Places to eat in Korea
Restaurants in Korea fall into a few different categories, to state the bleeding obvious, this is the same case everywhere. But for a foreigner in Korea it can take a while to recognise and be able to classify eating places. Language barriers, unfamiliar food, social mores and expectations can combine to make the simple act of eating overwhelming.
A proper Korean meal consists of rice, a spread of banchan, a soup or stew and some kind of main dish. Many of the eateries you see lining the streets don’t serve these baek ban (백반)-ish meals, they’re drinking places. In Korea it’s unusual to drink without eating, and sometimes it can be difficult to find a place to get a drink without being forced to order anju (side dishes that accompany drinks).
What follows is by no means a definitive list of eating places in Korea, but it’s a start.
Kimbap Cheonguk is a popular eatery.
Bunsik (분식) means food made from flour, think ramyeon (라면, Korean style instant noodles), tteokbokki (떡볶이, cylindrical rice cakes in spicy sauce) and twigim (튀김, lightly battered and fried vegetables, egg or seafood). Odeng (오뎅, Korean style fish cakes) threaded on to long wooden sticks and warmed in fish broth are common, as is Korean style blood sausage (순대, sundae). These are eateries that serve inexpensive Korean ‘street food’ inside. To me, this is the kind of food that you eat when you’re drunk, but definitely not while drinking. After many pre-sleep 5am breakfasts at Hongdae’s Gangster Ttoekbokki, I can only rarely eat this food when sober.
A type of bunsikjib are kimbap joints like Kimbap Nara (김밥나라) and Kimbap Cheonguk (김밥천국). These serve an extensive menu (handy translated version here), and are often open 24 hours. They’re franchises, so quality varies dramatically. As the name implies, rice based dishes like kimbap (김밥) and bibimbap (비빔밥) are also served here. These are great places to eat if you’re starving, poor and no where else is open.
These streetside eateries are what passes for ‘street food’ in Korea (top picture). Mostly they’re stand up and eat places, serving ttoekbokki, twigim, kimbap, odeng and sundae. Some transform in the evening into tents with tables serving noodles or more elaborate food alongside an endless supply of soju.
Local Markets (시장)
Local markets often have an area to sit down and eat some pojangmacha-style food, or something a little more complex. Different preparations of noodles (국수, guksu) are common and some markets have specialities, Kwangjang Market is famous for mung bean pancake (빈대떡, bindaetteok) and also has a raw-beef alley.
Chinese restaurants are often distinctive and not terribly delicious.
Korean style Chinese restaurants or take away/delivery joints abound. I’ve discussed them and their dissimilarity to actual Chinese restaurants before. Come here to eat inexpensive black noodles (자장면, jjajangmyeon), sweet and sour pork (탕수육, tangsuyuk) or spicy seafood noodle soup ( 짬뽕, jambong) but don’t expect anything resembling the food in China.
In Korean, 치킨 (chikin) means fried chicken. Popular franchises include Kyochon, Nene chicken and Two Two. The menu varies, but only slightly. Spring onion, spicy, garlic or boneless versions are available, but don’t come here if you’re interested in eating a balanced meal. Chicken is ordered by the bird, and often not much else is available. Banchan is limited to cubes of sweet and sour pickled radish known as 치킨 무 (chicken radish). Draft beer (생맥주, saeng maekju), or soju, or a killer mixture of the two (somaek) are obligatory beverages. Chicken is a popularly taken-away or delivered.
They’re everywhere, obvious for their hanging exhaust fans and table-top grills. From local divey joints to stylised franchises, they all have cook at the table facilities and an abundance of meat. Pork, intestines, chicken, beef or seafood are all popular items, listed by weight and arriving raw at your table to be cooked over charcoal or on a gas grill. Of course there are sides, often lettuce and perilla leaves to envelop your cooked meat, kimchi and vegetables. Common drinks are soju, as it pairs well with fatty pork, and beer. Rice (공기밥, gonggi bap) is optional, but if you order it, you’ll also often get a bubbling pot of fermented soybean stew (doenjang jiggae, 된장찌개). Naengmyeon, or other cold noodles are common ends to a BBQ meal.
This is a Korean pub. Due to reasons I don’t totally understand, most hofs require that you order food (안주, anju) with your booze. The food offerings at these places range from average to worse. Overpriced fruit platters and fried things covered in plastic cheese are common, while a simple bowl of chips is notably absent. But they are open late into the night and can be quiet and cheap places to drink.
Jeon outside a popular makgeolli place in Hongdae, crates of milky-looking makgeolli in the background.
Makgeolli Houses/Traditional pubs 막걸리집 / 전통주점
Korean style rice alcohol can be enjoyed anywhere from the seats outside Buy The Way, to restaurants and hofs, but these wood panelled rustic houses are the place to drink makgeolli or dongdongju. Jeon (전, pancakes) are often paired with makgeolli. It’s traditional to eat these foods on wet days, as the sound of the sizzling jeon is reminiscent of the sound of the falling rain. Spicy chickens feet, golbaengi (골뱅이, snails), dubu kimchi (두부 김치, tofu and kimchi) and Dotorimuk (도토리묵, acorn jelly) are also common foods. Be prepared to get drunk for cheap. It’s little wonder that these moodily lit, dusty joints are among my favourite places in Korea.
Above is just an introduction to some of the more common and confusing places. There are also loads of cafes, foreign restaurants, izakaya, burger places and fast food joints, as well as smaller Ma and Pa spots. The good news is that you’ll never go hungry in Seoul.