Kimchi is Korea’s self-proclaimed national dish — briny, zesty, and prized for its superfood powers. Besides kimchi, though, there’s so much more to love about Korean cuisine, from spiced and sauced meats to aromatic soups to fresh and vibrant vegetables. When you’re in Korea, make sure to try these 10 dishes — washing them down with a shot or two of Korea’s national alcohol, soju, of course.
Galbi are marinated ribs. We know we had you at marinated ribs, but there’s more: after soaking in a bath of soy sauce, sugar, and garlic, the bite-sized beef is seared on a grill that’s built directly into the table, then presented on a lettuce leaf with embellishments. The assembly is a ritual, and the object is to wrap up the perfect present for yourself or your dining companion, adding in extras like rice, kimchi, raw garlic, salt-and-peppered sesame oil, or soybean and chili pastes. Technically, the term galbi also encompasses grilled pork and chicken, but beef is the quintessentially Korean version.
A 24-hour street food beloved by Koreans, ddeokbokki is especially satisfying after a long night of revelry on the streets of Seoul. Slathered in a sweet and spicy chili sauce, dense rice-cakes are mixed with sautéed cabbage, fish cakes, or odeng, and on occasion a whole hard-boiled egg. Pop it in your mouth, then let the inferno set in.
Samgyetang is a chicken and rice soup, good for the soul, and — with its healthy dose of ginseng — good for the heart, too. Ginseng root, known for its cholesterol-fighting properties, is stuffed inside a young hen, along with glutinous rice, a jujube, and a half a dozen or so garlic cloves. The whole thing is served boiling hot, and is most commonly, though perhaps surprisingly, enjoyed during the height of summer.
Just as samgyetang is slurped in hot weather, pajeon is eaten when it’s wet. For Koreans, there’s something deeply nostalgic about turning to food in certain kinds of weather. Pajeon, savory green-onion pancakes, are thought to bust the rainy-day blues, some say because simple carbs boost serotonin levels and others say because the sound of frying mimics the sound of rainfall. Whatever the reason, when pajeon is paired with the Korean rice wine makgeolli, as is the custom, it’s easy to see how the pancakes make for an effective cure.
5. Dolsot Bibimbap
A heap of rice mixed with beef, vegetables, and chili paste, and crowned with a fried egg: it’s called bibimbap, literally “mixed rice.” Even better, though, is its lesser-known sibling, dolsot bibimbap. The dolsot variation takes bibimbap to the next level, serving the whole concoction in a sizzling stone pot, so that the bottom layer of the dish is browned and crunchy.
In Korea, there’s hardly a heartier stew than gamjatang, a smorgasbord of pork bone, potatoes, cabbage, sesame leaves, bean sprouts, and spices. While eaters not accustomed to seeing a vertebrae bobbing in their bowl might find the soup jarring, Koreans are willing to bet the first-time taster will be reformed after just one slurp. Tender pork comes off the bone in shreds, mixing in with a thick broth that tastes as richly complex as it does humble and homey.
Korea’s kimbap is often compared to Japan’s maki-style sushi. But kimbap boasts a flavor all its own, owed in large part to its cooked beef component that takes the place of raw seafood. Together with rice, pickled radish, cooked egg, and sautéed carrots and spinach, the beef is rolled tightly inside a sheet of kim, or nori. Kimbap comes in many variations, including cooked tuna, imitation crab, and kimchi, and is sometimes shaped into a triangle. The snack is so ubiquitous in Korea that many mom-and-pop restaurants go by names like “Kimbap Nara — Kimbap Country” or “Kimbap Cheonguk — Kimbap Heaven,” even though they serve much more than just kimbap.
An old favorite, bulgogi is a sweet beef dish that is traditionally recognized for its royal roots but is today known for its fusion flavor. Its distinct flavor comes from a marinade of pureed pear, onion, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sugar, which can lend an iconic Korean twist to conventionally non-Korean foods, like burgers and tacos.
Yukhue is like a steak tartare, but one uncooked ingredient alone just isn’t enough. The beef is cut into thin strips, treated with a drizzle of sesame oil and a dash of salt and pepper, and topped with a raw egg yolk, then served alongside slices of crisp Korean pear. To enjoy, mix it all together for a combination that’s chewy, crunchy, robust, and fresh.
10. Doenjang Jjigae
A stew of fermented soybean paste, vegetables, and tofu, doenjang jjigae might not sound like the most appetizing food Korea has to offer, but it’s a revered staple in the country’s cuisine. The dish is modest, yes, but it’s also familiar and comforting, and its unique flavor will transport you to an old halmoni’s classic Korean kitchen.