Growing up in Los Angeles, Korean BBQ was somewhat of a staple. Beyond that, I didn’t have much knowledge of what Korean food had to offer until I moved here. Nearly six years later, I’ve become so obsessed with the cuisine that I really can’t go more than two weeks without one of these amazing meals or snacks. This is the ultimate countdown to the 30 best Korean dishes, so prepare yourself as it’s about to get yummy!
30) Yeongol / Cartilage/ 연골
Yeongol is bone cartilage, mostly enjoyed by the kind of people who like to scrape off every piece of edible meat off the bone (myself included). It is white in color and very chewy in texture, so definitely not for everyone. In many ways, it is similar to vinegar pork rinds (the Mexican snack “cuerritos”) or pork feet. I’ve only had this at a few wedding buffets and take it as a personal honor if the hosts decide to add this wonderful side dish to their menu.
29) Ramyeon / 라면
Ramyeon is the Korean version of the extremely popular Japanese dish ‘ramen.’ The Korean style of this meal is much simpler and has a few notable differences. The biggest one would be in the noodle itself, which is curly and thinner than its Japanese counterpart. You can get it at any ‘kimbap shop’ or at ramyeon specialty restaurants which is highly recommended.
My favorite variety is “Cheese Ramyeon / 치즈 라면” which pretty much just tosses a piece of yellow processed cheese on the top to melt with the rest of the noodles and soup. It sounds simple, but you will never have ramyeon any other way after you try it. Other varieties include kimchi ramyeon and spicy ramyeon.
28) Bibimbap / Mixed Rice / 비빔밥
Bibimbap is one of the simplest meals to prepare since it doesn’t have any definite ingredients. It literally means “mixed rice” which is a fitting description as it is basically rice mixed with a bunch of vegetables, and an egg on top for good measure. Some variations of the meal also include ground beef, but you can pretty much just slap together all of your left-over side dishes and bam, you have bibimbap!
My favorite variation of the dish is ‘dolsot / 돌솥’ bibimbap, which is served on a stone pot that heats the meal and makes the rice a bit crispy for an extra crunchy texture. You can find bibimbap at many restaurants throughout the country as it is one of the most common signature dishes.
27) Sannakji / Live Octopus/ 산낙지
Sannakji is definitely not one for the squeamish. This small octopus dish is cut into smaller pieces, and served to you as the tentacles are still squirming around, and eaten raw. Don’t let the disgusting look fool you, as it is surprisingly tasty! One should be careful not to choke on the suction cups as they will still be active and clinging to your tongue, but it only adds to the whole experience of the meal. While it definitely won’t be your go to Korean meal, it might very well become the most memorable experience, or not, depending on how much soju you chucked down that night.
26) LA Galbi / LA 갈비
LA galbi is named so by the way these short ribs are cut laterally across the bone. When cooked right, you will have one of the most tender meats around as the bone slips right off of the meat and makes your mouth water in the process. It was made popular in Los Angeles, but is now found pretty much anywhere in Korea. Like most Korean BBQ dishes, it is the ‘panchan / side dishes’ that makes or breaks your LA galbi experience, so make sure to pick a restaurant with a good selection.
25) Ojingeo Boggeumbap / Squid Fried Rice / 오징어 볶음밥
Ojingeo boggeumbap is one of those dishes you don’t expect to like, but can’t live without after trying it. The texture of fried squid is not as chewy as calamari, and the addition of rice to the mix makes for a very filling meal. I guess that is true for adding rice to pretty much anything! While dried squid (a popular Korean snack) has a very offensive smell, this dish is surprisingly subtle and does not overwhelm your nose.
24) Seolleongtang / Ox Bone Soup / 선농탕
Seolleongtang is greatest on cold days as its rich flavors combine with the warmth of the soup to give you complete satisfaction. It is a white colored soup with very fine brisket beef slices. The soup is usually served with an insane amount of green onions, a personal favorite of mine. The broth itself is made from ox bones and takes up to a full day to prepare. This slow cooking process is what gives it its flavor and milky white color.
23) Juk / Porridge / 죽
No one ever says they are craving juk, that is, until they get sick. I hadn’t tried juk my first two years in Korea because to be honest, it never looked very appealing. However, I got pretty sick a couple of times my last two years and let me tell you, this meal does wonders! Take juk as your last meal before going to sleep only to find yourself a new person in the morning. The Bon Juk / 본죽 chain has many varieties of juk, so you can even experiment a bit while trying to feel better.
22) Doenjang Jjigae / Fermented Soybean Paste Stew / 된장찌개
Deonjang Jjiggae comes as a bonus in some of the better Korean BBQ places. This very salty stew is made with zucchini, green onions, potatoes, and my favorite, tofu. Make sure to order a side of rice as it is amazing together. There are a couple of places that make a whole meal out of this soup if you really want the whole shabang, which you might need in a cold Seoul winter day.
21) Origogi / Duck Meat / 오리고기
Duck meat is one of those delicacies I look forward to in Korea. It is definitely not cheap, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to a duck restaurant and thought it wasn’t worth it. The duck is usually braised and cut into thin slices to be eaten with a number of other side dishes (as usual). Restaurants that specialize in duck will also have a number of other options, but what ever you pick, don’t forget to add some honey mustard. If you don’t feel like dropping $30-$50 on a meal, big super markets like Emart often have a pre-packaged and ready to eat slabs of duck in their warm food section.
20) Bulgogi / Marinated Beef / 불고기
As one of the most popular Korean dishes, bulgogi can easily be found outside of Korea. It is made of very finely cut slices of sirloin beef that are marinated for at least a day, a recipe that has been around for a thousand years. What makes this dish awesome is the tenderness of the meat and its very sweet taste. Like many meals in Korea, this one is usually meant to be shared, so make sure to get a friend to go with you. In the 2011 list of top 50 best foods in the world by CNN, Bulgogi came in at #23!
19) Kalguksu / Knife-cut Noodles / 칼국수
Kalguksu is a noodle soup that literally means ‘knife-cut noodles’ because they are hand cut with a knife, not spun. These wheat flour noodles are usually quite thick leading to a very rich taste. While it is supposedly a ‘summer food,’ kalguksu restaurants are equally as busy during the winter months when the warmth of the soup soothes your nearly frozen body. The best kalguksu restaurant I frequent calls itself “Son Kalguksu / 손 칼국수 / Hand(made) Kalguksu” and it’s 2,500 won for a huge bowl. The catch is that you have to sit with strangers, whether you like it or not as they aren’t going to reserve a whole table of this tiny restaurant for you and your <$3 soup.
18) Bo Ssam / Wrapped (pork) / 보쌈
The literal meaning of ‘bo ssam’ means ‘wrapped’ which is a good summary of how this dish is meant to be eaten. These thin pork slices are placed in a lettuce leaf, you add whatever side dishes are offered, and eat them like a taco. Is is similar to samgyeopsal, but the pork is boiled instead of grilled and is considerably less salty. I am not sure if it is healthier than samgyeopsal, but it definitely feels that way :).
17) Sundubujjigae / Soft Tofu Soup / 순두부찌개
Sundubu jjigae is supposed to be spicy, but I found it to be far more salty than anything (which I love, no complaints). It comes in a bowl which keeps the soup boiling hot for a long time, so watch your fingers. Right before you are served, a raw egg is dropped into the soup which the bubbling broth quickly cooks. The only disappointing aspect of the soup is that no matter where you buy it, it seems to come in a smaller bowl than any other Korean soup. I am a kind of a big dude and the small portion doesn’t fill me if I am starving, so it is perfect for those ‘kind of hungry’ days.
16) Gyeranppang / Egg Bread / 계란빵
The formula is so simple: Make some bread and toss an egg in the middle. Maybe other people have thought about this before, but the Korean gyeranppang is the best street snack out there. I really hate those frigid winter days, but along with hotteok, I look forward to vendors selling this egg bread delight. It is typically sold on carts in the street and you will often see them make it in front of you. For under $1, you really have no excuse for not trying it.
15) Jokbal / Roasted Pig Feet / 족발
Jokbal is fully cooked or roasted pig feet cut into thin slices. It can be eaten as a snack, but the real deal try it in a restaurant that sells it as a main course. It is actually not as nasty as it looks whole because cut up, it just looks like any other meat. To have a little taste without committing to a full meal, some vendors like the ones in Namdaemun Market and other top attractions in Seoul offer a bite sized version for a couple of dollars.
14) Jjim Dalk / Steamed Chicken with Noodles / 찜닭
I discovered jjim dalk WAY too late in my four years living in Korea. This awesome chicken meal is steamed in a soy sauce base and comes complete with veggies, sweet potatoes, and some of the best noodles you will ever eat. The texture of the flat and clear noodle is very chewy and reminds you of Chinese ‘chow fun.’ The potatoes mixed with the chicken should not be overlooked either as good potatoes is how I personally distinguish between an okay and an amazing jjim dalk restaurant.
13) Kimchi Dumplings / Kimchi Mandu / 김치만두
Kimchi mandu has kimchi, ground vegetables, and pork to make this variation far superior to its Chinese cousin. While you could easily eat kimchi mandu as your main meal, it is best if ordered as a side dish. It is easily found at any kimbap restaurant and is around 2500 won ($2.20 USD) for a serving of ~7 dumplings. Gwangjang Traditional Market in Seoul is also known for is excellent selection of kimchi mandu like the ones pictured above.
12) Kimchi Jjigae / Kimchi Stew / 김치찌개
This wonderful spicy soup is, as you guessed, made of kimchi boiled over its own juices for a delightful taste. The versions I have tasted are plain, tuna, and pork, the last one being my favorite! If you like kimchi, then you’ll love this soup. There are restaurants all over South Korea that serve nothing but the different variations of kimchi jjigae, so try them all and see which one fits you best.
11) Chi-Mek / Chicken and Beer / 치킨맥주
Chimek is short for chicken and mekju, which is the Korean word for beer. This combination is as Korean as soju and found pretty much everywhere. Some of the best variations of chicken are garlic and spicy. If you don’t want to mess with bones, almost all Chicken and Beer restaurants will have a boneless (Sunsal / 순살) option as well. My favorite franchise is “Oppa Dalk / 오빠닭” and Kyochon Chicken is pretty good too.
10) Daechang + Makchang + Geopchang / Intestines / 대창 + 막창 + 곱창
I know, I know, it looks terrible, but I assure you, appearances can be deceiving. Most of my Korean friends hesitate the first time I suggest we should go for some makchang because they think I won’t like it. Mexican tripas are very similar so I have been accustomed to eating intestines for a while. Daechang is the largest part of the intestine, makchang is medium sized, and geopchang is the thinnest of the three, giving you slightly different tastes. For the best tasting tripe, try the sheep intestine / yang makchang / 양막창.
9) Tteok Galbi / 떡갈비 / Grounded Pork or Beef
Tteok galbi originates from Damyang county, and gets its name ‘tteok’ (which means ‘rice cake’) from how the meat is smashed in preparation. This is another communal meal (as you can see from the picture) which might be difficult to find in a single serving variety, so come with a hungry buddy. As a traditional Korean dish, tteok galbi comes with a ton of banchan (side dishes) with big chucks of meat placed as the centerpiece.
8) Kimchi Fried Rice / Kimchi Boggeumbap / 김치 볶음밥
Kimchi boggeumbap doesn’t have that strong kimchi taste you get with plain old kimchi. It is the mixture of rice, tiny pieces of kimchi, finely diced pork, and a couple other veggies. While it can taste bland in some places, when done correctly, it is absolutely divine, so make sure to find a good spot. A small hole in the wall place near where I used to live makes the best kimchi boggeumbap. Here is a map.
7) Tuna Rice Roll / Chamchi Kimbap / 참치 김밥
Kimbap is made with rice, radish, sesame leaves, imitation crab, a few vegetables, a strip of ham, and your chosen extra (in this case, tuna) wrapped around in a seaweed leaf. It is then rolled and cut into cylinder slices (like sushi). One roll is usually enough to fill you up as it has a lot of rice, but get two if you are really hungry, no one will think any less of you. Kimbap comes in many forms including: vegetable, tuna, cheese, kimchi, and many others that are a bit more unusual .
6) Pork Belly (bacon) / Samgyeopsal / 삼겹살
Samgyeopsal is one of the most common meals you can have while eating out in Korea. A strip of samgyeopsal looks very similar to a large piece of bacon, but tastes considerably different. It is usually grilled on the table in front of you, and in most places, you are expected to grill the meat yourself. It is usually accompanied by many side dishes like kimchi, seaweed soup, onions, other kinds of kimchi, more kimchi, and rice. The kinds of side dishes (and kimchi) depend on the establishment and quality of the place so choose wisely.
5) Sticky Fried Chicken / Yangnyeom Tongdak / 양념 통닭
Yangnyeom tongdak is the sticky form of fried chicken with heart attack inducing amounts of sauce. It can be a street food found in any shopping district or for a proper meal, there are also restaurants that specialize in yangnyeom. My favorite is the type sold in cups with chop sticks so that I can walk around and have my snack on the go! It can get a little messy with all the sauce, but don’t let that deter you as I promise, you have never had chicken that tastes this good.
4) Marinated Pork mixed with Rice / Jeyukdeopbap / 제육덮밥
Jeyukdeopbap is thinly sliced pork, marinated in a red sauce with onions and a few other vegetables. It usually comes as a set of meat in its juices on one side, and a slab of rice on the other. When you mix the two, it tastes like a curry with a fantastic pork flavor. While it is not spicy, the sauce can be very flavorful and salty to give the whole meal a richer taste. This is another one of those meals that tastes amazing if done right, or average at best if done wrong so don’t be discouraged if you don’t like it at first. It takes time to find the right spot.
3) Chicken Barbecue / Dak Galbi / 닭갈비
Dak Galbi is marinated chicken mixed with a bunch of vegetables in a large pot in front of you. The server usually comes around your table every few minutes to stir up the meat and make sure your chicken doesn’t get burned. Don’t worry if you don’t know what you are doing as the server will let you know when it is finally edible. Noodles and cheese are also fantastic extras (order separately) that you can get to make the meal more hefty. It is hard to get bad dalk galbi, but if you are looking for the best, head to Chuncheon where it is from. Any restaurant on ‘dalk galbi street’ will blow your mind.
2) Beef Short Ribs / Galbi Jjim / 갈비찜
Galbi jjim makes up for its bland appearance with a fantastic taste. They are marinated beef short ribs that come off the bone so effortlessly and hold some of the most tender meat I have ever tasted. Unlike most Korean meals, this one can be quite pricey (20,000-30,000 Won / $18 – $27 USD) depending on meat quality. Trust me though, it is definitely worth it!
1) Pork Backbone Soup / Kamjatang or Ppyeohaejangguk / 감자탕 or 뼈해장국
What could possibly be the best Korean food? Kamjatang of course! Kamjatang and ppyeohaejangguk are similar soups with the main ingredient being the backbone of a pig. They are served in a very salty broth with potatoes, sesame leaves, onions, and other vegetables. Like most Korean meals, a bowl of rice makes it complete and you can mix it with your soup to cool it a bit. It is so rich in flavor that it is difficult to mess up and I personally have never had a ‘bad kamjatang.’ The absolute best place to have Kamjatang is in Taejo Kamjaguk (a slightly different variant) off of Sungshin Women’s University Station exit #3.
Did I miss some of your favorite Korean meals or snacks? Share them in the comments!