TASTE OF KOREA: WHAT AND WHERE TO EAT IN SEOUL
Food is a highlight of a trip to Seoul for many. In Seoul you can find everything from street food to three-Michelin starred restaurants.
Most meals in Korea are served with red pepper paste or gochujang and are very spicy. The food is eaten with metal chopsticks and a spoon that are usually stored in a box on the table. Koreans do not use knives. Instead, scissors are used to cut bite-sized pieces of meat and kimchi, so they can be easily eaten with chopsticks. Korean meals are traditionally served with bap or cooked rice, guk or soup, and banchan or side dishes that always include kimchi.
Here are some ideas of what and where to eat in Seoul.
WHAT TO EAT IN THE RESTAURANTS IN SEOUL
There are small family-owned restaurants in every alley and backstreet in Seoul, pungent aromas floating around. Some have English-language signs, many don't, but most of the time you can guess what type of food is being served. In some places you have to take off your shoes before stepping in, like in Japan. English is not as common as you think and sometimes you just have to go and see what happens. Just watch the locals and go with the flow. Here are some dishes to try when in Seoul.
SEOLLEONGTANG – OX BONE BROTH
Seollongtang or seolnongtang is a classic comfort dish in which ox bones and meat are boiled for long hours resulting in an opaque, milky broth. Unlike other Korean dishes, it is surprisingly mild and only seasoned with coarse salt and chopped green onions.
This is the dish that is local to Seoul and should not be missed when in this city. The most famous restaurant serving the ox bone broth is Imun Seolnongtang in Incheon. This simple restaurant that has existed since 1908 has even been recognized as Michelin Bib Gourmand.
The restaurant is a little hard to find, tucked away in an alley but when you find it, you'll be pleasantly surprised how very local it is. There were no other foreigners when we visited.
Large metal bowls of kimchi and kkakdugi are on every table together with a pair of tongs and scissors. Simply scoop out portions into the smaller bowls and enjoy as a side. It is wonderful and a truly local experience.
There is no shortage of Korean barbecue restaurants in Seoul. You'll recognize them from the grill they have on each table. When you sit down, the server brings the banchan or side dishes to the table. These include kimchi —the most common one, baechu kimchi, made of Chinese cabbage and often also ggakdugi kimchi, which is cubes of raddish. The sides may also include leek, seaweed, tiny fish, tofu. A accompanying boiling bowl of soup is usually on the table available to share.
You order the cuts and grill them to your liking. Once the meat is ready, cut it into bite-sized pieces with scissors. A popular cut is a thin slice of pork belly that you can fill with hot pepper sauce and leeks. Roll it all up and eat with your fingers.
Have your BBQ with some soju. You'll be amazed to see how the locals down three bottles with their meal.
BIBIMBAP — RICE BOWL WITH TOPPINGS
Bibimbap is a bowl of rice topped with colorful seasoned vegetables, red pepper paste, and fried or raw egg and you are supposed to mix it all together.
It is a traditional dish going back several centuries and was served to peasants working on the field as well as royalty.
Some restaurants serve it in a sizzling stone bowl and the rice gets nice and crispy on the sides of the bowl. This version is called Dolsot Bibimbap.
FRESH FISH AND SEAFOOD
Make sure you'll visit the Noryangjin Fish Market. Read more on our post here: VISITING NORYANGJIN FISH MARKET IN SEOUL: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
Seoul has a broad list of fine dining restaurants to enjoy and two have been awarded three Michelin stars. One of the city's finest restaurants is Mingles (757 Seolleung-ro, Gangnam-gu) with its pioneering chef, Mingoo Kang, who has earned two Michelin stars. His contemporary take on Korean cuisine with imaginative kimchis, pear-marinated beef and raw fish platters are delightful.
WHAT TO EAT AT THE STREET FOOD STALLS
You'll find street food everywhere in Seoul. Seoul is pretty much an outdoor restaurant with its aromas of seafood and kimchi lingering everywhere you go. Myeongdong Street food alley across from the Lotte Department store, Insadong, and Gwangjang Market are among the most popular places to enjoy some local street food.
Unlike Bangkok street food that can give you an entire meal in one dish, think of Korean street food more like a sampling of different snacks. Here are some exotic dishes to try.
EUMOK – FISH CAKES
Eomuk is made with white fish or surimi, wheat flour, potato starch, sugar, and vegetables. These ingredients are mixed, kneaded, shaped then boiled, steamed or fried. Eomuk dang is a version with fish cake skewer served in spicy broth. So good! You can find it in every street market or, find the stall at Gwangjang Market where Gordon Ramsay tasted some for one of his shows (and where the owner proudly displays his photo).
KIMBAP - SEAWEED AND RICE ROLL
Kimbap looks like a sushi roll. Like sushi, it is a seaweed and flavored rice roll with fillings of seasoned vegetables, egg, meat or surimi.
SUNDAE – KOREAN BLOOD SAUSAGE
Morcia, black pudding, boudin noir, blodkorv, verivorst - many countries have their own versions of blood sausage. Sundae is the Korean sausage made of cow or pig’s intestines, stuffed with pigs blood and sweet potato starch glass noodles, and then boiled or steamed. Some recipes include also barley, rice, beans sprout, green vegetables, garlic, ginger or sesame oil.
Korean sausages are lighter than the meaty Western varieties and the noodles give it a more glutinous texture. Sundae is usually served cut into bite-sized slices with a side of Ddukbokki (stir-fried rice cakes).
HWEORI GAMJA – TORNADO POTATO
A large potato is cut into a spiral, stretched out onto a skewer and then deep fried. It is then sprinkled with cheese, chili, or onion powder and served with various sauces.
There is so much more – grilled eel and lobster, live octopus, Korean BBQ chicken skewers, steamed octopus and conch skewers, grilled cheese skewers, tiny crispy crabs, egg bread. Seoul has definitely food for any taste and is a true foodie paradise.
BINDAETTEOK – MUNG BEAN PANCAKE
Bindaetteok is made with no flour. Instead, the batter is made by grinding or blending fresh mung beans. Kimchi, pork, seafood, green onions, beansprouts or whatever you like are added to the batter and then pan-fried.
The mung bean batter is ladled on a hot frying pan and followed by another layer of the batter poured over the top of the filling. The pancakes are served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, water, and ground pine nuts.
Gwangjang market has stalls after stalls specializing in Bindaetteok.
KALGUKSU - HANDMADE NOODLES
Head to Gwangjang Market and find the lady who was featured in Netflix' popular "Street Food" series. Cho Yonsoon’s hand-cut noodle stall is a popular place and always crowded. It's easy to spot as she is wearing her signature bright pink t-shirt that she wore for the show. Here, you can taste her flavorful noodle soup, dumpling soup, and steamed kimchi dumplings.
BEONDEGI – STEWED SILKWORM LARVAE
Beongdegi must be the weirdest Korean snack. It is sold in paper cups and you eat it with a toothpick. The taste is not as disgusting as it looks. You can find it sold at Gwangjang Market.
Not to finish with eating bugs, do not forget to have some delicious Korean ice cream! The flavors and forms are wonderful and imaginative.