imagine my excitement when I finally got to visit Seoul! I felt like I was truly going to food heaven.
General Tips on visiting Seoul
Seoul (and South Korea in general) is very safe and a tourist-friendly country. On my first visit to South Korea, I went to Seoul by myself and I had no issues at all! Here are some tips that would make your trip as easy as mine:
- When you first arrive at the Incheon airport, buy the T-money card – this is the transport card that you can use for the subway system in Seoul, as well as their buses. It allows you to use the tap in – tap out system so you don’t need to buy a ticket each time you take the train or bus. A single journey costs 2700 won, and you can keep reloading the T-money card as you need.
- Public Transport is top-notch in Seoul. The train system is efficient – you can expect to not wait longer than 5 minutes for a train. During my visit, I hardly ever had to use the bus, but when I did, I only waited for about 10 minutes max.
- Get to the city from Incheon Airport by AREX (Airport Express Train), which runs to Seoul station. You cannot use T-money for the express train portion, you have to buy the AREX portion separately for 9000 won. But once you get to / out at Seoul station, you can use the T-money card again. However, there is an option to take the slow regular train using T-money too for half the price at 4150 won.
- Taxis and Car Sharing – Taxi is safe to use in Seoul, and you can just hail off the street. Car sharing app like Uber is not legal, so you cannot use it here. Personally, I found the public transport to be sufficient enough that I did not have to use taxi much while I was in Seoul.
- As with any other travels, it would also be handy to have an internet connection at all times, so I recommend getting a prepaid local SIM card. You can buy this at the airport and convenience stores in Seoul.
- If you don’t speak Korean, download Google Translate and pre-download the Korean language pack so you can translate stuff on the go. Locals will be nice and try to be helpful, but most do not speak English and a translation app can go a long way. Many stores in Myeongdong can accommodate Mandarin though! I suspect this is due to the influx of tourism from mainland China, especially in the beauty sector.
- Google Maps is surprisingly not the best app in Seoul. This is because Google stores their data on foreign servers, and given the security threat from the North, South Koreans have been very protective of their data. It still works as GPS and major subways, but you probably won’t be able to get good direction from it. You can use Kakao Maps instead.
Without further ado, here is a round-up of traditional South Korean meals I’ve grown to love over the years.
1. Spicy Korean Ramyun topped with Processed Cheese
Yeah, I know this sounds so weird. I was skeptical when I first heard about it too, but I discovered that cheese and Ramyun actually work SO well together! In South Korea, as well as among Korean-American immigrants, it’s a common practice to serve a bowl of piping hot Ramyun with a slice of cheese. And it can’t just be any cheese, it’s usually the cheap processed cheese kind, like Kraft singles. The cheese would melt and blend with the spicy soup, which gives the dish a slightly creamy texture. The cheese also helps to tone down the heat a little bit. Think of it like… a spicy mac and cheese.
The best part? you can easily make this at home. Get yourself a packet of instant Korean Ramyun (I personally love the Nong Shim or Jin Ramyun brand) and put kraft singles right before serving. Add Kimchi if you like, and voila!
Where to eat
- Gimgane in Myeongdong (maps)
2. Korean Rice Roll (Kimbap)
Wanna know the first thing I did when I landed in Seoul? I looked for Kimbap. Kimbap is a very comforting Korean snack – it’s basically white rice stuffed with meat and vegetables and rolled on dried seaweed. Yes, it looks like Maki sushi rolls from Japan, but the taste is totally different than the Japanese Maki. For one, all the ingredients in Kimbap are fully cooked. There is also a hint of sesame oil in the ingredients, making the taste stronger than Japanese Sushi rolls. And it’s delicious, of course.
Where to eat
- Gimgane in Myeongdong (maps)
3. Korean Savory Pancake (Pajeon)
These are. So. good. Korean pancakes use a special type of rice flour which gives it a more dense and “bouncy” (or chewy) yet crispy texture than the pancakes you know from western cooking. There are usually two kinds of Pajeon – Green Onion Pajeon or Seafood Pajeon. Pajeon is usually served pre-sliced into little squares, which you can easily pick up with your chopstick and dip in the light soy sauce that comes served with it. And, a side of Kimchi is a must to fully enjoy this dish.
4. Korean Soup, soup, and more soup!
I love soup and there is definitely no shortage of hot soup in Korean cuisine, which is why it’s one of my favorites. Korean soups are not bland. They are packed with flavor, very nutritious and comforting. The ones pictured above are some of the most popular type of soup – From left to right:
- Doenjang Jjigae – Stew made of Korean soybean paste
- Kimchi soup – Soup made from Kimchi-base, vegetables and sliced tofu.
- Sundubu – Spicy soft tofu soup, my personal favorite! It’s usually served still boiling and with a raw egg on the side, so you can crack it into the soup and let it cook.
Where to eat
5. Korean Street Food
Given the theme of my Instagram, I don’t think I need to explain how much I love street food. Thankfully there is an abundance of it in South Korea. Go to any popular hangout area in Seoul and you’re bound to find street food vendors lining up.
My personal favorites are:
- Spicy Rice Cake (Tteokbokki) – a staple to Korean street food scene and is a common menu item in restaurants as well, these are literally just boiled rice cakes served in gochujang chili sauce. Sounds simple, but it makes for a comforting snack, especially in the cold winter weather.
- Korean Pancake with Brown Sugar filling (Hotteok) – if you can find this, make sure you get them fresh off the fryer. That first bite into a Hotteok, where the brown sugar filling melts into your mouth is one of the best memories I had from Seoul.
Where to eat
- Myeongdong Main Street
- Insadong Main Street
6. Korean BBQ
Who doesn’t love Korean BBQ? Seriously.
Although Korean BBQ establishments are easy to come across these days, the concept of meat consumption is relatively new to South Koreans. In the past, meat was expensive and viewed as a luxury item, so it was only in the 20th century that Koreans started eating more meat, which leads to the popularization of Korean BBQ.
The concept of Korean BBQ thrived mostly overseas. In the 1980s many South Koreans immigrated to the United States, and many of them ended up settling down in Los Angeles. They brought with them the concept of Korean BBQ, which has now flourished throughout the country. One of the most popular item in a Korean BBQ is “Galbi” aka BBQ Ribs, and there’s a variation of it called “LA Galbi” which is cut thinner than the original Galbi. And yep, you guessed it – LA Galbi was invented by Korean immigrants who lived in Los Angeles.
The way to eat Korean BBQ is to grill the meat yourself to the desired doneness. Once done, you can then cut the meat into little pieces using scissors and put the meat on a piece of lettuce. Add raw garlic, green chili and a bit of Gochujang (Korean chili paste) and sesame oil, wrap it all in lettuce and then… pop the entire thing in your mouth!
So good. The fresh crunchy lettuce pairs really well with the juicy meat. Also, you eat less carb this way and that’s healthy right?! (Don’t tell me otherwise)
Where to eat
7. Dak Galbi from Chuncheon
Aside of the grilled beef and pork belly, there is also a South Korean dish that calls for chicken, rice cakes, and vegetables stir-fried with Gochujang (Korean chili paste) in a huge pan and eaten communally on the table. It’s called Dak Galbi, a local specialty of Chuncheon, but you’ll see this in other parts of South Korea as well. (A little Korean trivia for you: “dak” means chicken!)
I once told my friend that if I had to choose, my choice of last meal would be a Korean BBQ feast. And I still stand by that choice to this day.
8. Beer and Fried Chicken (Chimaek)
Humankind had been drinking beer for a very long time. Likewise, humankind had been deep frying chicken and consuming them for a very long time as well. Somewhere along the way, smart Koreans figured out that fried chicken and beer goes really, really well together and made this an actual drinking tradition.
The name is ‘Chimaek‘ is a combination of ‘chicken’ and ‘maekju’, which means ‘beer’ in Korean. Chimaek fits right into the Korean drinking culture (they drink A LOT) and became a popular food item to have delivered. You can even have it delivered to a park if you happen to be out picnic-ing with your friends! So smart.
9. Makgeolli (Korean Sparkling Rice Wine)
Everyone knows soju, but do they know Makgeolli? This rice wine is so light and sweet tasting. Easy to drink, but still quite potent – making it a dangerous beverage to drink if you are a lightweight. I personally can’t get enough of Makgeolli. Too bad it gives me the worst hangover the next day.
Where to find
- Any Korean restaurant, convenience store or grocery stores
10. Patbingsoo (Korean Shaved Ice)
Shaved ice is not a unique thing, but in South Korea, they just seem to taste so much better. In Patbingsoo, the ice used is not just any plain shaved ice made from water, it’s actually made from milk! The ice is shaved so thin that it feels like you are eating milk-flavored (clean) snow. Usually, Patbingsoo is served with red beans and rice cake as pictured above, or powdered sesame seeds and rice cake.
(Yes, there are tons of rice cakes used in South Korean cuisine.)
Where to eat
11. Banana Milk
Loved by many Koreans for its nostalgic value, adored by visitors for its delicious taste. My friend told me specifically to get this drink when I arrive in Seoul, and I almost dismissed her. Why would I be trying a store-bought canned drink when I’m in Korea? But, I kept seeing this unique bottle packaging everywhere I go. I finally gave up and gave it a try – So glad I did. I can see why this drink is so popular. I never thought banana and milk would be a good combination, but it really works. For South Korean, this drink often reminds them of childhood since it’s a popular choice for kids.
Where to find
- Any convenience store in Seoul!
12. Kalguksu (Korean Knife-cut Noodle Soup)
Kalguksu is a traditional Korean soup noodle, where the noodle is often handmade from wheat flour and cut with knives. Kalguksu noodle is very unassuming and it looks quite plain, but packs a punch! The handmade noodle has that perfect slippery bouncy texture and the broth is very flavorful.
Where to eat
And that’s my favorite, must try food and drinks while you are in South Korea! If you want more recommendation on Seoul, I have these posts you might want to check out:
- Affordable Value-for-Money Restaurants in Seoul – A guide to Michelin Bib Gourmand in Seoul
- Where to find the cutest dessert in Seoul – You know I love food that looks cute and different! Here is a list of cute desserts I found in Seoul.
Visiting Korea? Here is where to stay in Seoul
I’ve been to Seoul twice and both times I stayed in Myeongdong. And I would definitely stay in this area again! Myeongdong is convenient for so many reasons: it’s easy to get to from the airport, it’s where all the shopping is, and it’s one of the major stations in Seoul so it’s easy to get around.
Here are the two places I’ve personally stayed in Myeongdong:
- K Stay Guesthouse Myeongdong – I stayed here twice. Once in a single room and once in a 4-bed dormitory. I highly recommend this place if you don’t care about hotel amenities since it was really cheap, clean, and right in the middle of Myeongdong (3 mins walk from the station!)
- Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel – This hotel is located in one of the few high-rises in Myeongdong. The lobby is located on one of the upper floors and you get unblocked view of the entire district from your room. The location is also hard to beat, it was less than 3 mins walk from Myeongdong station.
Do you have any Korean dish you love that I didn’t mention? Comment below and let me know!