When people asked me what I wanted to do on my recent 4 day trip to South Korea, I replied (every time) “EAT”! For a long time I had heard of Korean specialities, tried finding them here in London, but the chance to eat some proper Seoul food filled me with anticipation. If like me, you can’t wait to try some unusual foods in South Korea, some traditional Korean food or just a few bits of Korean street food, then read on to discover how we got on in the hunt for South Korea’s Seoul food.
Seoul Food – Korea’s Best Street Food, Traditional Korean Dishes and Unusual Foods in South Korea
Korean Fried Chicken
I first heard of Korean Fried Chicken (the better KFC) on an episode of Hairy Biker’s Asian Adventure, and had craved it ever since. It has a coating that is much thinner, and being fried twice is very crispy and a lot less greasy than American fried chicken. Then the magic happens. The chicken is smothered in sauce and sesame seeds to create this wonderful sticky treat.
Lucy took us to a branch of Chicken 678 to meet some of her friends. Before we got to chicken, we had a strange starter. It was crispy slim sticks and I joked that it was spaghetti. Turns out I was right! Deep friend spaghetti is savoury and weirdly more-ish.
We ordered boneless saucy chicken, one with honey-based sauce, one with soy-based sauce. They were both sticky, spicy and sweet but the honey one was predictably much sweeter and I thought it was by far the best. It also had chewy little rice cakes which gave a nice alternative texture. The chicken was crispy on the outside, succulent on the inside. It was seriously great Seoul food!
Finally, a little while later, and already thoroughly addicted, we ordered one last dish with a garlic bulgogi sauce. It was less sweet, and I thought it could have been a bit spicier, but it was still utterly delicious. We didn’t try the original kind of chicken (or chikin in Korean) but it’s always nice to have a reason to go back.
In Korea you don’t just go for chicken, you go for chicken and beer. The problem being that Karl and I both hate beer. Instead we tried soju, first fresh and then grapefruit. Soju is a clear alcohol with a strength that varies between 18-55%. It can be made from many things but traditionally was made from grains like rice and barley. Turns out I love grapefruit soju! There was also a fun little drinking game that went with it, and that always moves things along.
On our tour to the DMZ we were happy to find out that lunch was included in the price. We expected a lack-lustre buffet affair, so it was a delight to find out we were going to have bulgogi. Bulgogi is the name for the thinly sliced marinated beef but the whole dish is a lot more than that. The beef was served in a broth that sat over a small hob. There was also carrot and long, thin, white mushrooms. The whole broth began to bubble and we picked out the delicious wafer thin beef, wolfing it down greedily.
A whole selection of side dishes was provided as well. I loved the squash mash and the sesame bean sprouts were delicious.
Honestly, I thought I might come round to Korea’s most famous food. Kimchi comes in many forms but the most common is cabbage. Done properly, it can be fermented for around a year with salt, ginger, onions, garlic and a huge dose of chilli. I couldn’t get my taste buds to enjoy it, and I tried it repeatedly. Maybe I would like it if it were warm but cold it wasn’t to my taste.
On our second night we went out for dinner with Lucy’s friends again, right by our nearest subway station, Chang Dong. This time we had no clue what was being ordered. There was no English on the sign, the menu, anywhere. In fact, when we went to the bathroom someone asked us how on earth we had heard about it.
Two plates of fried yummyness arrived and we tucked in. Honestly, I don’t know what they were. I know that one had rice cakes in, they had meat and vegetables in and I enjoyed them both immensely. I believe one of them to be
Next a plate of fish came out. I adore seafood and this fish was slathered in garlic, the meat was soft and flaky, and I could have demolished the lot. Shame we were sharing really.
Now I have always maintained that I have never had any seafood I didn’t like, Korea tested this theory to its limits.
First came the octopus. Our new friends all spoke Korean so again, we had no idea what was coming. The restaurant owner placed a bowl in front of us and it contained an a live octopus. It became clear that we were going to try the infamous san-nakji, but I didn’t know we were going to dissect the thing ourselves! Apparently this never happens, but our restaurant’s host was going for some theatre and wanted us to see what we were about to devour.
The bowl was whisked away and quickly replaced by a plate covered in writhing grey tentacles. The octopus is no longer alive but tentacles still react with muscular electrical impulses. They still curl around chopsticks and the suckers still really suck. About six people a year die eating this as the suckers attach themselves to the inside of their throats. We were advised to chew well to stop this happening. Oh how we chewed!
I know you aren’t meant to play with your food but it was fascinating; halfway between a meal and biology experiment. We picked a piece, starting with a nice small one, dunked it in sesame oil, and chewed furiously. It didn’t taste of much, just sesame oil but I’m not sure raw octopus is something I’ll be rushing back to. It was really fun though.
I had always thought this was just a tourist novelty but the next door table had one to and there weren’t any other tourists for three kilometres!
In Korea there is something called “Service”. This is basically free food for groups that spend a lot of money at an establishment. At this place, we were presented with a strange red and yellow vegetable-ish blob.
This was also swept away to be prepared after a small amount of photography time; when it returned it looked like limp cabbage in soup, nothing too offensive. However, when we put it in our mouths we discovered that it tasted just like sea water and it was strangely gelatinous. There was no resistance to it and it turned to mush. It was really very unpleasant. Rule, meet exception!
The following day we took a stroll along Insadong. This is one of the main arteries of tourism in Seoul, having its fair share share of street food. As we walked along it we tried a few bits and bobs.
Bukkumi – A Variation
I started with a chewy rice cake, these come in many flavours with red bean being the most traditional, but I went for sweet potato. Now I know that every time people said “rice cake” I thought of the slightly coaster like popped rice disks that I used to smear peanut butter on as a child. In South Korea, a rice cake is created by mixing rice flour with salt, water and sesame oil and pounding it until it becomes elastic and malleable. These are then steamed and in this case, filled and fried.
It was a silky, chewy texture and the sweet potato inside was pretty unadulterated by anything too salty or too sweet. It was just naturally sweet and I enjoyed it a lot.
Egg on Bread
Karl got a small egg on toast (I missed out on getting the name). I presume they were quails eggs, or something else equally diminutive. The bread was sweet, a mixture between French baguette and brioche. It was a nice quick bite but nothing that special.
Ggultarae – Dragons Beard Sweets
If you see these stalls, you are in for a bit of a show. Honey is fermented for two weeks and starts as a hard lump,into which a hole is made. This is stretched, looped back around and dragged through corn starch to prevent sticking. This is repeated over and over again until there is something that resembles spaghetti…then they do it over and over, all over again. Eventually you are left with 16,000 incredibly thin strands and they are wrapped around a yummy filling. We went for the cheapest option, peanuts, but there was also almond and chocolate.
When you put it in your mouth, the delicate strands start to melt, like candy floss (cotton candy). I found the crunchy filling a slightly odd combination, maybe we should have gone with chocolate, and considering it was honey based, it wasn’t as sweet as I was expecting. They made a good mid-concert snack later that night though.
Galbi – Korean BBQ
En route to a concert, we stopped for a late lunch at a Korean BBQ spot. Once again, ordering was done for us but, again, it was all delicious.
Each table was equipped with a hole, into which was plonked a bucket of burning coals. A grill was placed over this and this became our kitchen. A grill master was nominated on each table and it was their job to cook the meat. The chimney was bought down to suck up the smoke and heat from the cooking.
When the meat was ready, our friend divided it between the four corners of the grill to avoid over-cooking and to cool enough to eat. We had pork and it came with dipping sauces and other little side dishes. We also tried pig skin, which never really crisped up as you need a slower cooking method for the fat to render properly.
It was a really fun way to eat dinner. The slow speed of food delivery made it sociable and we ate less than at other meals (not a bad thing for our poor stretched jeans).
More Seoul Food
That night, whilst sitting in a self serve bar (where you take bottles from the fridge yourself and pay up at the end, by showing your bucket of empties), we all realised that we were peckish. We popped out in search of more street food. We split up and hit two different stalls.
I don’t think there are any meat-eaters who could argue with a chicken skewer as a delicious and easy way to fill themselves up. At this stall they had loads on the go, dripping with sauce and each a fairly large portion. We picked four, a little spicy, teriyaki, hot spicy and sweet chilli. The man warned us about the hot spicy one “It’s very spicy, 911!” He wrapped them in foil and we headed back to the bar.
I knew I wasn’t going to have the spiciest one, but when I was unwrapping them on the table, I got the sauce on my fingers so I thought I’d lick it off and see what all the fuss was about. Wowsa! It really was super spicy. Just that small amount set my lip aflame, 911 indeed. The less spicy sweet ones were absolutely delicious. I really love the sweet, spicy sauces in Korea. They are thoroughly moreish and I fully intend to learn how to make one.
This isn’t as stick-based as it sounds. It is in fact the Korean version of the Japanese dish tempura. Vegetables, prawns…anything really, is coated in a batter a bit thicker than tempura and then deep fried. I like twigim but it can get a little boring if it’s on it’s own. Turns out, it is absolutely super with a drink! We had an all veggie selection, with squash being my favourite greasy, knobbly bite.
Don’t let the name fool you. If you see this on a Korean menu, and it is mysteriously not in the dessert section, it is because it is definitely NOT ice-cream!
Sundae is Korean sausage and we tried just one variety. This is akin to British black pudding or Argentinian morcilla. The variety we tried was a blood sausage filled with glass noodles. It is a steamed sausage so it is very dense and has quite a slippery skin. I can see how it wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste but I love slippery noodles and I love blood sausage. On its own it would probably be too much, but combined with the other bits we had and especially dunked in the Ddeokbokki sauce, it was an iron-rich treat. What’s Ddeokbokki sauce? Read on.
Remember those rice cakes? Well this is like a rice cake stew, or curry I suppose. Short, tube shaped rice cakes are cooked in a sauce of hot pepper paste (gochujang), sugar, onions and sometimes boiled eggs or fish cakes. There is a version with a soy-based sauce but we didn’t try that. The gochujang paste is a Korean staple of chilli powder and glutinous rice that has been fermented. It’s spicy, savoury, and enhances any meal. This paste gives the dish a real kick of umami, that oh so satisfying savoury taste. I feel like this is ultimate Korean comfort food, spicy enough to cure a cold and everyone’s Mum probably cooks their favourite version.
Shrimp and Beef Burger.
Now this isn’t strictly “Seoul food”, and it’s a meal that I’m not entirely proud of. However, eating McDonald’s in a new country is Karl’s tradition (read all about it here) and when I was lying in bed with a big hangover and I heard that I could get it delivered, I thought it was a great idea!
Sticking with my version of this tradition, I got something that you can’t get at home. I ordered waffle fries, these were just like game chips; crispy waffle….crisps. The burger I got was the shrimp and beef burger. There is method behind the madness here, it’s kind of a surf ‘n’turf vibe. The shrimp element is deep fried prawns which was actually very tasty. The beef is the normal McDonald’s beef patty. The combination was oddly disconcerting. Maybe if it was proper steak it would’ve been better, but I didn’t really enjoy it. If only I had the burger that was just shrimp.
We also tried the bulgogi burger (the third of a bun that you can see) and it was inoffensive but unremarkable.
Our final meal in South Korea was a big, beautiful bowl of Bibimbap in a wonderful restaurant called Mokmyeoksanbang. It was up the hill toward the Seoul Tower, just by the cable car station. It had private dining rooms with sliding doors (shoes off) or al fresco tables (watch out for mosquitoes in summer). The offering was limited but delicious. You pick up your own food and take your own tray back, easy peasy.
We all opted for bulgogi beef. There was also raw beef, fermented soy beans or veggie. The rice and meat comes in a large bronze bowl and then a variety of vegetable side dishes sits on the side so that you can build your own bibimbap. Add your red pepper paste to taste and then stir it all up. I made mine a tiny bit spicier than intended, a lesson to keep adding and tasting slowly. Either way, it is a big bowl of hug. You can also find bibimbap in other places that is served in a blistering hot stone bowl, but this is more of a winter thing. It also came with a clear broth, but it was a spring onion (scallion) soup, and we all know how I feel about onions….
I must say thank you to Lucy Boultby for her photos and videos which plugged the gaps when we were too busy scoffing to remember to take a snap. Also for being a fantastic host!
I put on a full five pounds in four days in Korea so I think it would be fair to say that we indulged, but it was just so good and our time was so limited. Thanks to these short four days, I have found a new love of savoury, sweet, spicy sauce and odd chewy rice blobs.
South Korea is a foody’s delight and despite only scratching the surface of the cuisine, I can definitely say that I am a fan!