Over the last 10 years or so, South Korea has become more famous for its electronics and North Korea has become famous for, well, other things. But Korean cuisine is the bomb!
There are quite a few blogs out there that deal with South Korean cuisine, but Korean food swells way beyond Seoul. North Korean food can be awesome, and then you have Yanbian, the Korean part of China, as well as Korea Towns throughout the world that all have their own unique takes on things.
To the uninitiated, many feel that Korean food and Chinese food are one and the same, but this would be like comparing German food with that of Spain. Yes there are similarities, but many more differences.
Korean food is based around rice, noodles, vegetables, kimchi, meats, and being surrounded by the sea, seafood.
Here is our quintessential guide to the best Korean foods, and the highlights of Korean Cuisine – in no particular order
1) Pyongyang Cold Noodles (Naengmyeon)
OK, so we went for a North Korean one first (sorry). You can read about this fabulous dish more here. Pyongyang Cold Noodles are a noodle dish served cold (duh). The buckwheat noodles come with spicy paste and meat (or fish if you want Hamhung Cold Noodles), from where you add strong vinegar, and Korean mustard to get it to your liking. Eat the noodles, then drink the broth! This dish is best served in Pyongyang, but can be purchased as far afield as Jeju and even New York.
2) Bulgogi (marinaded beef)
I freaking love this dish, and apparently it is so good that it was ranked 23rd in the world by CNN (who knew). Usually served part of a BBQ often with garlic, and onions, from where you wrap it in a lettuce leaf, and as my Korean friends tell me it becomes a “Korean Sandwich”. An absolute favorite in the south, but available in the north and most Koreatowns. I Once had a bulgogi burger at McDonalds. That could warrant its own blog, I’m not gonna lie.
You can read more about Kimchi here, but you cannot even begin to discuss Korean food either side of the border without mentioning this dish. A fermented cabbage dish similar (but different) to sauerkraut, it is served with every meal (yes that includes breakfast). It is an acquired taste, but also quite moorish. The best kimchi is homemade and generally speaking I think North Korean Kimchi is better than South Korean Kimchi.
“But that isn’t a food” I hear you cry loudly. I don’t care, and I am writing this blog. Soju is the national drink of Korea (all Koreas) and is best served at about 18% volume, although there are soju liquors that go up to mouth burning proportions. You can read more about why I think you should drink soju here and then I’ll leave you with one last tip. Beer and Soju mixed together is called SoMaek (very popular in the north). If you wanna get drunk, this will help, a lot.
5) Ddukbokki (spicy rice cake)
Another one of my favorite parts of Korean cusine, this dish is often served as street food, which is always a winner in my book. Cylindrical rice cakes, triangular fish cakes and vegetables served in chili paste that tastes a bit like a Korean BBQ Sauce. Generally this is a southern thing.
6) Ginseng Chicken soup (Samgyetang)
Another one that the North do a little better than their angry southern cousins. Basically chicken soup cooked with the legendary “cures everything” Ginseng. You can read more about ginseng here, but the unique strength of flavor combined with the chicken makes it a great dish. Kaesong is the best place to get your jollies on this bad boy.
Another absolutely great dish that very much crosses the North/South divide. In simple terms, this is a rice dish served in a hot bowl with all manner of ingredients, such as mushroom, meat, vegetables and whatever thrown in. You then mix it up to your hearts content. Every region, or even restaurant has its own varieties and it is hard not to find one you like.
8) Seafood in Rason
OK, so this might seem a bit tenuous, but it isn’t. Rason is special for a whole heap of reasons, but one of the main ones is that you can shop at the local markets. Hairy crabs, normal crabs, huge octopus, name a seafood and it’s here and holy shit is it cheap. You then take it to a local restaurant and they go and cook it for you!! Genuinely the best and cheapest seafood I have ever had. For obvious reasons this is only available in Rason. Did I mention the sea-urchin?
9) Samyang Challenge!
OK, so rahmen noodles might not be up there in most peoples Korean food highlights, but hear me out on this one! It is a super super hot spicy noodle that is so hot people get filmed eating it. I first tried at Korea Town Angeles (link to SFG Koreatown), and I think I handled it pretty well. Although my anus handled it less so well. A classic that you must try!
10) Taedonggang Beer
Yep, we know, I threw in another liquid. You can read more about it here, but here are some basics for ya! It is the best beer in North Korea (there are no good beers in south Korea), it tastes like a home-brew almost, it is nonpasturised and just very unique. They offer a ton of different varieties and it is an essential when you visit North Korea.
11) Samgyeopsal (pork strips)
Probably the most common, or popular dish in the Republic of Korea and thus could be considered more south Korean cuisine, but these thinly cut pieces of pork tend to get served with Korean BBQ. You cook it, dip it in salt, pepper and sesame seed oil, then wrap in in lettuce like the aforementioned “Korean sandwich”. Great for a Korean Keto diet.
12) Chicken and Hoff
The bars of south Korea are weird, I’m not gonna lie. Buying food is considered compulsory. A mainstay of the bar scene is chicken and hoff. Chicken is of the Korean Fried Chicken variety (no that does not mean KFC despite the acronym), and hoff means beer. Chicken and beer, but also a classic Seoul night out.
13) Beer fish (talpi)
A snack rather than any ‘real’ cuisine, but it comes dried and served with wasabi and soy sauce! If you ever drink with a North Korean you WILL come across this. Again whilst not particularly Korean cuisine, it is a national obsession of epic proportions. Even in Dandong you will see it sold by the bag load to be taken back to Sinuiju by day traders. The taste is meh in my opinion, but the whole ceremony and routine of it make it very cultural, and thus one of my favorite foods of the Korean peninsula.
In the wise words of Nic from YPT
“In North Korea usually I just ask for 명태 (Myeongtae) which is the big dried fish that Koreans like with beer but in South Korea the people I’ve been with say Jee-po(쥐포) when we get it “
Cant say fairer than that.
We’ve had Ginseng chicken, but ginseng is more Korean than anything else on this list. They make soup, candy, tea, medicine, you name it they make it from Ginseng. And whatever they make from it, the flavor is so powerful you can tell it is medicinal, but it is also so good. I’d add to this list Ginseng Liquor, of of my favorite drinks of Korea and at 40% plus, oh yes it has a kick.
15) Dog Meat BBQ
Well I left this until last so that any Peta members would not have bolted off (like a dog). I will start with saying I am not here to talk about the ethicalness of dog meat, but it is a fact in Korean cuisine. It is now much harder to find “sweet meat”, as they call it in the south. In the south and in North Korea they tend to serve dog soup. In Yanji on the other hand there are dog BBQ restaurants everywhere. Dog ribs, I hate to say taste pretty damned good.
That’s our top guide to Korean Food and Korean cuisine in general. No North, or South business here, Korea is One after all.