What to EAT in KOREA: Our TOP 5 MEALS
Updated: Aug 5, 2020
FOOD is probably one of the best things about Korea, in my very biased, but humble opinion!
The bold and spicy flavours of Korean cuisine can be a bit intimidating to try for some, but all it takes is an open mind! From street food, market stalls, to mall food courts, and upscale restaurants, you can find a variety of delicious Korean food at every budget.
1) BIBIMBAP 비빔밥
This is a signature Korean dish sometimes served sizzling hot in a stone bowl. It consists of rice, and a colourful assortment of veggies like spinach, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and zucchini. Sometimes topped with an egg sunny side up, and always eaten with gochujang, a sweet/spicy korean red pepper paste. The way to eat it is to mix all the perfectly presented toppings together into a beautiful mess, so you get a little bit of everything with each spoonful. YUM.
There are lots of regional varieties with different toppings of seafood or meat, and it's easy to find a vegetarian option. We had the opportunity to try bibimpab in its birthplace, Jeonju, which is traditionally served with seasoned raw beef and a raw egg yolk in a brass bowl. It was our first time trying this variation of bibimpab and it was delish!
In Korea, meals always come with at least a couple of complimentary side dishes, or banchan 반찬 ...something you take for granted after traveling to other countries where side dishes cost extra. What we also found, as we traveled with kids, was how generous and kind Koreans were at the restaurants. So many times we were given extra free food for the kids to eat or try, like rice, yogurt drinks, veggies, dessert, etc.
2) GUKBAP 국밥
Literally translates to soup (guk) rice (bap). There are lots of different varieties from seafood to pork. The kids really enjoyed the beef gukbap: a light beef broth with bean sprouts, tofu, rice and tender morsels of beef. We tried it at Busan's unpretentious, family-run restaurant "Haeundae Wonjo Halmae Gukbap" The friendly owner even gave the kids yogurt drinks on the house.
My other favorite kind of gukbap is the bean sprout soup or kongnamul gukbap 콩나물 국밥. This light, brothy soup has a bit of a spicy kick. A soothing bowl of bean sprout soup is the kind of comfort food that Koreans crave for all occasions: from cold winters to hangovers. A MUST TRY for soup lovers!!
And while we are on the subject of soup, if you are not into spicy, there is the delicious GOMTANG 곰탕 : a cloudy white, beef bone broth soup. It reminds me of home cooking as my mom made a lot of it growing up. It can be had with either rice or noodles and served boiling hot.
3) MILMYEON 밀면
This is a cheap, delicious Busan specialty. It may sound weird to have a bowl of cold noodle soup, but it is surprisingly delicious and refreshing, especially on hot, summer days. Unlike naengmyeon 냉면 , which is another cold noodle soup made of buckwheat, milmyeon noodles are made with flour and potato starch. The broth is slightly sweet and sour, and it is not as spicy as it looks. It was mild enough for our kids to try it and they also enjoyed the chewy texture of the noodles. You can also have it without the broth, so it can be mixed like a cold noodle salad.
4) KOREAN BBQ
When people think of Korean BBQ, they generally think beef, but PORK is also very popular and tasty, especially when grilled right in front of you. We went to this well-known place in Busan called An Ga, and had some of the tastiest pork BBQ we've had. Not sure if it was because we were clearly tourists, but the server was very attentive helping us grill the meat and veggies, changing the grill plate multiple times in the process. Served with soup, fresh veggies and other typical korean side dishes like bean sprouts and kimchi. It also came with lettuce and perilla leaves to make rice and meat bundles with, and three different dips and sauces.
5) Set meal with MAKGEOLLI .
Can alcohol count as food? Sure it can! In Jeonju, there is a whole Makgeolli Alley with tons of restaurants offering this unique dining experience. A set meal involves feasting on a nice assortment of tapas-like items while drinking makgeolli, a traditional, fermented rice wine usually served in a large golden kettle. The price is quite reasonable for the portion and variety. This is great way to go with a group of friends and family and try a bit of everything. Even the kids were able to sample some new dishes they hadn't tried before.
We went to a popular restaurant called Yetchon Makgeolli, which had a friendly vibe and a very lively, casual atmosphere. We ate the following items: grilled fish, kimchi pancake, mussels, chicken soup, ginkgo seeds and mushrooms, dumplings, raw fish, pigs feet (our least favorite), kimchi stew, roasted duck, cheese omelet and...once we were in Makgeolli heaven, we lost track! We ordered a set menu for 4 adults, even shared it with 4 kids and left feeling full to the max.
Our favorite Korean dessert was hands-down BINGSU - a shaved ice dessert that comes in a variety of different flavours and toppings like fresh fruit, red beans and sweetened condensed milk. Sulbing is the most popular chain dessert cafe all throughout Korea, but the kids weren't crazy about the flavours they offered. The best one we had was the Mango Bingsu at SPALAND, Busan.
Eating out in Korea was always a fun adventure! More than half the time, though, we just ate in and cooked very simple Korean meals at home. A little rice, meat, and some greens with KIMCHI was all we needed!