Do you know what the tastiest traditional Korean dishes are? You might think of Korean BBQ, or maybe kimchi and ramyeon. These are just the tip of a culinary iceberg that covers a wide range of dining options for all travellers.
You can plumb the depths of an ocean of exquisite tastes, incredible eating experiences, and a variety of flavours, textures, smells, and sights while partaking in Korea’s finest traditional fare.
Meet the 20 most mouth-watering traditional Korean dishes that you will be craving now and long after you return from your trip to Korea. There’s something for everyone in this list, whether you’re a meat-lover, vegetarian, vegan, spice-lover, or seafood-addict.
The hardest part of visiting Korea is having to choose which ones to eat and when! There often isn’t enough time to try them all, so take a look at the list below and see which ones you shouldn’t miss.
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The Top 20 Traditional Korean Dishes
A meal in Korea is like a window into the local culture, where sharing food is core to a harmonious society, and meals are designed to be enjoyed by many people. This makes eating out a stomach-pleasing experience and soul-warming event that can be lots of fun and lead to some amazing nights out.
Because eating a traditional Korean meal can sometimes be a spectacle, it’s best shared with friends or family. Meals can come with an array of small dishes to sample, a large pot of something yummy boiling or frying away in the centre of the table, and food lovingly prepared by chefs who specialise in this one dish.
Eager to know more about Korean dining culture and want to know about what to do and how to behave? There are some Korean dining tips after these 20 traditional Korean dishes, so make sure to keep on reading.
And if you’re still hungry after all that, be sure to check out these other articles all about yummy Korean foods.
Note about prices (2021): food prices have been rising sharply over the last few years and this has led to a rise in the cost of eating out. If you visited Korea in the past, don’t be surprised to see costs have risen 10% or more. Prices quoted are averages and don’t include extras such as drinks.
Now let’s begin this culinary journey. Make sure you’ve got something to nibble as you read, as you’re going to feel hungry by the end of this!
1: Samgyeopsal 삼겹살 (Korean BBQ)
There are numerous options for BBQ in Korea, with different cuts of meat, but the definitive experience comes from eating samgyeopsal (literally – three layered pork). It’s thick, juicy, cheap, and you can find it everywhere.
I have to admit, this is my favourite traditional Korean food. It’s different from a British or American BBQ, but certainly gives you the same fix and will leave you feeling stuffed.
Wrap it in a lettuce leaf with kimchi, garlic, and whatever else you want, then pop it in your mouth. You will be provided a wide range of side dishes with this meal. You can even order all-you-can-eat options in some places.
Cost: 10-20,000 KRW per person. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: The iconic Korean meal that is more of a social event than a simple meal. Eat, drink, laugh, and end up in a meat coma with a smile on your face.
2: Gimbap 김밥 (Seaweed Wrapped Rolls)
Gimbap (also spelt kimbap) is extremely versatile and can be bought as a snack from a convenience store, or the main part of a meal in a traditional Korean restaurant.
This simple dish is actually one of the most popular traditional Korean dishes. I personally love gimbap as it is light, healthy, and comes in a range of mouth-watering fillings, such as cream cheese, bulgogi (fried beef), lobster, and lots more.
This is a great meal option for those who want to cut their costs while travelling to Korea. It’s also great when you want to go hiking and need to pack a filling snack for the journey.
Cost: 1,500 KRW (convenience store) to 5,000 KRW (restaurant) per large roll.
Why you should try it: A lot healthier than Korean street food, lots of great fillings, and it’s so cheap and convenient.
3: Kimchi Jjigae 김치 찌개 (Kimchi Stew)
Kimchi jjigae is a delightful mix of cabbage kimchi, tofu, cellophane noodles, pork or tuna, and vegetables, served with a portion of rice.
If you’re visiting Korea during the winter time, then any jjigae (stew) is the perfect way to recover from the cold, harsh winter weather.
When the kimchi is sauteed, it becomes softer and releases all its flavour into the stew, creating a hearty broth. You can even add more kimchi as it comes as a side dish, too.
The best way to eat it is to put a bit of rice on your spoon, dip it in the broth, then top it with the other ingredients.
Cost: 8-10,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: The perfect Korean winter food. Heart-warming and filling on a cold winter’s day. Cheap and delicious and found in many places.
4: Chuncheon Dakgalbi 춘천 닭갈비 (Spicy Stir Fried Chicken)
Chuncheon dakgalbi is another of those traditional Korean dishes for those people who love fried meat. This dish combines marinated chicken with vegetables, rice cake (tteok 떡 ), chilli paste sauce, and other spices. You can also add noodles and cheese.
These ingredients are chucked in a large pan and stir fried at your table. A waiter will come every few minutes and mix it all up for you. This makes it a great food to experience, not just eat.
Although dakgalbi has spread throughout Korea, it first started in Chuncheon and this is the best place to try it. Visit Chuncheon Myeongdong Dakgalbi Street for the finest examples of one of Korea’s best traditional Korean dishes.
Cost: 10-15,000 KRW per person. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: A quintessentially Korean dish that mixes meat, vegetables, and spices together and fries them in a big metal pan. Add cheese for a greedy, satisfying meal.
5: Tteokbokki 떡볶이 (Spicy Stir Fried Rice Cakes)
Tteokbokki is a blend of steamed and sliced rice cakes (tteok 떡), fish cakes (odeng 오뎅), and scallions in a sweet and spicy sauce with plenty of chilli paste. If you’re eating in a restaurant, then add in some cheese and noodles for a filling meal.
This is one of the traditional Korean dishes that you shouldn’t pass up if you’re exploring traditional markets in Korea. Best eaten fresh from the market vendors, this spicy, salty mishmash of classic Korean ingredients is perfect as a snack or meal.
As you can tell from the red colour, it’s going to be spicy! Spiciness and the ingredients in the sauce can vary between vendors – everyone has their own secret recipe. Try it more than once and see which is the best.
Cost: 3-4,000 KRW (street food) or 5-10,000 (restaurant).
Why you should try it: Don’t miss it when you visit a traditional market. A popular snack for tourists and locals alike, it’s a must-have on your South Korean bucket list.
6: Bibimbap 비빔밥 (Mixed Rice With Vegetables)
Literally meaning ‘mixed rice’, bibimbap is a fun, healthy jumble of vegetables, rice, chilli paste, and is topped off with a fried egg. Take all the ingredients and mash it together yourself. Add as much gochujang 고추장 (chilli paste) as you can handle.
Bibimbap is served either cold, in a metal bowl, or heated in a hot stone bowl (dolsot bibimbap 돌솥비빔밥). The hot version is the best version in my opinion as the egg and rice stick together and cook on the hot stone.
If you’re visiting Jeonju, then make sure you try bibimbap there as they have their own version called Jeonju-bibimbap and it’s arguably one of the best.
Cost: 8-12,000 KRW. The hot bibimbap can be more expensive.
Why you should try it: Another one of Korea’s national dishes. Popular in Korea and overseas. It’s a healthy mix of vegetables and spices that is perfect in winter or summer.
7: Samgyetang 삼계탕 (Ginseng Chicken Soup)
Samgyetang, a meal in a bowl, contains a whole small chicken packed with rice, garlic, jujube, and ginseng. The thick soup absorbs all of this whilst cooking, leaving a soft, tender chicken and an aromatic, hearty broth. Perfect!
Ironically, this hot, healthy, and delicious ginseng chicken soup is most popular during summer. Koreans have a saying that you should fight heat with heat, meaning that you should eat hot food when it’s hot outside. As strange as it sounds, it actually works.
As with most traditional Korean dishes, you’ll find the best samgyetang in a traditional Korean restaurant. You can sit on the floor at a long table and indulge in the soup with a wide range of side dishes.
Cost: 10-15,000 KRW.
Why you should try it: This is a filling meal that is worth the cost. Perfect during winter, and (if you believe the stories) great in the heat of summer. Healthy and full of ingredients you might not find in your own country.
8: Pajeon 파전 (Korean Pancake)
Pajeon (Korean savoury pancakes) come with a variety of fillings, including kimchi, potato, beef, pork, and shellfish. The most popular of these is haemul pajeon 해물 파전 (seafood with spring onions) and is a great treat when you’re tired and hungry.
If you’re hiking in Korea, you’ll find a lot of restaurants selling pajeon. You’ll know them by the chefs frying them on a hot plate outside the restaurant. They’re served fresh to hungry hikers who are craving something filling after a long trek.
Dip the pajeon in spicy soy sauce and wash it down with another mountain-based speciality – makgeolli 막걸리. Makgeolli is a creamy rice wine that comes in some interesting flavours, such as chestnut, corn, and even banana.
Cost: 10-12,000 (small) or 15-20,000 KRW (large)
Why you should try it: Embrace Korean culture when you’re out hiking in a national park by ordering a pajeon and makgeolli. Perfect after a long day of hiking or sightseeing.
9: Naengmyeon 냉면 (Cold Noodles)
Naengmyeon is simple dish of cold buckwheat noodles. There are two main varieties – mul naengmyeon 물냉면 (ice-water cold noodles) and bibim naengmyeon 비빔냉면 (spicy cold noodles), both of which are perfect for summer.
I prefer the mul naengmyeon (pictured above) as the noodles are drowned in icy-cold water and become so refreshing. It’s topped with thin pieces of radish, cucumbers, and a boiled egg and seasoned with vinegar and mustard.
Bibim naengymeon is mostly the same but instead of icy-cold water, the noodles are splashed with spicy chilli paste and form an often deadly bowl of spicy noodles. This dish can be deceptively spicy, so be careful.
Cost: 7-10,000 KRW.
Why you should try it: It might not look like much, but it is as refreshing as an ice cream on a hot summer’s day. The cold noodles give you back lost energy during the heat.
10: Budae Jjigae 부대찌개 (Army Stew)
Budae jjigae was created by adding various items from American army bases into a regular jjigae (stew). This included Spam, sausages, baked beans, American cheese, as well as some local items, such as instant noodles and tteok (rice cakes).
If you’re wondering how such an obviously foreign food item made it into a traditional Korean dish, the answer goes back to the Korean War. Meat was hard to come by then and the American soldiers provided the locals with food aid.
This unique fusion of American and Korean foods created one of the best dishes in Korea to eat on a cold day. The bright red stew is packed full of rather unhealthy foods, which makes it taste great and gives you lots of energy!
Cost: 10-15,000 KRW per person. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: Great in cold weather and a guilty treat that’s not just for soldiers. A delicious mix of East and West.
Try Making Some Traditional Korean Dishes
Want To Try Making Your Own Traditional Korean Dishes?
There are loads of great opportunities to experience cooking traditional Korean food in Seoul. Why not try your hand at making some of these delicious traditional Korean dishes and create some fun memories on your travels?
11: Maeuntang 매운탕 (Spicy Fish Stew)
Maeuntang is a hot, spicy fish stew made with a range of different fresh fish. How do you know that the fish are fresh? You can usually choose the fish you want to eat from an aquarium outside the restaurant.
The fresh fish are cut up and boiled with an assortment of vegetables and a bit of ground beef. To give this dish its signature spiciness, generous helpings of red chilli paste (gochujang 고추장) and red chilli flakes (gochugaru 고추가루) are added.
You can find lots of extras in a bowl of maeuntang, such as shellfish, garlic, and more. They give it an unforgettable taste and help make this one of Korea’s most beloved seafood dishes. A traditional Korean dish for those who love their food with a kick.
Cost: 10,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: Spice-lovers who want a dish without meat will be pleased with this. Full of fresh ingredients, tastes, and pretty healthy, too. A great combination
12: Sundae 순대 (Blood Sausage)
One of the oldest traditional dishes in Korea, sundae might make people squeamish at first but it shouldn’t be missed. Sundae is kind of a cross between haggis and black pudding. It is also really delicious and a wonderful, cheap snack.
Sundae traditionally contains pig or cow’s intestines mixed in with rice and vegetables and has long been a regular family meal in Korea. After the Korean War, cellophane noodles were added inside to bulk it out, and it became a cheap street food, too.
Eat sundae by dipping it into a bowl of salt or other seasoning. It goes well with a cold beer on a warm evening. There’s also a soup version with slices of sundae, green veg, and rice in a hearty broth.
Cost: 3,000 KRW (street food) to 7-10,000 KRW (restaurant).
Why you should try it: Because it’s unique and cheap. One for people who want to indulge in Korean dishes. Live like a student and have a lively meal with sundae and beer.
13: Kalguksu 칼국수 (Noodle Soup)
Literally meaning knife-cut noodles, kalguksu has chunky noodles because they are cut by hand and not spun, giving the noodles a rich taste. Extra ingredients can include shellfish, ground beef, chicken, some vegetables, or cilantro.
There are many kinds of noodle soups in Korea, but kalguksu is definitely one of the best. Perfect during winter, this hot, steaming broth is simple but can refresh any weary traveller. It is also deceptively filling and hard to finish.
You can find freshly cut noodles in traditional markets in Korea. Watching the chefs hack up the noodles in front of you, throw them violently into the broth, and serve them directly to you, fresh and spongy, is a culinary experience in itself.
Not only are the noodles some of the best you’ll find, but the broth in some kalguksu restaurants is perfected after decades of experimentation, where they only serve this one dish and have mastered it and made it as good as any meal can be.
Cost: 5-8,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: Very filling. The broth is thick and the noodles are thicker. If you find a kalguksu place with a lot of people in it, don’t miss the chance to try it.
14: Manduguk 만두국 (Dumpling Soup)
Korean dumplings (mandu 만두) are best when they’re in their own soup – manduguk. Manduguk comes in a small or large bowl full of various mandu and squeezed in with tteok 떡 (rice cakes), sliced vegetables, ground meat, or egg.
The mandu come with a variety of different fillings, including kimchi, meat, shrimp, and vegetables. You usually get kimchi or meat dumplings in a manduguk, but good restaurants will have a range of options.
As with some other traditional Korean dishes, there is a special day that people eat manduguk, and that is New Year’s Day. Start the New Year with a bowl of manduguk if you’re in South Korea. Families work together to make the dumplings by hand.
Cost: 8-12,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: Chew and munch on this hot dish during winter, trying each of the different types of mandu to find your favourite.
15: Hoe 회 (Raw fish)
Hoe is one of the best traditional Korean dishes to eat if you’re visiting Busan or any other seaside town or city. This is more than what you’d expect from Japanese sashimi, hoe has other options beyond the normal thin slices of fresh fish.
You’ll also find a medley of colourful, and sometimes more alive than expected, types of seafood and shellfish. Additional side dishes could include more seafood, kimchi, garlic, soup, soft crabs, fried fish, and more.
Dip the gentle slices in soy sauce and wasabi and indulge as is, or grab some lettuce or cabbage to wrap the raw fish in. Take a lettuce leaf and place the fish inside, along with some garlic and whatever else you like. Like a Korean BBQ but with seafood.
If you’re feeling really brave (and it’s on the menu), why not try some hongeo-hoe – raw fermented skate. Not for the faint hearted, that’s for sure!
Cost: 15-30,000 KRW per person. Costs can vary a lot. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: You’ll find lots of essential nutrients in this juicy traditional Korean dish. If you’re by the coast, then you shouldn’t miss out on some of the seafood caught fresh from the seas surrounding Korea.
16: Yangnyeom Tongdak 양념 통닭 (Sticky Fried Chicken)
Yangnyeom tongdak might not seem like the most authentic of all traditional Korean dishes, but its popularity means that it deserves a place on this list. With more than 20,000 fried chicken restaurants in Korea, this is definitely one of the national dishes.
Yangnyeom tongdak stands out above other flavours and types of chicken due to its finger licking qualities. This bold mix of sweet, sour, and spicy sauce lavishly spread over regular fried chicken just works. Topped off with crushed nuts, it’s irresistible.
You can find this as a snack at a Korean baseball game, as a meal on its own, or anywhere selling Korean street food. Grab a cup of it and dip your fingers in if you don’t mind getting messy, or use some chopsticks if you do.
Cost: 3-5,000 KRW (street food) or 10-15,000 (restaurant).
Why you should try it: The combo and chicken and beer is one enjoyed around the world, but few countries do it as well (and as reasonably priced) as Korea.
17: Ojingeo Bokkeum 오징어볶음 (Spicy Stir Fried Squid)
I didn’t expect to like ojingeo bokkeum when I first tried it as I’m not a massive fan of squid. However, the soft, tender texture of the squid in this meal makes it surprisingly delectable. You should definitely add it to your list whether you like squid or not.
The sweet, spicy sauce adds a lot to the taste of squid and goes well with the vegetables, too. Stir frying the lot together leaves a fresh, crisp, sweet, spicy, and not too fishy dish that you’ll want more and more of.
Cost: 8-10,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: This is one of the most popular traditional Korean dishes and Koreans eat this at home or out. Easy to make, served quick and fresh.
18: Bossam 보쌈 (Wrapped Boiled Pork)
A typical bossam meal comes with a big plate of sliced boiled pork, at least 3 types of kimchi, raw garlic, dipping sauces, and several different things to wrap all of that in.
Koreans love to wrap their food in lettuce and cabbage and bossam takes this to another level. This is a meal all about dipping and wrapping slices of boiled pork – which is more appetising than it sounds. It’s also healthier than fried alternatives.
Choose your favourite ingredients, select one of the dipping sauces or salt, wrap them all up in a lettuce, cabbage, or sesame (perilla) leaf, and then eat in one go. The best part of this meal is experimenting with combinations of all of these separate options.
Cost: 10-15,000 KRW per person. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: As much fun as eating samgyeopsal, but less smoky and probably a bit healthier. This is also a great dish to enjoy whatever the weather.
19: Bulgogi 불고기 (Korean Grilled Beef)
Bulgogi is one of the oldest traditional Korean dishes you can find. Literally translated as fire (bul 불) meat (gogi 고기), this dish is very adaptable and bulgogi can be found in many different meals. You will usually find it barbecued though.
Bulgogi usually comes with sliced beef, which is marinated and then grilled to give it a wonderful smoky, rich meaty taste. It can be other types of meat, too, including pork.
Wrap the freshly cooked meat in a lettuce leaf (like samgyeopsal), add extras, and then shove it into your mouth in one go. This style of eating might seem strange to foreigners, but is completely normal to Koreans.
Cost: 10-15,000 KRW per person. Typically served for 2+ people.
Why you should try it: A nice alternative to samgyeopsal, especially if you can’t eat pork. You’ll get all the same side dishes and have fun wrapping up the meat, but this time it’s thin slices of beef.
20: Byeo Haejangguk 뼈 해장국 (Bone Hangover Soup)
There are many types of haejangguk (hangover soup) in Korea that are eaten late at night or in the early morning to cure headaches, but the best of them is byeo haejangguk. This version comes with meat-clad bones, a thick broth, and lots of seasoning.
The meat falls off the bone easily as you mix together meat, soup, rice, and side dish and send it down to your awaiting insides, ready to be embraced and to start repairing your body after a night of drinking.
Of course, you don’t have to eat this only when you have a hangover. It’s great any time, especially in winter. A hot bowl of this with a cool beer, and lots of side dishes is the perfect way to get through a cold January night.
Cost: 8-10,000 KRW per person.
Why you should try it: This dish is perfect on a cold day and will revive and restore you when you’re not feeling well. Fills your belly and your soul.
Bonus: Kimchi 김치 (Fermented Vegetables)
Of course, no list of traditional Korean dishes would be complete without mentioning kimchi. Although this isn’t a dish in itself, you probably won’t eat any of these dishes without it.
There is nothing as ubiquitous as kimchi in Korean cuisine. It is served with every meal of the day (yes, even breakfast!), and every type of meal.
It makes a great side dish to snack on, goes great in a stew, fits nicely in a wrap with BBQ or boiled meat, and even belongs in a taco.
Koreans also believe that it has miraculous health benefits, including reducing cholesterol and stopping stomach cancer. It can even keep you young! Whether or not these all work, you certainly can’t travel to Korea without trying kimchi.
Cost: Usually free with any Korean meal.
Why you should try it: It’s healthy, so Korean, and goes well with a whole load of dishes.
Tips For Enjoying Traditional Korean Dishes
I’ve eaten out in Korea way too much. It’s hard not too for many reasons. The food is cheap, delicious, and there is so much variety, a lot more than people realise before visiting Korea.
I’ve put together a few tips to help you get even more out of your trip and the delicious Korean meals you’re going to enjoy.
1: Korean Food Is Cheap
Don’t be surprised by how much you get. However, food can get expensive, especially if you want to eat foreign foods. You’re in Korea and so I’d really recommend trying the local foods before looking for something more familiar.
2: Meals For Two
Some meals will be for two or more people and will be indicated on the menu with – 2인 (2 people in Korean). If you see this, then the price is for the whole meal, not per person. This is a big sharing meal and are often much better than individual meals – check them out!
3: Understanding Chinese Characters
Sharing meals (like those found in tip 2) usually come in 3 different sizes, which are represented by traditional Chinese characters. These are as follows:
- 小 – small portion
- 中 – medium portion
- 大 – large portion
A small portion is enough for 2-3 people. Remember, the meal will usually come with side dishes, too.
4: Eat At The Markets
Korea’s traditional markets and street food stalls offer some of the most amazing traditional food and are often cheaper and fresher than in a restaurant. Be sure not to miss them when you visit Seoul and other cities.
5: Indulge In Side Dishes
Traditional Korean meals typically come with side dishes, called banchan (반찬). These are included with the meal and if you ask for more, you can often get free refills. Don’t be surprised if you order a simple meal and end up with 10 or even 20 side dishes!
6: Wrap It Up
If your meal comes with a bowl of lettuce leaves (or cabbage), you’re probably meant to use it to wrap the other parts of the meal. Eating a Korean BBQ is a really fun experience and one of the times it’s ok to get your fingers dirty. Pick up some meat, garlic, kimchi, and whatever else you fancy, and wrap it inside the lettuce leaf and pop it into your mouth.
7: Stay Hydrated
Restaurants in Korea always give you free water (sometimes iced tea). This is a great way to get free liquids during the day. Make the most of it as Korea can be hot, especially in summertime. Also, Korean dishes tend to be quite salty, so staying hydrated is important.
As with many cultures, Korean meals often come with their own set of rules that you probably won’t be aware of before visiting in Korea.
If you want to learn more about these, and avoid embarrassing yourself in front of the locals, then check out my fun and useful guides below:
And if you’re wondering how healthy Korean food is:
Share Your Thoughts
If you enjoyed reading this article, or if you have any thoughts about it that you want to share, please feel free to leave a message in the comments below. I’d love to hear your feedback about this article and the subject.
If you want some recommendations about where to get some delicious traditional Korean dishes, then you can also ask in the Korea Travel Advice group on Facebook.
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