With shows like Squid Game and films like Parasite putting the nation’s brand of filmmaking on the map, and the hit Gangnam Style by PSY having elevated K-pop to the global scene, it’s fair to say that Korean culture is riding high these days. But what about Korean food culture? Well…the umami flavors and pungent tastes of that are only just about being discovered.
Yep, from powerful fermented veg in kimchi jars to sizzling BBQ grills topped with mouthwatering meat cuts doused in soy sauce, the local kitchen of Korea is a seriously taste-bud-tingling bout of dishes that you’re not likely to forget in a hurry.
This guide to Korean food culture aims to offer a bit of a 101 intro to the cooking of the peninsula country. It will focus on just seven dishes, highlighting the most popular eats of the lot in the home of kimchi and K-pop. But it will also answer some key questions about the local cooking, like what’s Korean food most famous for and what you can expect for breakfast when you wake up that first morning in Seoul.
Table of Contents
Of all the foods on this list of the most important dishes in Korean food culture, Kimchi is the closest you’re going to get to a national favorite. Not only is it eaten widely across Korea, but it also has a very long history that means it’s been around in these parts for almost 2,000 years!
Yep, there’s historical evidence to show that kimchi was eaten by the people of the Silla Dynasty. That’s way back in 50 BC! Then, it was made by dropping vegetables and spices into the earth using large terracotta vessels. It’s thought that it was popularized even further by the arrival of Buddhism around 300 AD, when vegetarian lifestyles in Korea became more prevalent than ever before.
But what is Kimchi? It’s not that complicated. You’re basically looking at a mix of vegetables and root veg that are all pickled and preserved over time, enhancing the flavor, and adding a note of pungency that’s simply not available in fresh foods. What you add is up to you, but usually a kimchi jar will include napa cabbages, radishes, lotus roots, chives, garlic cloves, bamboo shoots, and ginger, all tossed in chili and other spices.
Kimchi can ferment for several months on end, however the flavors become stronger and stronger the longer it’s been left for. It’s a versatile dish that keeps well and can be served in a whole host of situations; as a side at breakfast, in jjigae (a type of Korean kimchi stew), or even on top of pizza!
Calling all sweet-toothed travelers – the bingsu is something you’re going to want to put close to the top of your must-try list. Yep, taking up the non-savory side of Korean food culture in style, this shaved-ice dessert has been around since the time of the Joseon Dynasty. Back then, it was little more than natural snow or ice topped with a berry conserve.
Today, things have come a long way. There’s a modern version of the dish that’s been credited to the folk at the Tae Keuk Dang, a local bakery chain in Seoul, which makes use of natural sweeteners and red-berry jus to add an extra bit of interest to the finished product. That’s the most common version of all, known as patbingsoo.
But you’re certainly not limited to the red-berry iteration. If that doesn’t take your fancy then there are also types with green tea infusions, wake-me-up coffee toppings, and even ones with chocolate on top, for those feeling truly indulgent.
Simple, easy to prepare, and with potentially blow-your-head-off levels of spice to it, the dubu-jorim is one for chili lovers who are on the go. It’s a street-food classic but can also be added to your order in a Korean restaurant as a side to BBQ or rice bowls. Other places serve it as a sort of local Korean mezze.
Wherever you dine, you’re going to need to prep for a bit of a hit on the Scoville scale. The reason? The main ingredient here is chili, both green and red, both whole and in powdered form. The strong spice is worked into the tofu by using a process of braising and simmering. That’s actually more powerful than pressing the tofu to remove the moisture, which is what most mainstream chefs go for.
The finished product will be a line of thinly sliced tofu protein that’s packed with spicy broth. It’s usually topped with sprigs of fresh spring onion and a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds for a garnish.
No list of the most iconic dishes in Korean food culture could miss out on the country’s kaleidoscopic range of noodle-based meals. There are lots to choose from, but we’ve highlighted naengmyeon because it’s pretty unique for this part of the world. What sets it apart from the crowd is the fact that it’s usually served cold, mainly as a refresher on hot summer days.
The basics of the noodles and the broth are similar to what you’d expect of a ramen or a Vietnamese pho. You’ve got a rich stock underlying it all (here, it’s typically beef stock, but there are now veggie versions) and a topping of sliced meat and chili paste, often with a final halved boiled egg right on the top.
The noodles themselves are made of buckwheat or yucca-style potatoes, which adds more texture to the finished product. The origins of the dish are a bit obscure, but it’s thought that it originated in North Korea and was subsequently popularized in the south by escapees from the dictatorship following the Korean War.
We think a night at an authentic Korean barbecue is nothing short of a rite of passage for traveling foodies in this corner of the world. It’s up there with the most unique dining experiences in East Asia, offering a communal feel and sense of camaraderie that choosing off a menu could only dream of.
We’re not gonna’ lie – it’s not one for the veggies. Known locally as KBBQ or gogi-gu-i, these get-togethers are all about the meat. The prime cuts of the animal, the sirloin or tenderloin, are the ones that are prized above all. They’re usually sizzled over open coals on either a communal grill or at the table, on a grill brought to you by the waiter.
There’s not too much seasoning, but you will get that hit of quintessentially eastern spices and additions – think soy sauce, chili, spring onions, and a liberal dousing of salt and pepper. After the top cuts of meat have been cooked to perfection, the griller will move on to secondary cuts. They include galbi and samgyeopsal (the pork belly), along with galbisal (boneless ribs).
Korean BBQs also involve a whole load of side dishes. They range from kimchi-filled broths to kimchi on its own (see, told you kimchi was everywhere!) to zesty and fresh pajeori, a mix of chili and beans and beansprouts.
Tteok-bokki is like Korea’s answer to pasta or gnocchi. They are miniature rice cakes about the same size of a rigatoni tube, rolled into the shape of a cylinder before cooking. There are a few dishes that include tteok-bokki but the most famous has to be the spicy concoction that’s infused with uber-hot gochujang paste, a cocktail of fermented soybeans and chili powder.
Unlike many dishes on this list of the must-try staples of Korean food culture, tteok-bokki isn’t actually that old. It first appeared in a Korean home-cooking book from the 1950s. However, some say it was invented when a chef accidentally dropped rice cakes into a hot sauce that was boiling and realized the flavors worked well.
There are some variations of tteok-bokki on offer around Korea today. They include a milder version that swaps out much of the chili for soy sauce (known as gungjung-tteok-bokki), and a curry-infused dish that covers the rice cakes in a masala. There’s even a version inspired by Italy, called the tteok-bokki carbonara!
A top-50 scorer on CNN Travel’s top 50 most delicious dishes in the world, the bibimbap really is one of those must-try staples while traveling Korea. It’s most famous in the south of the country, in towns like Jeonju (an official Creative Cities for Gastronomy UNESCO city, no less) and Tongyeong, but is available all over the country.
Bibimbap literally means ‘mixed rice’ in English. That’s a fair summary of the dish but doesn’t even come close to outlining all the extras and toppings that go with it. Yep, the boiled white rice sits on the bottom, layered with all sorts, including kimchi (see, there’s that kimchi again!), hot gochujang (a potent chili paste), and fermented soybean curd. The whole lot is then usually garnished with a fried egg, strips of ginger, and sliced meat.
There are many regional variations of this rice-based bowl, and you might find that every cook in every restaurant likes to cook theirs a little differently. The most famous iteration is the aforementioned Jeonju bibimbap. That makes use of the famous Jeonju soybean sprouts and has rice that’s cooked in beef stock for extra flavor.
How is food important to Korean culture?
There’s an ancient belief in Korea that food is essentially the same as medicine, which means the people here take what they eat very seriously. On top of that, Korean food culture has risen to become a defining feature of the nation abroad. In the same way people know Korean films (like Oscar-winning Parasite, for example), many around the globe are now familiar with dishes like kimchi as something representative of the country and its people.
What is a key feature of Korean food culture?
Arguably the most key feature of Korean food culture is the heavy use of fermentation in the preparation of central ingredients. It actually originates from an age before fridge freezers and let people in ancient and medieval times preserve food for longer. But it’s persevered, and you’re likely to encounter all sorts of fermented foods here, from kimchi to soybean pastes.
What is a typical Korean breakfast?
Traditional Korean breakfasts aren’t at all what you’re likely to be used to in countries like the USA and the UK. It’s a full spread of marinated pork belly and pork ribs, complete with boiled rice, fried eggs, fish stews, salads, and kimchi. Vegetarian breakfasts are usually made with scrambled tofu or omelets and then served with black beans and kimchi.
How would you describe Korean food?
Korean food is an ancient art. It’s been around for more than 2,000 years and makes use of traditional cooking techniques – most notably fermentation. That helps to create a set of national dishes that are pungent and punchy, but also classically East Asian, with lots of soy, chili, and broth-based meals.