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We wouldn't want to be dishwashers in a Korean restaurant. Hanjeongsik table d'hote dinners typically include two kinds of soup, three or more main dishes and up to 12 side dishes. You can barely see the table under the maze of little white dishes.

A waitress serves soup and pajeon, green onion pancakes.
A waitress serves soup and pajeon, green onion pancakes.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A multitude of tastes, colors and textures characterizes Korean cuisine. Many dishes are vegetarian, resulting in a nutritious, well-balanced, low-calorie meal. It's rare to see a fat Korean.

Before visiting South Korea, we erroneously assumed that Korean food was a cross between Chinese and Japanese, due to the country's location between the two nations. While there are similarities, notably the use of rice as a staple, Korean cuisine is unique.

Take kimchi, for example. Koreans eat this fermented vegetable dish at every meal, including breakfast. There are at least 100 varieties. Restaurants can make or break their reputations based on the quality of their kimchi.

Varieties of kimchi

Housewives jealously guard their recipes and pass them on as family heirlooms. There's even a museum in Seoul, devoted entirely to the preparation of the spicy pickled vegetables, since they were first made in the 17th century.

The most popular kimchi is made from cabbage, which is seasoned with chili paste and garlic, sometimes stuffed with seafood, and left whole or wrapped into bundles. Our favorite is water kimchi, made from white radishes, green onions, red peppers and Korean pears, pickled in seasoned brine and served chilled.

Dishes of kimchi surround bulgogi, thinly-sliced sirloin, barbecued at the table in a Gyeongju restaurant.
Dishes of kimchi surround bulgogi, thinly-sliced sirloin, barbecued at the table in a Gyeongju restaurant.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Seoul's Namdaemun Market not only reveals a plethora of kimchi, but also fresh fish, meat and vegetables, and their seasonings. Buckets of garlic cloves and chili paste, stacks of ginger and scallions, jugs of soy sauce and golden sesame oil fill stand after stand. If you don't like hot foods, don't worry. Not all Korean foods are incendiary.

Barbecue beef restaurants

Bulgogi, Korea's best-known dish, is thinly sliced sirloin, marinated in soy sauce, garlic and sesame oil, then barbecued at the table. Our fondest memories are of the bulgogi served in Seoul's Insadong district.

We sat cross-legged on bamboo mats on the floor, in front of a long low table. The waitress draped a domed charcoal brazier, inserted into the table, with the well-marbled beef. As it sizzled, we each placed a large crisp leaf of romaine lettuce on one hand, then topped it with vegetables, green onions and garlic. After adding some grilled bulgogi, we wrapped the leaf around the contents, and bit into the scrumptious bundle. The whole was even better than the sum of its parts.

Diners eat bulgogi and kimchi in an Insadong restaurant in Seoul.
Diners eat bulgogi and kimchi in an Insadong restaurant in Seoul.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Other adaptations are less authentic but still tasty. The Sofitel Ambassador in Seoul serves a bulgogi and kimchi pizza. Even McDonald's serves bulgogi burgers. They look like Big Macs, but are seasoned with garlic, sesame and soy sauce.

Galbi, or beef ribs, are also broiled over charcoal. Alternatively, cooks simmer the meat in the marinade until it's tender and glazed. Sometimes they add chestnuts, carrots, Chinese dates and pyogo mushrooms to make a delicious stew.

Our very first taste of Korean food was on Korean Air during a flight to Seoul. The dish was japchaebap, a tantalizing combination of sweet potato noodles, fresh spinach, julienned carrots, beef and shiitake mushrooms, garnished with sesame seeds and served on rice. Anticipation of Korea's culinary treats increased with every bite.

What to eat at Incheon Airport

Restaurants in Seoul's Incheon International Airport serve not only cheeseburgers and ham sandwiches, but also bibimbap (boiled rice with vegetables). Korea's version of risotto originated in Chonju, and is regarded as an "Intangible Cultural Asset."

Bibim means "to mix," while bap translates as "rice." A waiter brought us large metal bowls, filled with shredded zucchini, carrots, bean sprouts, mushrooms, ground beef and fern bracken. We added a soft-fried egg, rice and chili paste to taste, then stirred it into a delicious meal. Bean sprout soup accompanies the dish.

Soups, noodles, dumplings and snacks

No Korean meal is complete without soups. They range from light vegetable-based broths to hearty meals-in-a-bowl like seafood soup and beef rice soup. Cold soups, such as naengmyeon, are especially refreshing in summer. Naengmyeon is a nest of thin chewy buckwheat noodles, topped with chopped scallions, radishes, cucumbers, sesame seeds and lean sliced beef, submerged in a chilled beef broth.

Mother and son eat bulgogi, Korean barbecued beef, in a Seoul restaurant.
Mother and son eat bulgogi, Korean barbecued beef, in a Seoul restaurant.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

One of the most satisfying meals we had in Seoul, was mandu guk, dumpling soup, served in an unpretentious noodle shop near Gyeongbokgung Palace. Our guide gave us directions, so we didn't miss the restaurant, because the signs were in Korean.

There were only a few arborite tables inside, and most of them were occupied with locals, enjoying large bowls of broth with homemade noodles, fried vegetables and dumplings. We simply indicated that we wanted what they were eating, because the short menu on the wall was also in Korean.

As we ate, we watched a cook busily stuffing the mandu wrappers with a mixture of ground beef, tofu, onion, kimchi, garlic and sesame oil. The filling meal, including kimchi and tea was very inexpensive.

Our favorite Korean snack food is pancakes. The Korean Folk Village, just outside Seoul, serves tasty pajeon, or green onion and seafood pancakes. Bindaetteok, pancakes made from ground mung beans, rice flour, pork, green onions and kimchi, are as nutritious as they are addictive.

Insadong tea houses

Tea is the most popular beverage. There are dozens of varieties, including green, barley, ginseng, arrowroot, citron, Chinese quince, ginger and herb. The best place to sample them is in traditional tea houses, such as those located amid the antique and calligraphy shops of Seoul's Insadong district.

Visitors sample teas in an Insadong tea shop in Seoul.
Visitors sample teas in an Insadong tea shop in Seoul.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The subdued atmosphere of tea houses is ideal for quiet conversation and appreciation of the beverage and the artfully designed pottery cups in which it's served. Coffee is also available here, as well as in coffee shops, where the price of a cup allows you to sit and talk as long as you wish.

Non-alcoholic punches are a treat that no visitor should miss. Sikhye is made by boiling rice, malt and honey in water, and allowing it to ferment. It's served chilled, with rice grains floating on top.

Equally refreshing is sujeonggwa, a fruit punch made from cinnamon, sugar and dried persimmons. A half-dozen pine nuts drift atop the amber beverage. Both drinks are so popular, that they're available in cans, like soft drinks.

Korean wines and liquors

Rice is also used to make alcoholic drinks like makgeolli, a milky-white unrefined rice wine, and cheongju, a refined rice wine. You can sample them in noisy, crowded and boisterous Korean bars where working men drink.

Soju, a vodka-like liquor made from sweet potatoes, is also readily available, as well as Western-type beers. Hite is a popular brand.

Korea designates some very old traditional folk liquors as "Major Intangible Cultural Assets." The people who retain the skills to manufacture them are "Human Cultural Assets." Although harder to find, drinks, such as dugyeonju, azalea liquor, and igangju, pear and ginger wine, are well worth the search.

Many of these drinks are regional, as are some of Korea's foods. Take, for example, Jeju-do, an island 100 kilometers south of the mainland. Seafood stew, cooked in an earthen pot, is a specialty, as is sashimi, freshly caught by women who dive to 10-meter depths, without the aid of scuba gear.

Jeju-do's soil produces the world's sweetest tangerines, while fragrant pyogo mushrooms sprout from the 700-meter-level slopes of Mt. Halla.

Health foods and drinks

Koreans believe that all food is medicine, benefiting the person who eats it. The prefix yak, meaning medicine, is attached to a food that's particularly good for you, such as yakshik, sweet rice, or yakgwa, honey cookies.

Ginseng in tall glass bottles and boxes at Namdaemun Market in Seoul.
Ginseng in tall glass bottles and boxes at Namdaemun Market in Seoul.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Without a doubt, South Korea's best-known medicine/food is ginseng. Cooks chop the root and mix it with chestnuts, garlic and glutinous rice to make a stuffing for chicken. They boil the stuffed bird with more ginseng to make a soup that's supposed to increase stamina. Ginseng tea is reputed to combat fatigue, high blood pressure and diabetes.

More modern health drinks reflect the current international obsession with fitness. Sweetie is a low-cal, high-calcium fiber drink. Fiber Mini is an orange-flavored high-fiber beverage. There are also several sports drinks including Max Power and something not-so-appetizingly called, Pocari Sweat.

Holiday and celebration foods

If you are in Korea during a holiday, sample the special foods served on festive occasions. New Year's Day, for instance, calls for tteokguk, or rice cake soup made with ground beef, green onions, beaten eggs and steamed rice cakes.

No celebration is complete without a beautifully arranged basket of hangwa. These traditional sweets include yakgwa cookies, coated in pine nuts, cinnamon and sesame seeds, and chewy tteok, made from rice flour and coated with bean powder.

Of course, you aren't restricted to Korean food in Korea. Chinese, Japanese and Western restaurants are popular throughout the country. In Seoul, you'll find French, English, Indian, Thai, Mexican, German, Swiss, Irish, Russian and Vietnamese cuisines. Dinner theaters, vegetarian restaurants and fast food chains like Pizza Hut, Burger King, and KFC also abound. Many restaurants are non-smoking.

Dining and drinking etiquette in Korea

  • Wait until the oldest person present starts to eat before dining.
  • Take one mouthful at a time from communal dishes, rather than piling food into your rice bowl.
  • Do not leave your chopsticks sticking out of your bowl of rice, since this symbolically designates their use by the dead.
  • It's bad manners to hold the rice bowl in your hand while eating from it.
  • Don't leave the table until the oldest person has finished eating.
  • When drinking, fill your companions' glasses, rather than your own.
  • If someone pours you a drink you don't want, take a token sip instead of refusing it.


1.25 lb (550 gm) sirloin steak
2 tbsp (30 mL) rice wine or sherry
2 tbsp (30 mL) sugar
4 tbsp (60 mL) soy sauce
2 tbsp (30 mL) chopped green onions
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced garlic
0.5 tsp (3 mL) pepper
1 tbsp (15 mL) sesame seeds
2 tbsp (10 mL) sesame oil
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
0.5 cup (125 mL) mushrooms, sliced
  1. Slice beef against grain into 1 x 2-inch pieces, about 0.25-inch thick. Score lightly to tenderize.
  2. Mix wine, sugar, and soy sauce. Add green onions, garlic, pepper, sesame seeds and oil. Pour over sliced meat and allow it to marinate for 30 minutes.
  3. Add sliced vegetables and stir.
  4. Grill on a lightly oiled hot grill, frying pan or wok.


Korea Tourism Organization

More information on Korea:

Korea - Where East Meets West

Gyeongju Korea

Guide to Korea