The fact that there are more than 100 different types of kimchi should tell you something about the pride Koreans have in their food.
Korean cuisine has evolved over time because of cultural changes, but it remains a major aspect of the national identity.
Here are 39 dishes that are essential to the Korean heart, soul and digestive tract.
Given South Korea’s dedicated drinking culture, it’s not surprising that its hangover-curing culture is equally as developed, from pre-drinking drinks to post-drinking drinks to a glorious array of spicy and steamy stews and soups.
Made from a beef broth, with cabbage, bean sprouts, radish and chunks of congealed ox blood, the deeply satisfying taste does wonders to kick-start your sluggish brain in the morning.
Dating to the Silla Dynasty (around 2,000 years ago), kimchi is the beloved spicy sidekick at every Korean table. It’s made by salting and preserving fermented cabbage in a bed of red chilli pepper, garlic, ginger and scallion.
Feeling adventurous? Exchange your regular red cabbage kimchi for ggakdugi (chopped radish kimchi), a popular side at gimbap restaurants.
Yeolmumul kimchi is a less spicy kimchi made with young radish stalks floating in a tangy soup.
Soft tofu, clams and an egg in spicy broth? This popular stew is a classic example of unexpected flavor combinations yielding delightful sensations.
The soft tofu – which breaks into fluffy chunks in the stew – holds the flavor of the clam and serves as a relief from the overall spiciness.
Proper sundubu-jjigae comes in a traditional earthenware pot designed to retain heat. The egg is cracked into the stew after serving, and cooks inside the bowl.
Samgyeopsal is the Korean word for pork belly, and it’s a staple at what many Westerners know simply as Korean BBQ restaurants.
The best part of eating in a samgyeopsal restaurant is the atmosphere – a rollicking party punctuated by soju shots, pork strips sizzling on a grill and shouts for “one more serving, please!”
Served with lettuce, perilla leaves, sliced onions and raw garlic, the meat is smudged in ssamjang (a mix of soybean paste called ‘doenjang’ and chili paste called ‘gochujang’) or salt and pepper in sesame oil.
Although originally a Chinese dish, Koreans have taken the noodles and created a thicker, sweeter version that holds only a vague resemblance to its Chinese predecessor. (Think of New Yorkers and the wonders they’ve done with pizza.)
It would not be an understatement to say Korean diets would not be the same without this dish – most Koreans eat it regularly, and have their favorite jjajangmyeon delivery shop on speed dial.
Chimaek, short for “chicken, maekju (beer)” is actually not a dish, but an institution. This glorious pairing features two surprisingly mundane foods: fried chicken and beer.
Neither half, chicken nor beer, is particularly remarkable on its own. But their popularity as a joint entity demonstrates a glorious combination devoured by millions of Koreans every weekend.
Anyone can follow the directions on the back of the ramyeon package to boil water and sprinkle in the spice packet, but connoisseurs will add extras like canned tuna, eggs, and cheese for enhanced flavor.
A lesser-known fact about kimchi is its versatility as an ingredient in a whole slew of derivative dishes, which comprise a category of their own.
In kimchi-jjigae, red cabbage kimchi is chopped, sauteed in oil, and cooked with tofu, pork (sometimes tuna), and other vegetables.
Despite the stew’s debt to kimchi, you know it has come into its own when it’s served with kimchi as a side dish.
This hodgepodge stew of sausages, Spam, American cheese, instant noodles, tteok, and assorted vegetables dates back to the aftermath of the Korean War.
Because meat was scarce, cooks found creative replacements in the surplus foods from the American army base stationed in Seoul, hence the stew’s name.
Although meat has since then become plentiful, a buddae jjigae without Spam is unimaginable.
Ganjang gejang, or crab marinated in soy sauce, can be so addictive that it’s often affectionately called “rice thief,” the joke being that you keep eating more rice just so that you can have more gejang since it’s just that good.
Slightly tangy, tantalizingly bitter, pungent and cold, the taste may come as a shock for first-timers. But among South Koreans, gejang has been carving out a niche for itself as more of a centerpiece than a sideshow to other seafoods.
This iconic red-orange street food is so popular there’s an entire part of Seoul just devoted to the steamed and sliced rice cakes (tteok), cooked with fish cakes (oden) and scallions in a sweet and spicy sauce made of chili paste.
Chefs have been known to put all sorts of things inside the sauce, from the black soybean paste to plain old ketchup. Call us masochists, but one thing is certain: the more pepper, the better.
Gopchang refers to the small intestines from pork or cattle, which, chopped into rounded sections, can be cooked into soups, stir-fried, or grilled.
Grilled, gopchang is yet another important aspect of Korean barbecue culture. Chewy without being rubbery, it’s a bit more festive than samgyeopsal, although it’s still a staunchly earthy food.
And as most office workers in South Korea can tell you, it’s divine with soju.
Continuing along the masochistic strain, Koreans have a saying that goes, “fight heat with heat.” What that means is they love to eat boiling hot dishes on the hottest summer days.
The most representative of these is samgyetang, a thick, glutinous soup with a whole stuffed chicken floating in its boiling depths.
The cooking process tones down the ginseng’s signature bitterness and leaves an oddly appealing, aromatic flavor in its stead – a flavor that permeates an entire bird boiled down to a juicy softness.
This Korean lunch-in-a-bowl mixes together a simple salad of rice, mixed vegetables, rice, beef, and egg, with sesame oil and a dollop of chili paste for seasoning.
Although Korean kings from yesteryear would probably be shocked at how the royal dish has become so ingrained into the palate of the masses, we love how cheaply and quickly we can devour our favorite lunch.
The process of making gimbap resembles the Italian glasswork technique of millefiori, and indeed, the finished gimbap often looks too pretty too eat.
Sauteed vegetables, ground beef, sweet pickled radish, and rice, rolled and tightly wrapped in a sheet of laver seaweed (gim), and then sliced into bite-sized circles.
In this delectable summer dessert, sweetened red beans (pat) and tteok are served on a bed of shaved ice (bingsu). Variations will include condensed milk, misutgaru, syrup, ice cream, and corn flakes.
Then there are, of course, the variations on the bingsu, where the pat is sometimes entirely replaced by ice cream or fruit.
Classic patbingsu, however, is too beloved to lose ground to the newcomers – come summer, every bakery and fast food restaurant in Seoul will have patbingsu on its dessert menu.
Gamja in Korean means potato, but in the case of this hearty dish, it translates to pork bone soup.
Most gamjatang places are open 24 hours, because South Koreans tend to crave this stew in the early hours of the morning as an alternative to hangover stew.
This hearty dish features potatoes (gamja), scallions, ground perilla seed, and bits of pork cooked in a pork bone broth. The real appeal of this stew lies in the unique taste of the perilla seed, which is perhaps more important to the flavor than the meat.
Crunchy and filling, Korean pancake tastes best when it comes studded with shellfish, cuttlefish, and other varieties of seafood, to make haemul (seafood) pajeon.
And with its traditional companion of Korean rice wine, makgeolli, pajeon makes the perfect meal for a rainy day.
This dish is the soupier, spicier counterpart to jjajangmyeon and together they form the core of Korean Chinese home delivery cuisine.
But although noodles dominate in terms of sheer quantity, the onions and chili oil that flavor the soup are what really demand your attention. With copious amounts of chili oil-saturated onions and other vegetables on top of the noodles, few are able to finish this dish in its entirety, but many try.
Another street food, sundae is a type of sausage, similar in content to blood pudding, with roots in Mongolian cuisine. “Real” sundae is pig intestine with a stuffing of cellophane noodles, vegetables, and meat, but even if you eat the street vendor version, which uses a synthetic replacement for the pig intestine, you will still be able to enjoy the lungs and liver on the side. Yum.
This seasonal dish might taste bland to some, but once you learn to enjoy the subtle flavor of the bean, you will acquire a taste for this cold, creamy, textured noodle dish that no other dish will be able to satisfy in the summer.
And if the pale, spring green julienne cucumbers placed on the hand-ground, snow-white soybean doesn’t tip you off, kongguksu is a highly nutritious dish that also happens to be vegetarian-friendly.
Bad kalguksu can be very bad. But good kalguksu is divine.
Although most kalguksu places will add mushrooms, sliced pumpkin, and seafood or chicken to the basic ingredients of noodles and broth, at the end of the day kalguksu is about the pleasure of the plain.
This ox bone soup is easily recognizable by its milky white color and sparse ingredients. At most, seolleongtang broth will contain noodles, finely chopped scallions, and a few strips of meat.
Yet for such a frugal investment, the results are rewarding. There is nothing like a steaming bowl of seolleongtang on a cold winter day, salted and peppered to your taste, and complemented by nothing more than rice and kkakdugi kimchi.
Originally tteokguk was strictly eaten on the first day of the Lunar New Year to signify good luck and the gaining of another year in age. The custom makes more sense if you think in Korean: idiomatically, growing a year older is expressed as “eating another year.”
But this dish of oval rice cake slices, egg, dried laver seaweed, and occasionally dumplings in a meat-based broth is now eaten all year round, regardless of age or season.
This humble, instantly recognizable stew is one of Korea’s most beloved foods.
The ingredients are simple: doenjang, tofu, mushrooms, green peppers, scallions, and an anchovy or two for added flavor. Add rice and kimchi on the side and you have a meal – no other side dishes necessary.
While its distinctive piquancy might throw some off, that very taste is what keeps it on the South Korean table week after week.
Galbi, which means “rib,” can technically come from pork and even chicken, but when you just say “galbi” sans modifiers, you’re talking about thick slabs of meat marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, chopped garlic, and sugar and grilled over a proper fire.
Of course, beef galbi can be used to make soup (galbitang) and steamed galbi (galbijjim). But these dishes, while excellent in their own right, are overshadowed by their grilled leader.
Dak-galbi: South Korea’s one-pot wonder
On the other end of the galbi spectrum is the low-budget student favorite Chuncheon dakgalbi.
Chuncheon is a city in Gangwon province, which developed its own unique method of grilling marinated chicken.
In this dish, chunks of chicken are marinated in a sauce of chili paste and other spices, and stir-fried in a large pan with tteok, cabbage, carrots and slices of sweet potato.
Because of the tendency of the red dakgalbi sauce to splatter, it’s common to see many diners wearing aprons over their clothes as they cook and eat.
As is frequently the case with many South Korean meat dishes, Bossam at its core is simple: steamed pork.
But key to this dish is that the steamed pork is sliced into squares slightly larger than a bite, lovingly wrapped in a leaf of lettuce, perilla, or kimchi, and daubed with a dipping sauce. There are two traditional options: ssamjang, made of chili paste and soybean paste (doenjang), or saeujeot, a painfully salty pink sauce made of tiny pickled shrimp.
Wrapping and dipping are essential.
Agujjim, also known as agwijjim, is a seafood dish that consists of anglerfish braised on a bed of dropwort and bean sprout. It is as spicy as it looks: the entire dish is a bright reddish color, from the chili powder, chili paste, and chili peppers used in the seasoning.
The white, firm flesh of the anglerfish, which is quite rightly called the “beef of the sea,” is meaty and filling. And the tangle of dropwort and bean sprout that make up the majority of the dish aren’t just there for decoration: the dropwort is tart and the bean sprouts crunchy.
Japchae, a side dish of cellophane noodles, pork, and assorted vegetables sauteed in soy sauce, makes its most frequent appearances at feasts and potlucks.
There are no precise rules governing the precise assortment of vegetables in japchae, but most recipes won’t stray far from the standard collection of mushrooms, carrots, spinach, onions, and leeks.
This appropriate combination of blanched dubu (tofu), sauteed kimchi, and stir-fried pork is a threesome made in heaven. The dubu, which has the potential to be bland on its own, has the pork to add substance and the kimchi to add flavor.
Another stalwart companion to alcohol, especially at more traditional bars and restaurants, dubu kimchi makes soju almost palatable.
This viscous, yellow-orange juk, or porridge, gets its distinctive color and flavor from the pumpkin, its namesake and its main ingredient. The pumpkin is peeled, boiled, and blended with glutinous rice flour, and the result is a bowl of porridge so creamy, golden, and sweet that in some ways it seems more pudding than porridge.
Hobakjuk is often served as an appetizer to meals, or as a health food: it is supposedly beneficial to those suffering from intestinal problems. The specifics of medicinal science aside, it’s not difficult to imagine that this mellow, mildly flavored meal can heal.
This side dish, in which an egg is beaten into a bowl, lightly salted and steamed into a spongy, pale yellow cake, is absolutely essential when eating spicy food.
Similar in consistency to soft tofu (sundubu), but with more flavor, gyeranjjim is sometimes made with diced mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, leeks, and sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
In South Korea we wait for summer just so we can start eating naengmyeon every week. The cold buckwheat noodles are great as a lightweight lunch option or after Korean barbecue, as a way to cleanse the palate.
Mul naengmyeon, or “water” naengmyeon, hailing from North Korea’s Pyongyang, consists of buckwheat noodles in a tangy meat or kimchi broth, topped with slivers of radish, cucumber, and egg, and seasoned with vinegar and Korean mustard (gyeoja).
Bibim naengmyeon, or “mix” naengmyeon, generally contains the same ingredients, but minus the broth. The noodles are instead covered in a sauce made from chili paste.
This light brown jello, made of acorn starch, is served cold, frequently with a topping of chopped leeks and soy sauce as a side dish, or as an ingredient in Dotorimuk salads and dotorimukbap (dotorimuk with rice).
Like tofu, dotorimuk, while nutritious and vegan-friendly, can taste bland on its own. The flavor, which is unique, can only be described as acorn – bitter rather than nutty. But although dotorimuk may be an acquired taste, most dotorimuk dishes have a host of appetizing spices and condiments to help the process along.
This spicy soup has a consistency closer to that of stew. Although mashed and boiled to the point where it is unrecognizable, chueotang is named for the freshwater mudfish (chueo) that constitutes the main ingredient.
But the selling point of this soup is the coarse yet satisfying texture of the mudfish and the vegetables – mung bean sprouts, dried radish greens, sweet potato stems, and most of all the thin, delicate outer cabbage leaves.
If galbi represents Korean barbecue, then bulgogi’s playing field is Korean cuisine as a whole. This well-known sweet meat dish, which has existed in some form for over a thousand years, was haute cuisine during the Joseon Dynasty.
The dish is also a fusion favorite: bulgogi-flavored burgers are part of the menu at fast food franchise Lotteria, and there have also been sightings of other adaptations like the bulgogi panini.
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to get stuck in daytime Seoul traffic, you will see the ppeongtwigi sellers emerge from nowhere and park themselves in the center of the highway. Their fearlessness is a sure sign that your car won’t be budging for a while yet.
Ppeongtwiti is onomatopoeic. The ppeong represents the sound that rice makes as it pops, and there really isn’t much else to the snack but that – popping.
If you’re feeling tired of all the greasy, barbecue-flavored, chocolate-covered, and over-packaged snacks that most stores stock today, try a handful of this relatively Spartan treat. It’s unexpectedly addictive.
The best places to find it are at the local seller down the street.
In this enduring favorite, octopus is stir-fried with vegetables in a sauce of chili paste, chili powder, green peppers, and chili peppers – ingredients that would be spicy enough on their own, but which all congregate to create one extra fiery dish.
When it’s done right, the chewy, tender octopus swims in a thick, dark red, caramelized sauce, so good that you can ignore the fact that it sets your mouth aflame to keep eating.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted and republished in 2023.