1. DOLSOT BIBIMBAP (돌솥 비빔밥) (dor/l•sot bi•bim•bap) – Stone pot mixed rice
Probably the easiest to come by and most popular dishes you will find in Korea, 비빔밥 is a bowl of rice and a variety of vegetables, mixed together and served with or without meat and a hardboiled egg. While the vegetables can change based on where you are, typically it’s served with mushrooms, carrots, cucumber, 고사리(go•sa•ri), soybean sprouts, and spinach. You can always order it either vegan or vegetarian, which is what I tend to do because the dish is filling enough as it is without additional fatty pieces of beef. They also give you a bottle of 고추장 (go•chu•jang) or red pepper paste to mix in, which adds a little bit of saltiness and for me, much needed spice to give the dish a bit of a kick. I tend to add a ridiculous amount and mix it until everything is coated in the sauce.
There are only two types of bibimbap that I crave (almost consistently – ask anyone; besides sushi, this is my only response when people ask me what I want to eat), and they are 돌솥 비빔밥 and 회덮밥. Perfect to eat on a hot day, 회덮밥 (hweh•deop•bap) is served cold, with 회 meaning sashimi, so the dish consists of pieces of fish placed on top. Known for its freshness (like, straight out of the tank outside, slammed on the cutting board, and sliced up per order), there’s a port in Museulpo (a small town on the south side of Jeju) that serves their bibimbap with cuttlefish, and oh my god, it’s fantastic.
But, as the temperatures drop (it’s currently a lovely 9°C as I write this), 돌솥 비빔밥 is the way to go (also a great meal after a night of drinking). Unlike other versions of bibimbap, this type is a hot dish due to the pot they bring it out in rather than a metal bowl. 돌솥 means stone pot, and keeps the mixed rice cooking. No joke, this baby is hot, like burn your tongue hot, and stays that way the entire time you eat it. Instead of a hard-boiled egg, the egg is served over-easy, and, there’s just no way to describe how satisfying it is to eat this on a cold day with that yolk running. It’s your mom’s chicken pot pie, it’s a fresh out of the oven chocolate chip cookie, it’s a mug of hot chocolate by the fire on Christmas Eve – it’s the ultimate Korean comfort food.
2. HAEMUL PAJEON (해물파전) (hae•mur/l pa•jeon) – Seafood & Green Onion Pancake
My mouth is watering right now just thinking about this. I ate this last night at around 10:30pm and I’m still not over it. Unlike the sweet breakfast pancakes you may find in Western countries, jeon are savory pancakes, and there are a variety of different types such as kimchijeon (김치전)/kimchi pancake, pajeon (파전)/scallion pancake, and gamjajeon (감자전) /potato pancake. Made with a batter consisting of egg, wheat flour, rice flour, and scallions, you can’t really go wrong with what you throw in (just don’t get too wild). It’s recommended that you eat it while drinking makgeolli (막걸리), a type of sweet alcoholic beverage, but honestly, it’s good with or without it – promise. I’m a fan of the seafood pajeon, which can contain oysters, shrimp, octopus, and squid. It’s best when there’s added red chili peppers to give it that, you guessed it, much needed kick.
3. JJAJANGMYEON (짜장면) (jja•jang•myeon) – Blackbean Noodles
Never wear a light colored top while eating this. I’ve only had this a handful of times since I’ve been in Korea, but the version I had down the road from the Haedong Yonggung Temple in Busan was memorable enough to solidify this meal’s place in my top ten list. It was a type of black bean noodles, called samseon jjajangmyeon (삼선짜장면), which means instead of diced pork, either squid, shrimp, mussels, and/or sea cucumbers are added with vegetables. If you haven’t figured out that I love seafood, this is your third and final hint. The sauce is thick and a bit oily, making this meal very filling, but nevertheless, it’s delicious.
4. TTEOKBOKKI (떡볶이) (tteok•bokk•i) – Stir-fried rice cakes
Y’ALL! Y’all…no joke this is my newest addition to my glorious list of midnight cravings. My previous cravings, like pizza, hamburgers, or let’s face it, anything from the Sonic menu, are now history since this street food has been introduced into my life. Tteokbokki, or stir-fried rice cakes, can typically be found in any and all street carts that congregate in market alley’s and is best eaten after 10pm. My personal preference is eating about a pound of this after a couple of glasses of soju. Made with fish cakes, hardboiled quail eggs, hot dogs/sausages, scallions, and gochujang (red pepper paste), tteokbokki is both sweet and spicy to taste – which if you’ve had Korean food you might have noticed most dishes that are deemed hot have a bit of a sweetness to their spice. Sometimes you can add ramen noodles to the dish and mix everything together. Go crazy.
Whenever I eat tteokbokki, I like to pair it with either ramen or 순대 (soon•dae), meaning blood sausage. I would put this as a separate dish, but I literally only ever it with tteokbokki, so I’m pairing the two together. Korean blood sausage is made by steaming or boiling cow or pig’s intestines which are then stuffed with some other ingredients. The most common type is one made with pig’s intestines,당면 (dang•myeon) or cellophane noodles, barley, and pork’s blood. I know this sounds so unappetizing, but honestly, it tastes so good with the red tteokbokki sauce. Just imagine a mild sausage taste, chewy texture, with a slight hint of sweetness. Granted, the first time I had it I didn’t know what the English translation was, so if you think it might not be your cup of tea, embrace the question mark of being given something with a foreign name and just eat it before you decide.
5. DAKGALBI (닭갈비) (dak•gal•bi) – Spicy stir-fried chicken
The process of eating this meal is partially why I enjoy it so much. While I’ve seen people at restaurants eating this alone (honestly though, how), it’s a communal meal, and meant to be enjoyed in groups. Also, remember, because I didn’t the first time I went to a dakgalbi restaurant: the servers cook this for you.
In a dakgalbi restarant, you will be seated at a table that has a large round hot plate built into it. Depending on how you like your chicken (for instance, I like mine spicy, of course, and prefer to eat it with rice), you can ask for a few orders based on your party, and add additional sides to be cooked alongside the chicken, like ramen or rice cakes. After you order, the server will bring out a giant skillet that has the marinated chicken, scallions, (sometimes) sweet potatoes, rice cakes, and cabbage on it and place it on the burner. They’ll put this metal contraption thing around the hot plate while everything cooks, and occasionally come back to check on it, stir things around, and finally, when everything is done, they will let you know you can eat. Some restaurants will bring out perilla leaves and/or lettuce so you can make wraps. Whether or not they have this, there will always be the typical side dishes that you can munch on while you wait for your food to cook. This includes the basics, like onion, garlic, pickled radish, and kimchi.
If you’re willing to go big and regret the meal completely, I recommend ordering mozerella stuffed rice cakes and have them mixed it in with everything else. Once you’re about halfway sweating through the meal, order a couple of portions of rice to soak up the rest of the juices left behind on the skillet – delicious.
6. SAMGYEOPSAL (삼겹살) (sam•gyeop•sal) – Korean BBQ/Pork Belly/Three-layered pork
For all the meat lovers out there, this is it. The only reason I have it lower on my list is because I’m actually not a huge fan of eating exorbitant amounts of fatty meat, but the communal aspect of this dish is the majority of the fun for me anyway (and side note, you can actually ask when you go to restaurants for leaner meat, which to me, is worth the price because I tend to rip away the fatty chunks when I’m eating this). Moving on…
I think I’ve touched on this in an earlier post, but much of the adjustment I’ve had to do when it comes to eating in Korea is understanding the process of how to eat certain dishes. Samgyeopsal is preferably one of those meals you need to eat with a seasoned veteran, or at least someone who understands what to generally do when it comes to cooking (i.e. – not me). When you order, like at dakgalbi restaurants, there will be a hot plate in the center of the table that the server will turn on for you. Depending on how nice of a restaurant you are at, there will either be a portable gas griller, or a built in one along with a exhaust duct that hangs above it.
Don’t be surprised when ten minutes into dinner you can no longer see the table. Along with the uncooked and unmarinated meat they bring out for you, servers will also bring you roughly seven thousand side dishes, which may include sliced raw onions and garlic, kimchi, green chili peppers, mushrooms, pumpkin, 쌈장 (ssam•jang) or sauce for wraps (a soybean paste based sauce), radish, perilla leaves, green onion salad, 파절이 (pa•jeor•i), cucumber with gochujang, and lettuce. This is also just to name a few, surprisingly enough.
Once you’ve assembled all your side dishes across the table in a spot where they won’t fall, start grilling. Normally, the youngest is supposed to be the one who cooks the meat, onions, garlic, and mushrooms, but whenever I go, we either take turns or nominate someone. With the scissors given to you by the server, cut the meat into bite sized pieces (unlike the ones pictured above) and let them cook (try not to flip the meat too much, you probably only need to once). I would also recommend cooking the kimchi, because oh my lord, grilled kimchi is something else.
When the meat begins to finish… 1) Grab a perilla leaf or a piece of lettuce. 2) Take a piece of meat, dip it in the 기름장 (gi•reum•jang) sauce, which is sesame oil based, provided. 3) Add some of the ridiculous amounts of side dishes brought out – I prefer adding in rice, kimchi, and garlic. 4) Roll up that sucker and stuff the whole goddamn thing in your mouth no matter how unpleasant it looks. You aren’t here to impress. 5) Take a shot of soju – optional obviously.
Voilà! Now eat until your two seconds away from your stomach exploding and it’s significantly harder to breathe.
7. BIBIM NAENGMYEON (비빔 냉면) (bi•bim naeng•myeon) – Spicy Cold Noodles
Spicy, sweet, and tangy, this is the perfect dish for a hot summer day. I’m proud to say that somehow, every single time I find myself eating this dish I am, a) wearing a white top, and b) manage to get red sauce all over me. It’s truly at this point, a gift. Similar to 비빔밥, you mix the noodles and vegetables once it’s brought to you (remember, 비빔 means mixed, so mixed cold noodles!). The noodles are chewy, the sauce, a mix of spicy and something vaguely sweet, and together it’s just a nice refreshing meal. I treat it like a kind of dessert because along with cucumber and a hardboiled egg, there are sliced asian pears sprinkled on top. Often, you’ll also find chunks of ice in the broth. Sometimes, you will be served this dish after eating meat of some kind (for instance at the end of samgyeopsal), but my stomach is tiny and this dish is honestly enough food in one sitting for me.
8. JEONBOK DOLSOT BAP (전복 돌솥밥) (jeon•bok dor/l•sot•bap) – Abalone stone bowl rice
I almost forgot about this beyond incredible meal I had at a restaurant (명진전복) that was recommended to a friend and I by one of our coworkers. It was about a thirty minute drive outside of Jeju City, but, oh, it was so worth it.
Anyway, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. So, similar to the dolsot bibimbap, this is a hot dish served in a stone bowl. The one that I had at 명진전복 had sweet potato mixed in the rice, along with carrots and dates. The abalone, with the intestines removed, was placed on top. When the server brings it to you, they will also bring a kettle of hot water and a bowl. After opening the stone pot, remove as much as you can of the contents and place it in the separate bowl. When you’re finished, pour water from the kettle into the stone pot and cover it with the lid. The remaining rice that you were unable to scoop out will eventually turn into a delicious porridge you can eat once you are done.
9. BINGSU (빙수) (bing•su) – Shaved ice
I hate that translation because “shaved ice” in America is the crappy snow cones you get outside the county fair or at an amusement park that pretty much lack any sort of flavor and at the end of it you’re really just drinking water. But, BINGSU, dang, I can’t even really explain because it’s truly something else. It’s ice, yes, but at the same time it has a kind of milky flavor almost. I’m not entirely sure, but all I know is this shaved ice has something else goin’ on and I’m about it. While the classic version has red bean, I think so far my favorite has been the green tea flavor. The serving size may seem enormous for two measly people, but because most of it is basically just ice, it won’t leave you slumped over regretting your decision to eat it in the first place. Like other desserts such as ice cream, frozen yogurt, or gelato, you can get crazy with it and add cheesecake bites, fruit, matcha, or a million oreos and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
10. GYEONGDAN (경단) (gyeong•dan) – Sweet Rice Cake Balls
Catch me at any local market hitting up every vendor that has samples of these. Made by kneading glutinous rice flour into balls, these guys are then coated with honey, filled with either red beans or mung beans, then rolled in toasted sesame seeds. I have a mild obsession with red bean, and while many of the foreigners I’ve encountered while here don’t love the taste, I can’t get enough of it. It’s not overly sweet, so it provides the perfect filling in practically anything (insert any and all bread here). I only ever allow myself to buy a package of maybe three of these cake balls because I will 100% finish them all in about a minute. No regrets here.