30 Essential Things to Know About Korean Food Culture

“In the 21st century, culture is power,” said Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s ousted leader, in her inaugural speech. Granted, hers was a tumultuous presidency, but that doesn’t make her statement any less true. Culture is indeed power and the rise of South Korea’s soft power is enough proof.

Mobile phones, cars, Korean entertainment, and skincare are just some of South Korea’s biggest economic and cultural contributions to the world. Korean food culture is another, and it’s one of the best ways to gain insight into Korea’s history and identity.

Many Korean side dishes

To get to know South Korea, you have to know its cuisine — the history and philosophy behind it, the customs, staples and traditional Korean dishes, dining etiquette, and food trends! In this article, we’re exploring these Korean food culture facts and more. Read on!

Korean cuisine basics, traditions, and customs

Hansik (한식) or traditional Korean cuisine is a healthy and well-balanced meal made of fresh and natural ingredients. Despite historical influences from its neighbors, China and Japan, it has formed a solid culinary identity, with long-standing beliefs and Korean food traditions that set it apart.

1. Food is medicine.

Bibimbap

In Korean food culture, it is believed that “food and medicine are grown from the same root,” thus “there is no better medicine than food.” And for Koreans, food is not just for physical healing but also mental and emotional well-being.

As is with Japanese food culture, Koreans believe that food should be harmonious. The strong belief in yin, yang, and the five elements (wood, fire, soil, metal, and water) influence the taste and presentation of food. The five elements are represented by five colors (blue, red, yellow, white, and black) and five tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and spicy).

This is not strictly followed in modern Korean foods but traditional cuisine is made to blend and harmonize not just to look and taste good but also to curb toxicity and enhance nutritional value.

2. Fermented food is life.

Fresh Napa Cabbage Kimchi Salad (Baechu Geotjeori), soft focus

When it comes to the variety of fermented foods, it’s tough to beat Korea.

Fermentation is a metabolic process that helps food to “mature” so that it can be stored for a longer time. Good bacteria from natural ingredients not only enhance the food’s taste but also boost its nutritional content.

In Korean cuisine, kimchi, doenjang (soybean paste), ganjang (soy sauce), gochujang (chili paste), jeotgal (salted seafood), and makgeolli (traditional rice wine) are the most ubiquitous fermented dishes and drinks.

3. Kimchi making is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

A female is filling the pickled cabbage with seasoning for kimchi making (Kimjang)

Kimchi is one of the things Korea is most known for. It’s so valued in Korean food culture that the process of making it (kimjang) is also a protected art.

Kimchi culture is something that’s shared by North and South Korea and kimjang from both nations has been listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Item.

Making kimchi is more than just kimchi itself. It’s about families, friends, and communities gathering together to collectively make kimchi and building relationships.

That’s just one interesting tidbit about this representative dish, but we have more kimchi facts here.

4. Meals are communal and always with banchan.

Koreans sharing food

In Korea, sharing is not just caring. It’s… normal.

Communal meals are not new in Asia but Korea takes it up a notch by enjoying a variety of main dishes and side dishes called banchan. This colorful assortment of small dishes often includes fermented vegetables, seasoned eggs or seafood, and sometimes, meat. And they’re meant for sharing among family and friends.

Banchan is a fixture in the Korean dining table, so much so that restaurants provide it for free in every meal. In most restaurants, you can even ask for unlimited refills!

5. Royal court cuisine is the quintessence of Korean food culture.

Korean royal table food

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910), Korean royal court cuisine or Joseon Wangjo Gungjung yori was considered the highest form of dining. Also known as palace food, it is Korea’s most formal and elaborate meal.

The sumptuous spread includes rice, soups, dipping sauces, meat, rice cakes, and 12 seasonal banchan. Looking at a surasang (royal table), you’d think the assorted dishes are picked at random. On the contrary, these dishes are meant to complement each other’s flavor.

Korea no longer has royals but royal cuisine is still considered an important part of Korean food culture. The Korean government proclaimed it an Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 38. You can experience royal cuisine in select restaurants across South Korea.

6. Turn a year older with seaweed soup.

Miyeok-guk, Korean seaweed soup

Should you find yourself celebrating your birthday in Korea, your Korean friends will likely insist on serving miyeok-guk or seaweed soup. This popular Korean dish is made of seaweed, lightly seasoned broth, and meat or seafood.

Koreans eat miyeok-guk for breakfast on their birthdays to remember their mothers. Seaweed soup, being rich in calcium and iodine, is often served to women who have just given birth. And so, the dish came to be known as the birthday soup.

But this isn’t the only “holiday” food in Korea. There are special foods to mark every holiday or important celebration. These are just a few of them:

  • Tteokguk – rice cake and ground beef soup usually served during Seollal (Lunar New Year)
  • Songpyeon – half-moon-shaped rice cake eaten during Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day)
  • Ogokbap -steamed sticky rice, millet, red beans, sticky corn, and black beans, served for Jeongwol Daeborum or the first full moon day of the year
  • Patjuk – red bean porridge typically eaten on Dongji or the winter solstice

7. Hot and spicy wins.

spicy kimchi in Korean chili pepper

Korean food is known for being spicy. Korea’s most beloved pepper is Cheongyang pepper which is said to have a rating of 10,000 Scoville units. This pepper is commonly ground into powder, made into gochujang, and used in many Korean dishes.

Considering spicy foods’ prevalence in Korea, it’s surprising that chili pepper isn’t native to the peninsula. The plant was brought by Portuguese traders in the 17th century.

It’s also worth mentioning that not all Koreans like spicy foods. And if you’re a foreigner who has low spice tolerance, there’s no need to worry. There are lots of non-spicy dishes in Korea and some traditionally spicy foods are sometimes offered in non-spicy or milder variations.

8. The secret is in the sauces and seasonings.

The three most basic sauces of Korean food soybean paste, soy sauce, and red pepper paste.

In Korean food culture, the taste and quality of food are largely affected by the spices and condiments used. Aside from chili, Korea consumes a lot of garlic (even more than chili!), onions, scallions, and ginger to season food.

Here are some of the most popular condiments in Korean cooking:

  • Gochujang – chili paste
  • Doenjang – soybean paste
  • Ssamjang – doenjang and gochujang combined with sesame oil, garlic, green onions, and brown sugar
  • Ganjang – mildly flavored soy sauce, which is darker, sweeter, and less salty compared to other soy sauce
  • Chunjang – black bean sauce made from fermented soybeans
  • Chamgireum – toasted sesame oil
  • Aekjeot – fish sauce

9. Koreans believe in “like cures like.”

healthy samgyetang soup

Closely tied to the Korean wisdom of “food is medicine” is yi-yeol, chi-yeol, which translates to “like cures like.” Another way to interpret this is to fight heat with heat. Simply put, Koreans eat hot dishes on the hottest summer days.

On the three hottest days of summer between July and August, Koreans eat samgyetang or chicken ginseng soup. This comfort food is made by stuffing a young whole chicken with glutinous rice, ginseng, jujube, and garlic, boiled down into a thick and creamy soup.

Koreans do eat cold food such as ice cream and bingsu on hot days. But eating samgyetang in summer is still done so they can sweat the heat out and let their body’s natural cooling system do the work.

Korean staples and popular traditional dishes

Korean food culture is ever-evolving. Year in, year out, we see food trends coming out of South Korea. But there are all-time favorites, foods that are essential to the Korean heart, soul, and tummy. These are the Korean dishes that you can’t miss out on.

10. Rice is at the heart of the table.

korean rice bap

As in many Asian countries, rice is a Korean staple food. But while regular white rice is common, Koreans are also fans of mixing different grains like barley, corn, millet, and even beans and vegetables to give their bowls a more nutritious kick.

Rice is also the base of popular Korean dishes such as bibimbap and kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice), and kimbap. On holidays, rice also takes the form of sticky rice cakes (tteok). Even makgeolli, Korea’s representative traditional liquor, is made by fermenting rice!

11. But noodles are super popular, too.

Bibim guksu

Like its neighbors China and Japan, Korea has a wide variety of noodle dishes, too. Also known as guksu or myeon, Korean noodles are part of regular meals as well as important holidays.

Popular Korean noodle dishes include:

  • Japchae – stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables, which can be eaten any day but is most especially popular on holidays and traditional ceremonies
  • Kalguksu – knife-cut noodles, popular in the winter
  • Bibimguksu – mixed noodles in cold spicy sauce
  • Jajangmyeon – black bean sauce noodles
  • Janchi guksu – also known as banquet noodles. This is traditionally served on birthdays and weddings.
  • Naengmyeon – cold noodles served with cold broth, sometimes with ice cubes

And let’s not forget that South Korea is also home to some of the most delicious ramyeon brands!

12. Koreans make their meals more comforting with soups, stews, and casseroles.

Budae jjigae hotpot

Korean soups can be categorized into four: guk, tang, jjigae, and jeongol. These four may share the same ingredients but the resulting dish will vary depending on the method of cooking and the amount of liquid used.

Guk is the native Korean word for soup. It is typically served in individual portions, not shared, along with a bowl of rice. Most guk dishes like miyeok-guk (seaweed soup) have light broth.

Tang, on the other hand, requires a longer cooking time and can be communal. The broth is heavier than guk and additional seasonings like salt, green onions, and hot chili paste may be added. Popular tang dishes include maeun-tang (spicy fish hot pot), galbi-tang (beef rib soup), and seolleong-tang (beef bone soup).

Jjigae is closer to stew, with more solid ingredients than guk and thicker soup. Jjigae dishes such as kimchi jjigae, sundubu jjigae, and doenjang jjigae are often shared but can also be served individually.

Lastly, jeongol is a communal hot pot dish with meat, mushroom, seafood, and vegetables. The prepared broth is poured over the raw ingredients and cooked at the table. It is less soupy than guk and less salty than jjigae. Beoseot jeongol or mushroom hot pot is one example.

13. Korean pancakes are not exactly the breakfast type.

Korean pancakes

Outside Korea, jeon is often translated as Korean pancakes. But don’t mistake this for breakfast pancakes. Instead, jeon is the catchall term for savory fritters. It’s closer to omelets and can be eaten as an appetizer, side dish, anju (drinking snack), or occasionally, as dessert.

Jeon is made by cutting ingredients like vegetables, meat, or seafood into small slices and coating them with a batter of wheat flour or glutinous rice flour and egg before frying them in oil.

Popular jeon dishes include:

  • Pajeon – made of scallions
  • Gamjajeon – shredded potato
  • Haemul pajeon – made of seafood, commonly shrimp, with scallions
  • Yukjeon – made of meat
  • Hobakjeon – made of thinly sliced Korean zucchinis
  • Hwajeon – sweet jeon made with honey and edible flowers

14. Korean barbecue is a meaty experience.

Korean roast meat

Gogigui or meat roasting has a long history in Korea. Koreans have been roasting meat since the Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BC – 668AD) but turned vegetarian when Buddhism swept the nation. Meat made a comeback in Joseon. In modern-day Korea, barbecue restaurants are everywhere.

Samgyeopsal (pork belly), galbi (beef short ribs), dakgalbi (spicy chicken), and seafood like shrimp and clams are commonly served. Upscale restaurants also serve hanwoo, Korea’s premium beef. Banchan are overflowing, as well as alcoholic drinks.

But what makes Korean barbecue truly unique is the way it’s served. Some restaurants have built-in grills on the tables while others have portable tabletop grills. Customers often cook but servers may also do this for you.

Making a ssam (meaning “wrapped”) is also standard – simply toss the meat or seafood slice into a lettuce leaf or two. Top the meat with cooked garlic, banchan, and your choice of sauce. Roll it up into one bite-sized ball.

15. Bulgogi is a centuries-old dish.

Plate of bulgogi

Speaking of Korean barbecue, one of the earliest forms of Korean barbecue is bulgogi, which means “fire meat”. This classic Korean dish is made of thinly sliced, marinated beef, grilled to perfection. Home-style bulgogi may also be stir-fried in a pan.

This popular dish traces its origins to the Goguryeo era. It is believed that its earliest form was maekjeok or beef grilled on a skewer. This later evolved into seoryamyeok, a brothy dish of marinated beef soaked in cold water, and much later, neobiani or thinly sliced and charbroiled marinated meat.

Today, bulgogi is served in many restaurants, at home, and during special occasions. It’s popular among foreigners, too!

16. Every region has a yummy delicacy worth trying.

jeonju bibimbap

Traveling across Korea is a great chance to taste local delicacies. Water surrounds Korea on three sides while the land is mountainous. This, and the variation in climate, is why region-specific dishes are so varied.

Some regional delights worth traveling for include:

  • Wang galbi – king-sized beef ribs from Suwon
  • Megi maeuntang – spicy catfish stew from Gapyeong
  • Dotorimukmari – acorn jelly noodle from Daejeon
  • Daetong jeongsik – bamboo rice set menu from Damyang
  • Jeonju bibimbap – Unlike other bibimbap styles, Jeonju bibimbap is famous for using beef broth in cooking rice.
  • Chungmu kimbap – bite-sized pieces of rice rolled in laver, from Tongyeong
  • Heukdweji gui  – grilled wild boar meat from Jeju

Korean dining etiquette

Eating Korean food is a cultural experience every day, with every meal. To make the most out of it, knowing Korean food habits and table manners is a must.

17. Say thank you.

In Korean food culture, one way of showing appreciation for the food is by using polite language.

Before eating, say jal meokkessubnida (잘 먹겠습니다). This translates to “I will eat well” or “I will enjoy my meal”, signaling your gratitude for the food you received and the person who prepared it.

Similarly, finish with grace by placing your chopsticks and spoon beside your bowl and plate and saying jal meogeosseubnida (잘 먹었습니다), which means you have indeed enjoyed your meal.

18. Show respect to elders.

Being a hierarchical society, respect for elders is expected in all settings in Korea, including mealtimes.

Respect for the elderly dictates that you do not pick up your chopsticks or spoon until the oldest person (or in business dinners, the boss or higher-ranking individual) has begun eating. But you should also be careful not to continue eating for too long after they have finished.

This means you have to match the elder’s pace — start after them and finish after them but not be too far behind.

Korean eating culture also demands that you turn your face and body to the side when drinking alcoholic beverages. This may all sound tricky but most foreigners adjust to this custom quickly and the elderly do appreciate it when foreigners show politeness.

19. Start with soup.

Korean Food. it’s ‘Kimchi Jjigae’ or Kimchi Soup

Now that you can finally start eating, don’t just grab the first dish that catches your eye. If your meal comes with a soup or stew, begin your meal with it. Pick up the serving spoon and scoop some soup into your bowl. Use your spoon, not your chopsticks, to sample the soup.

Only after you’ve had the soup should you move on to rice and other dishes.

20. Know your utensils.

metal spoon and chopsticks over bamboo background

Chopsticks etiquette differs per country so tread carefully. In Korean dining, stainless steel chopsticks and spoons are generally used. They are placed vertically on the right side of the food, with the spoon on the left and the chopsticks on the right.

Here are some basic do’s and don’ts to remember:

  • Do use the spoon for rice and soup. For everything else, you can use chopsticks.
  • Don’t stab your chopsticks into your rice bowl as this is thought to bring bad luck. Even if you don’t believe in good or bad luck, it just looks silly.
  • Do try to use only one utensil at a time so you don’t spill and waste food.
  • Don’t use your chopsticks like skewers.

21. Use dining ware correctly.

Traditional Korean food culture dictates that you don’t lift your soup or rice bowl off the table. This is because most Korean tableware is made of stainless steel, making it hot to the touch.

But even with ceramic bowls, elders typically scoop food from bowls using their spoons without lifting it off the table. You may see some Koreans lifting their bowls and even slurping from the bowl. This is accepted in some informal settings (e.g., when dining with same-age friends) but is frowned upon in formal dinners or when dining with elders.

While meals are communal, it’s rude to keep grabbing food from the shared dishes. Instead, take enough food each time and place them on your plate or bowl. Don’t eat directly from the large plates, don’t hoard, and don’t double-dip!

22. Mind your neighbor.

A hand is pouring soju (Korean distilled spirits) into a glass at a restaurant
Editorial credit: Stock for you / Shutterstock.com

I’m sure this applies elsewhere but in Korean dining, courtesy for fellow diners is strictly observed. The goal is to enjoy good food and to make the dining experience as pleasant as possible for everyone. Here are some rules to observe:

  • When passing bowls, glasses, or dishes, use both hands to show respect.
  • Don’t refill your own drink. Instead, pour for others at the table and let them refill yours. When pouring, support your pouring arm by putting your opposite hand under your elbow.
  • Turn away from the table and cover your nose/mouth with a napkin if you need to cough or sneeze.
  • Don’t make loud noises while chewing.
  • Don’t waste food. Take only what you can finish.

23. Tipping is not required nor expected.

Tipping is a foreign concept in Korean food culture or Korean culture in general. Waiters, porters, bellboys, and cab drivers don’t require nor accept tips. It may even come off as rude in some instances.

However, small tokens of appreciation may be welcome in Western establishments. But in traditional Korean restaurants, don’t bother as you’ll likely be refused.

Modern South Korean food culture

Korea’s long-held food traditions remain strong amidst the changing culinary scene. But as you’ll see, more recent gastronomic developments in South Korea are redefining Korean food culture, as well as its beverage industry, for the better.

24. Fusion is in.

Jjajangmyeon or black bean sauce noodles

Koreans love “Koreanizing” food. This is most evident in these Chinese and Japanese dishes that have taken on a Korean twist

Most popular examples are jjajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodle), jjamppong (spicy noodle soup), and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour meat) — foods adapted from Northeast Chinese cuisine.

South Korea has also made its version of the Japanese tonkatsu. Korea’s don-gaseu is thinner and usually comes with danmuji (yellow pickled radish).

In more recent years, South Korean food culture has become even more receptive to fusion food. It’s not hard to find pizza joints selling bulgogi pizza, or Mexican restaurants in Seoul dishing out kimchi quesadillas.

25. Korean food delivery is the epitome of convenience.

Food delivery man in Korea
Editorial credit: Ki young / Shutterstock.com

Korean delivery culture is known for unmatched efficiency and convenience.

There are several delivery platforms available (with Shuttle being the most foreigner-friendly) so coverage is wide. Whether you’re craving chicken wings, kimchi jjigae, or pasta, Korea’s fast and organized baedal (배달) or delivery system has got you covered. And it can deliver anywhere — even in the middle of Hangang Park!

The neat thing is that most Korean companies deliver food that comes in regular containers and utensils. Once you’re done eating, simply put the dishes back into the box or plastic that they came in, leave them outside your door, and someone will come back later to collect them. Pretty cool, right?

26. Korea has a vibrant late snacking culture.

Beer and Korean fried chicken on baking sheet and cutting board

Night owl foodies will love Korea’s active nightlife cuisine, especially in cities like Seoul.

Yasik is the Korean word for late-night eating or midnight snack. Dishes like ramyeon, jokbal (pig’s trotters), bossam (boiled pork wraps), tteokbokki (simmered rice cake), sundae (blood sausage), kimbap, and pizza are some of the most popular yasik foods.

But the most popular yasik in South Korea is fried chicken, locally called chikin. Koreans love fried chicken any time of the day but it’s most especially popular as a nighttime snack. And no late-night order of fried chicken is complete without maekju (beer). This lovely combination of chicken and beer is known as chimaek.

27. Street food is hip and cheap.

A pojangmacha in winter
A pojangmacha in winter

Korean foods found in street stalls, food festivals, and traditional markets offer a different kind of experience. For one, it’s brimming with youthful energy. For another, it’s cheap!

Korean street food culture features dishes and snacks that are just as sumptuous as food served in restaurants. Popular choices include rice cakes, jeon, hotteok (sugar-filled hotcake), gyeranbbang (egg-filled bread), kimbap, skewered meat, eomuk (fishcake), and corn dogs.

An interesting take on street food is the pojangmacha, a street stall covered by a plastic tent. You can think of it as a food truck but covered with plastic windows. Pojangmachas open from early evening until dawn and sell an array of Korean dishes, but mostly street food and drinks.

28. Korea is the home of food trends.

Samyang’s Buldak Bokkeummyeon

There’s probably no other country that sweeps local and international audiences quite as fast as Korea does when it comes to food trends.

K-pop, K-dramas, and mukbang (eating show) played huge roles in popularizing foods like Buldak Bokkeummyeon (Samyang’s Fire Noodles), Honey Butter Chips, Korean-style fried chicken, dalgona coffee, cream cheese garlic bread, rose tteokbokki, and croiffle (a cross between croissant and waffle).

You’re probably wondering, what’s next? One simply needs to stay tuned on Instagram – that’s often where Korean food trends explode!

29. And a young but bustling coffee scene.

Coffee in a Korean cafe

South Korea rarely comes to mind when thinking of countries to visit and experience the local coffee scene. And it’s a pity because, in the last decade or so, Korean coffee culture has become immensely popular.

The first Korean cafés called dabang emerged in the early 1900s. Like the coffee scene in European countries, these coffee shops were gathering hubs for artists and intellectuals. Years later, instant coffee mixes became popular, and themed coffee shops began popping up.

Today, Korea is home to unique and creative coffee culture. While American cafés like Starbucks and Blue Bottle are present, there are far more independent coffee shops serving specialty coffee and sporting impressive (read: Instagrammable) interiors.

Proof of how seriously the Koreans take their coffee: as of 2016, there are about 350,000 certified Korean baristas. That’s more than any other country in the world! In 2019, Jooyeon Jeon from Busan won the World Barista Championship. They’re not messing around.

30. Drinks and anju go hand-in-hand.

Cheers to Korean rice wine with the side dish of gamjajeon(potato pancake)

There is no shortage of liquors in Korea. From makgeolli to soju to draft beer, you won’t run out of options. And like any social activity, drinking always involves eating.

In Korean food culture, there are certain drinking snacks or anju that go best with particular drinks:

  • Makgeolli (rice wine) goes best with bindaetteok (mung bean pancake), kimchi jeon, and other types of jeon.
  • Soju (distilled liquor) goes well with strongly seasoned foods like jjamppong, bossam, or stews.
  • Sweet wines like gahyangju (flower wine) and gwasilju (fruit wine) pair well with mild foods like pan-fried fish, jeon, and rice cakes.
  • Medicinal wines like insamju (ginseng wine) and songsunju (pine needle wine) go well with fruits, rice cakes, Korean biscuits, and barbecues.
  • Maekju (beer) is best with fried chicken.

Wrap-up

Korean food culture is just one interesting facet of Korean culture. Imagine what else this country can offer for history and culture junkies, foodies, adventurers, and every type of traveler.

Want to know more about South Korea before your visit (which I’m sure you started planning after reading this)? Read our list of things South Korea is known for, get yourself some books about Korea, or start learning more facts about Korean food!

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