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Bringing a dazzling selection of colors, spices, and fusions to the table, Korean food is one of Asia’s most popular and sought-after culinary experiences, renowned across the world for its flavor and diversity.
While Korean food has traveled to all corners of the globe, for true authenticity there is simply no beating the Busan food markets, Seoul Korean barbecue, and the day’s catch from the Yellow Sea.
Experience Korean food through the eyes of a local, as we explore this unique cuisine through 16 of its most popular and traditional dishes.
Mains and Sides
1 – 김치/김치찌개 (Kimchi/Kimchi-jjigae)
Kimchi is one of the staples when talking of Korean food, and it can be described as both a type of food and as a method of food preparation.
Generally, Kimchi refers to vegetables pickled in saltwater and mixed with various seasonings, most commonly red chili flakes. This pickling process helps with the fermentation of Kimchi, which adds to the distinct flavor of the dish.
The most common form of Kimchi consists of Napa cabbages, but kimchi can also be made with a range of other vegetables, such as Korean radishes and cucumbers, among others. The fermentation degree, the vegetables, and the seasoning all contribute to making this side dish a must-have in any Korean meal.
Kimchi on its own is a side dish, but it can turn into the main dish when created into a stew, Kimchi-jjigae. Kimchi-jjigae is a thick stew that combines well-fermented kimchi with meat or fish, and additional seasoning.
There is a saying that all you need for good Kimchi-jjigae is good Kimchi, but we can extend that into saying that all you need for a good Korean meal is good Kimchi! Everything else follows suit.
2 – 불고기 (Bulgogi)
Bulgogi generally pertains to thinly sliced meat that is first marinated, then grilled or cooked on a stovetop. It is usually marinated in a sweet soy sauce base, and it is enjoyed by a wide variety of people, regardless of age, gender, or nationality.
In the past, Bulgogi referred to barbecued marinated meat, but these days it can include stew-type versions, wherein the juices of the chosen meat and added vegetables form a thick soup.
In fact, the dish is so beloved in Korea, that a “Bulgogi burger” is very much a thing in fast-food chains. The burger’s patty is marinated in the typical soy sauce-based Bulgogi sauce and served with fresh vegetables in a bun.
If you want a little spice in your Bulgogi, there is a spicier version where chili paste (gochujang) is added to the marinade. This not only adds to the flavor, but it also gives the dish a rich red hue, contrasting from the usual light brown color.
3 – 삼겹살 (Samgyeopsal)
Samgyeopsal refers to the three (sam) layer (gyeop) meat (sal) on pork belly, wherein the fat and the meat intertwine into three layers. The layers are visible in the pork belly cut, giving it a similar look to bacon. Samgyeopsal can refer to the cut of the meat, which is usually eaten after being grilled on griddle pans.
Samgyeopsal is not typically marinated or seasoned beforehand, and it is usually eaten straight off the pan. One of the best things about this dish is the way in which it is prepared, cooked over a portable gas burner, right in front of you on the table. When traveling in Korea, be sure to dine out and experience this process right before your very eyes.
After being cooked and set into bite-size pieces, the meat is usually made into a ssam (wrap) with leafy vegetables such as lettuce and perilla leaves, among others. Since the Samgyeopsal isn’t seasoned, a seasoned paste called ssamjang (literally “paste for the ssam”) is added, along with thinly shredded spring onions and other pickled vegetables.
Also, if you are planning to eat Samgyeopsal, here’s a friendly reminder that the ssam is supposed to be eaten in one big bite. Don’t worry, that’s is how everyone eats it in Korea, so there’s no need to be shy!
4 – 잡채 (Japchae)
Japchae is a dish of noodles, vegetables, and meat, stir-fried in a sweet soy-based sauce. The noodles are made from sweet potato starch, forming transparent cellphone noodles that are a little chewy and incredibly delicious.
Due to the color of soy sauce, the noodles have a light brown coating, while the vegetables, such as carrots, spinach, onions, and mushrooms, help add plenty of vibrancy to the dish.
To maintain the colors of the vegetables, each kind is stir-fried separately, resulting in a long and patient preparation process. Despite its lengthy preparation, it is not considered a main dish, and possibly due to this, Japchae is usually served on special celebrations and is not a side dish that you find every day at home.
5 – 비빔밥 (Bibimbap)
Meaning “mixed rice,” Bibimbap is a beloved staple of traditional Korean food. Considered one of the favorite dishes of Koreans in polls, it has steady popularity among non-Koreans too.
Bibimbap is generally a dish where rice is topped with meat and various seasoned vegetables, known as namul. This is all mixed with gochujang (red chili pepper paste), while it can also be requested with a fried egg or raw yolk on top.
There are variations on the sauce used in Bibimbap, but as mentioned earlier, you can use gochujang, which will give it a slightly reddish color and add to the spice factor. Another sauce option is to use soy sauce on its own or with other spices and herbs mixed in.
Using soy sauce does not result in a drastic change in color, and it also makes Bibimbap spice-free. Other options for the mixing sauce are to use minced kimchi, Doenjang (soybean paste), even Ssamjang (sauce used for Ssam), and alike.
However you enjoy Bibimbap, there’s no denying it’s a flavorsome, comforting, and diverse dish, enjoyed by millions throughout Korea.
6 – 된장찌개 (Doenjang-jjigae)
Doenjang-jjigae is a type of stew, that is very common in South Korean households. The main ingredient of this dish is a soybean paste, called Doenjang. This is used in the stew base, which has additional ingredients such as vegetables, and protein options such as seafood or meat. Similarly, there is a lighter soup variation called Doenjang-guk, but the stew is more of a stand-alone main dish.
The common ingredients of Doenjang-jjigae can include tofu, Korean zucchini (Aehobak), potatoes, mushrooms, chili peppers, among many others. Traditionally, Doenjang was one of the go-to homemade dishes, leading to slight differences in taste, depending on the household.
But as long as find a rich, thick stew from Doenjang, packed with vegetables, it can be considered Doenjang-jjigae, one of Korea’s staple soul foods.
7 – 갈비 (Galbi)
Galbi refers to “ribs,” but as an ingredient, it pertains to short ribs. Another example wherein the main ingredient is used to name the dish, referring to Galbi as a dish would mean the marinated and/or unseasoned short ribs, that are traditionally grilled. Other dishes with Galbi include braised ribs, known as Galbi-jjim, and a soup, Galbi-tang.
The marinade sauce used for grilled Galbi is sweet and salty, as it is soy sauce-based, but it can also include other ingredients, such as garlic, grated onions, and spring onions, to enhance the flavor. The Galbi meat is usually cut thinly, so that the flavors of the marinade can be fully absorbed. After it is grilled, it can be enjoyed in a ssam (vegetable wrap).
Galbi can refer to the ribs of pork, beef, or lamb, but generally refers to beef ribs. Traditionally, beef was very expensive in Korea, so to this day, Galbi is still considered a delicacy prepared for special celebrations.
8 – 보쌈/족발 (Bossam/Jokbal)
Bossam and Jokbal are two separate dishes, commonly served together in restaurants. Both are pork-based dishes and are favorites for a late-night meal.
Let’s look at Bossam first. Bossam is a dish of pork meat that is boiled and eaten with fresh Kimchi or pickled Napa cabbages. Initially, Bossam referred to the kimchi or the cabbage used to wrap the meat, hence Bossam could be a dish of other meats besides pork.
In comparison, Jokbal refers to the leg of the pig, which is boiled in a soy-sauce based soup, giving it an inviting caramel color. The skin holds the key to the flavor, and also has a chewy, almost jelly-like consistency. Jokbal has always been a late-night favorite, but in recent years has become popular because of its high collagen content, which is said to be good for the skin.
Fusion and Snacks
9 – 짜장면 (Jajangmyeon)
Jajangmyeon is a black stir-fry mixed noodle dish, which is more apt to be considered Korean-Chinese food. The noodles are mixed with a black sauce, made by caramelizing and frying chunjang, a Chinese-style black bean paste.
The sauce contains minced vegetables, and usually includes pork, which has been adapted to the Korean taste, as it is very different from its Chinese origin. Ironically, in South Korea, Jajangmyeon is considered Chinese food, while in China, it is thought to be Korean food. To give a clear distinction, it is a Korean dish that has Chinese origins.
The dish was first introduced from Incheon, China town, in the early 1900s and has risen in popularity over the years. Jajangmyeon is not spicy and was initially considered a dish for special family gatherings, or celebrations such as school graduations.
In recent times, its popularity has continued to boom, due in part to the rise of food deliveries. It has become one of the top dishes ordered by Koreans, regardless of the occasion.
10 – 짬뽕 (Jjamppong)
Another dish with Chinese origins, Jjamppong is a spicy seafood soup noodle. It is defined by its red color and rich yet spicy flavor. Although originating from China, the general idea of Jjamppong came from the Chinese people that were in Japan, which then spread via the Chinese that came to Korea.
Jjampong and Jajangmyeon (#9) are rivals in staple Korean-Chinese food, making it hard to choose one dish over the other, as both flavors also complement each other. At times, when you order just Jajangmyeon, you will often get a small bowl of Jjamppong noodles on the side.
Authentic Jjamppong contains a wide variety of seafood, including mussels, squids, and crab meat, along with a range of vegetables. Aside from the spicy flavor, the soup is known for its faint smoked scent, as the vegetables are seafood are usually sautéed before being added to the broth.
11 – 김밥/어묵 (Gimbap/Eomuk)
Gimbap is considered a snack or a light meal. A compound word made from Gim (seaweed) and Bap (rice), Gimbap is a long roll of rice, enveloping various ingredients, wrapped in seaweed.
To assemble gimbap, the seaweed is first laid out, and a thin layer of rice is laid over the top. Then Gimbap staple ingredients, including Danmuji (yellow pickled radishes), a strip of an omelet, carrots, spinach, ham, among others, are then laid over the top, and finally, everything is rolled together.
Visually beautiful, Gimbap is commonly brought to picnics, since it can be sliced into bite-size pieces. It looks good but tastes even better.
Speaking of picnics, another popular snack in Korea is Eomuk, known as Korean fishcakes. The name refers to a fried batter made of fish meat, some vegetables, and flour batter, which is fried.
Eomuk become a popular street food following the Korean war, as it was an affordable and nutritious food. Eomuk can refer to the ingredient, but as a dish, it generally consists of fish cakes on a stick, cooked and heated in a seafood and vegetable broth.
Eomuk can be found sold by various street vendors and at snack bars. It is a winter favorite, as it rests in a heated broth, creating a warm and hearty snack to comfort you in the cold weather.
12 – 떡볶이 (Tteok-bokki)
Koreans love rice! Not only is it a vital part of many dishes, but also many Korean snacks. In Tteok-bokki, rice is made into Tteok (rice cake) and used as the main ingredient for Tteok-bokki.
Tteok-bokki is the dish wherein the rice cake is stir-fried or sautéed with a gochujang sauce or a soy-based sauce. It is ranked as one of the top Korean foods that Koreans love and is a dish that almost all Koreans have enjoyed growing up.
The name Tteok-bokki literally means “stir-fried rice cake” but the common version of Tteok-bokki is more of reduced soup. Although the name can be confusing, it has stuck, and today you can enjoy a wide range of fusion sauces in Tteok-bokki.
Aside from the usual gochujang or soy sauce base, recent years have seen curry-based sauces, cream-based sauces, and jajang (as in Jajangmyeon) based sauces grow in popularity.
13 – 못난이 핫도그 aka Potato Hotdog
In Korea, the concept of a hotdog is more similar to that of a corndog, consisting of a simple yet indulgent skewered sausage, covered in batter and deep-fried.
One variation that seems to be a little unique to Korea, and making it a must-try for people who come to visit, is the Monnani Hotdog, which means the “ugly hotdog”. Today, it is more commonly known as the Potato hotdog.
The dish was traditionally given the name “ugly hotdog” because of the square potato pieces surrounding the exterior of the corndog. The Potato hotdog could be described as a French fry-wrapped corn dog, and while it may look intimidating, don’t let the name or the look fool you; it is utterly delicious!
It first became widespread around the time of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and has become a strong contender for one of the best street foods in Korea. Regarding the sauce, you can stick with the classic choice of ketchup, but you can also be creative and add the likes of cheese powder on top.
Desserts & Drinks
14 – 식혜 (Sikhye)
A traditional Korean drink, Sikhye is a sweet rice beverage, usually enjoyed after a meal. The drink contains grains of cooked rice, and it is made by fermenting rice with malt water, but not to the consistency of rice wine.
Sikhye is enjoyed by Koreans of all ages, and it is said to aid digestion. Making Sikhye is not easy though, and the authentic version requires a lot of time and effort.
Sikhye traditionally was a royal beverage served to royalty after their meals, but today you can find it in restaurants, supermarkets, or make it yourself. Renowned for its sweetness, this Korean favorite can be drunk both warm and cool.
15 – 호떡 (Hotteok)
A sweet street food, Hotteok is a flat pancake-like snack filled with sugar and nuts. Inspired by a type of Chinese bread, it has in time evolved to cater to Korean taste buds.
Hotteok batter is usually made of flour or sticky rice flour, giving the Hotteok crust a chewy consistency, with a delicious crunch. The Hotteok batter is filled with the sugar mixture, consisting of various nuts, sugar, and cinnamon, and placed in a flat griddle before being pressed. During this process, the sugar melts and forms a hot syrup.
Green tea and black rice flour are two of many common additions to the batter, creating Hotteok with many different flavors and colors. When it comes to fillings, nuts and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and peanuts are all popular choices.
There is also a range of savory fillings to choose from, including vegetables to make Yache Hotteok (vegetable Hotteok) and Kimchi Hotteok, among others.
Sweet Hotteok however remains the go-to favorite, which works as rich, sweet, hot dessert on a cold day, as the popularity of Hotteok rises during winter.
16 – 달고나 (Dalgona)
Dalgona, although the exact etymology is unknown, may have derived from the word, 달다 (dalda), which means “sweet.” It is simply a street snack, that first became popular in the 1970s to the 1980s, made from melted sugar and baking soda.
To make, a little baking soda is mixed with melted sugar, causing the syrup to puff up and become fluffy and light. It is then pressed flat and stamped with a pattern. Traditionally, outlining the pattern successfully by trimming or cutting the edges would lead to another free Dalgona; a fun game that customers happily tried their luck at!
At that time, Dalgona became so popular, a vendor could be found on practically every street corner selling this sweet treat. In today’s Korea, however, this classic food is harder to find, with households instead opting to buy the make-at-home kits you can find in supermarkets.
These kits include sugar, some baking soda, and a small pan to heat the mixture. If you aren’t confident in making your own Dalgona however, don’t worry, as it today has become something of a retro snack, commonly ordered as a topping for various desserts, and even coffee. So much so, ‘Dalgona coffee’ actually became a fad, not too long ago!
Korean Foods Summary
The aromas, the colors, the flavors: there’s simply so much to get excited about when it comes to Korean cuisine. Renonwed worldwide, as this article goes to show, for true authenticity you simply have to try classic Korean dishes from the source.
During any trip to Korea, try your best to make food an integral part of your visit. Soak up the energy, sounds, and sights of the food markets. Spend time at the ports, and watch the fishermen bring in the day’s catch.
Where you can, eat a local eateries and family-run restaurants, and seek out as many authentic dishs as you can. This article covers the tip of the ice-berg, and a world of unique, delicious, and mind-blowing food awaits if you look in the right places.
Enjoy Korea for its wonderous culture, its raw beauty, its unique history, and its mouthwatering food. There’s simply no other place like it!
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Author: Eun Hae Oh is a bilingual English-Korean translator, writer, and voice actor, from Incheon City, South Korea. A passionate foodie, Eun is eager to share more about authentic Korean food through her writing.
Images licensed via Shutterstock