In our Seoul food guide, we want to share some of our favorite dishes that are must-eats in Seoul. For many food travelers in Korea, the food can be a little intimidating. There are so many dishes that are different and unique from other Asian cuisines. After taking several trips to Seoul over the years we hope to demystify this tasty cuisine for culinary travelers.
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Learning About Food To Eat In Korea
I grew up eating Chinese food in New Jersey, almost weekly. When it comes to Japanese food, many people feel pretty comfortable with the basics like sushi, gyoza, and ramen can be found in cities around the world. Korean food, though, remains a bit of a mystery for many travelers.
Our First Time Eating Korean Food
I will never forget the first time Eric and I ate Korean food. We were in college in New Jersey. We not only found a Korean restaurant in New Brunswick, New Jersey but we went in without having any idea what to order.
I remember all of a sudden all of these small bowls and plates came to the table. Spicy things. Fishy things. It was all so unusual. At the time, I never imagined we would be living in Asia and have the opportunity to visit Seoul a few times.
Even when visiting Seoul, I still felt overwhelmed by the food in Seoul. I had no idea what to eat in Korea outside of BBQ and kimchi. We did a lot of research and asked a lot of questions to learn how to find the best traditional Korean food in Seoul.
How To Find The Best Food In Seoul South Korea
Seoul is a paradise for foodies, particularly for food travelers who are willing to try something new or unique. From traditional Seoul restaurants to street food and markets with piles of Korean fruits and vegetables, there’s so much great food. Much of it is relatively cheap too.
We love spicy food. Many of the things to eat in Seoul can be spicy. But, if you don’t like spicy food, just let the server know.
The great thing about traveling in Korea, particularly in Seoul, is that a good number of people speak English. We didn’t have a problem communicating anywhere. If our server didn’t speak English, there was often a helpful customer nearby willing to help a fellow food-lover.
Check out our guide to The Best Food Tours In Seoul
Wondering What To Eat In Seoul?
Our 13+ Must Eat Foods In Seoul
Although it is becoming more common to find Korean cuisine in most big cities around the world. We’ve even found pretty good Korean in Barcelona and Sevilla. We’ve eaten some pretty tasty Korean fried chicken in Bangkok too.
But, it is a cuisine that still remains a mystery to many people. Or, if they know Korean, they only know a handful of the most typical Korean dishes.
We love Korean barbecue and still plan a few nights eating barbecue whenever we visit Seoul. But, there is so much more to Korean cuisine than BBQ (although we will talk about BBQ too).
A lot of it is unknown outside of Korea, but by traveling to Seoul, you can open your eyes to a world of tasty treats. Here is our list of must-try food in Seoul.
Now that I look back on all of those little dishes that were served to us in that Korean restaurant in New Jersey back in 1997, I am sure at least one of them was kimchi.
It is the dish that is most associated with Korea. It is also not necessary to track down this must-eat Seoul food. It’s served as a Korean side dish from breakfast to dinner. Normally not a day goes by in Seoul without eating kimchi at every meal. It’s often considered the national dish of Korea and is, in my opinion, one of the best things to eat in Korea.
Kimchi is a traditional dish made from salted and fermented vegetables, most commonly made with cabbage. We actually learned how to make kimchi during our first trip to Seoul.
There are hundreds of different varieties of kimchi. Some of them are even sweet, where sugar is used to ferment vegetables. The most common version is a mixture of cabbage, chili powder, garlic, ginger, and fermented fish sauce or paste.
Learn more in our guide to the Best Korean Snacks To Try.
Thinking back to all those little dishes back in New Jersey in 1997, I now know these to be banchan. Banchan refers to all of the delicious little dishes served at the beginning of a meal in Korea.
Regardless of where you are eating in Seoul, chances are you will see a handful of dishes placed on the table just after ordering. The same is true often when ordering Korean BBQ, which comes with all sorts of little things on the side. There are even some restaurants in Seoul, though, where the banchan becomes the main course.
For many Americans, if they’ve eaten Korean food at home and moved beyond bulgogi and BBQ, chances are they perhaps have eaten japchae, a must-eat in Korea.
Japchae is a stir-fried glass noodle made with sweet potato starch. It’s normally topped with vegetables, meat, and mushrooms. Sometimes these noodles will be served as a small portion as part of the banchan.
I love two things in life: noodles and dumplings. Yes, there are loads of both to eat in Seoul.
Naengmyeon is a dish of long, thin handmade noodles. Unlike Japchae, where the noodles are made of sweet potato Naengmyeon is normally made with buckwheat, although it is possible to find versions made of other ingredients.
This noodle dish is actually from North Korea but became a food to eat in Seoul and throughout South Korea after the Korean War. Notably, this is a cold Korean noodle dish, so be prepared. The version we ate came in an icy cold broth.
Kimbap or Gimbap – Korean “Sushi”
I don’t know if the Koreans might have a problem with me calling this Korean sushi, but it is an easy way to describe a dish many food travelers might not know well.
Kimbap or Gimbap is a Korean stuffed rice roll. It is rolled in dried seaweed, like Japanese sushi. Kim or Gim means seaweed in Korean. But, it is more commonly filled with rice, meat, and vegetables rather than raw fish. And, all of the ingredients are cooked making it an easier dish to try for people who might not like sushi.
It’s pretty common to find these Korean rice rolls sold in boxes, street-side in Seoul. Or you can find them at some of the department store food courts. They’re a great cheap-eat too. Unlike sushi, no need for chopsticks. It’s okay to eat with your hands.
Korean Barbecue – Gogigui
Yes, Eric loves Korean barbecue. If you ask him, he’ll say that Korean BBQ is the best food in Seoul. That shouldn’t be surprising. Gogigui translates to “meat roast” but it is known to English speakers as Korean BBQ, which is not only a dish but an experience. When it comes to the most famous food in Seoul, this has to be it.
At its most basic, it is the process of grilling meat on gas or charcoal grills built into the dining table. The meat can include beef, pork, chicken, or even vegetables. It can be marinated or not.
You often receive a menu of various types of meats to order that can be placed on the grill. This could include marinated bulgogi or pork ribs. You cook your meat and then wrap it up in a lettuce leaf with garlic and other condiments.
As much as this is an institution in modern Korea, it’s a relative invention of the 20th Century. Before then, meat was very expensive and not all that common.
One of my favorite Korean BBQ experiences in Seoul involved a winter trip to a local’s joint with a Korean friend. They took our winter coats and zipped them into giant plastic bags to keep them from smelling like BBQ smoke after the meal.
Seoul Eats Pro Tip
Don’t be surprised if the server at your Korean BBQ restaurant helps by cutting your meat or periodically coming to turn the meat over. This doesn’t mean that they assume you are a foreigner who doesn’t know any better. It’s just part of the service! They also might place scissors on the table or use scissors to cut the meat into little mouth-sized pieces.
Bulgogi deserves its own mention even though it is commonly served as an item on a Korean BBQ grill. That’s because bulgogi can also be served on its own or as a part of other dishes. It’s a sliced and marinated beef or pork.
Bulgogi translates roughly to fire meat. It’s one of my favorite things to eat in Seoul. It can be served drier and placed onto a BBQ or served as a stew.
Korean food prices in Seoul run the gamut from cheap street food to higher-end Korean BBQ feasts. We’ve had the higher-end beef at places like Maple Tree House.
Hanwoo beef definitely does not fall within the category of cheap eats. It’s the Korean version of Wagyu beef. Marbled, fatty, tender, and delicious. If you can splurge, try it at one of the higher-end restaurants or steakhouses or at a more contemporary Korean BBQ restaurant. It’s definitely one of the best food to eat in Seoul.
Okay, this has been one of my favorite things to eat in Korea for years. Yes, I admit, some of it is because I just love the name. It’s just fun to say. It is one of the most famous Korean foods outside of South Korea. We’ve eaten this dish in the US, London, Spain, Thailand, and even Malaysia. It’s always a treat.
Bibimbap translates loosely to “mixed rice.” It’s a bowl of warm rice topped with Korean chili paste (known as gochujang), sauteed vegetables, sliced meat, and normally a lightly fried egg. The best part is mixing up the chili paste and the egg yolk into the rice and vegetable mixture.
Korean Fried Chicken And Korean Beer – Chimaek
Even in the US, there is nothing wrong with pairing fried chicken and beer. In Seoul, they take it one step further. This pairing is definitely on the list of must-try food in Korea, especially if you’ve been out drinking in Korea.
What makes Korean fried chicken (yes, that’s KFC), is that the chicken is double-fried, making it super crunchy. Normally it is coated in a sweet and spicy sauce made of tomato, garlic, and normally a bunch of secret ingredients, which differ at each restaurant. Or, it’s good too in its traditional format, without the sauce.
Samgyetang – Ginseng Chicken Soup
It is said that ginseng has mystical properties. In particular, in many Asian cultures, they believe ginseng keeps you young. One way to keep from aging, apparently, is to eat ginseng chicken soup. It can be pricey because of the supposed health benefits, but it’s worth a try.
Pajeon is similar to a pancake with scallions or green onion as its main ingredient. And, it is entirely different from what we consider to be pancakes in the US. It’s commonly found in and around a lot of the night food markets in Seoul
It can be mixed with meats or seafood along with a special type of rice flour and eggs. The flour gives it a unique texture, almost chewy but crispy at the same time. When served, it is sometimes sliced into individual squares and served alongside kimchi.
My love affair with all things noodles extends to my infatuation with dumplings. It is less common to find good Korean dumplings at Korean restaurants outside of the country.
But, some of my favorite Seoul places to eat are ones that specialize in various forms of mandu, or Korean dumplings. We found one place in, of all places, the main Seoul bus station. In our minds, it was the best Korean restaurant in Seoul. I could have spent hours there eating Korean dumplings in every shape or form.
Mandu is prepared steamed, boiled, pan-fried, or deep-fried. They are commonly filled with vegetables or pork and served with a side of kimchi (of course) and a dipping sauce. There are restaurants in Seoul that specialize in Korean dumplings, but they are also commonly found as Seoul street food.
Seoul Korea Food Blog Pro Tip
There are different varieties of mandu to look for when eating in Seoul. Here are just a few of our favorites to look for.
Jjin Mandu: Steamed dumplings
Kimchi Mandu: Steamed dumplings with kimchi
Gun Mandu: pan or deep-fried Korean dumplings
Wang Mandu: king dumplings, which are larger