To say that I love Korean food is an understatement. I’ve gone past eating it to watching Korean cooking shows (a great way to learn Korean) to cooking some Korean dishes at home.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably just as interested as I am in Korean food. The great news is, you won’t run out of Korean food facts to learn anytime soon.
South Korea is famous for its food, largely due to the popularity of K-pop and K-dramas. But beyond the novelty it presents, there are so many reasons to love Korean cuisine.
It’s mouthwatering, nutritious, and overall a great window to Korean culture and identity.
I’ve collated some of the most notable Korean food facts – from historical tidbits to Korean food traditions and culture to common Korean dishes and even food trends. Prepare to be amazed and hungry! 가자!
Historical Korean food facts
한식 or Hansik, the Korean word for Korean cuisine has a rich history that dates back to 800 BCE, with influences of primitive agricultural, fishing, and hunting traditions from Manchuria.
Curious about the stories behind some of the most famous Korean food? Let these historical Korean food facts enlighten you.
1. Korea has a deep relationship with fermentation…
There is virtually no other country in the world that matches the variety of fermented foods in Korea. Whether it’s kimchi to hongeo (fermented skate), you’ll be hard-pressed to not find a single fermented dish in a Korean’s dining table.
Koreans started fermenting foods way before the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE – 668 BCE). This tradition was borne out of the cold and harsh Korean winter, a time when it’s hard to obtain fresh ingredients like vegetables that are only available in the spring, summer, or fall.
By fermenting, Koreans can consume these ingredients all year round.
2. …and a deeper relationship with soybeans.
Fermented bean paste is one of the oldest spices or condiments in Korean cuisine. Probably even older than kimchi.
Archaeological remains point to the development of fermented beans during the Mumun pottery period (1500 BCE).
Before the Three Kingdoms period, Koreans have already been making ganjang (soy sauce) and doenjang (soybean paste), which are common ingredients in Korean cooking.
3. Rice was once used as currency.
Koreans love bap or rice. It’s central to Korean cooking that it’s hard to believe that it used to be seen as a luxury.
In the kingdom of Silla, the value of rice was so high that it was used to pay tributes and taxes. Even the farmers who produced it couldn’t eat it.
During the Japanese occupation, those in lower economic levels ate a bowl of white rice only once a year or during a special occasion only. For the rest of the year, they ate cheaper grains like millet or barley.
Fortunately, those days are gone and everyone can enjoy ssalbap (steamed white rice) or variations such as bibimbap (rice with seasoned vegetables, meat, and chili paste), gulbap (oyster rice), or kongnamulbap (rice with soybean sprout).
4. Korean royal court cuisine requires twelve side dishes.
Joseon Wangjo Gungjung yori, or the Korean royal cuisine, is Korea’s most formal and sumptuous meal. This style of cooking was consumed during the Joseon Dynasty or from 1392 to 1910.
Korean royal court cuisine is ceremonial and the foods are highly assorted. It is served on a surasang or royal table, which is a set of three tables and a hotpot. Most dishes are served in bangjja or bronzeware.
Surasang consists of 12 banchan or side dishes in various colors that represent nature. Aside from these side dishes, the table is brimming with many other dishes like soups and stews, meat, braised seafood, rice cakes, and tea.
5. Milk was a luxury.
During the Joseon Dynasty, milk was very hard to come by. It was so precious that it was considered a nutritional supplement only served to the king when he was sick.
Milk was primarily served as part of the royal cuisine in the form of tarakjuk or milk porridge. This is a creamy, easy-to-swallow dish made of milk and powdered rice.
6. Porridge is one of the oldest Korean foods.
Speaking of porridge, porridge or juk is another Korean staple food. It is a traditional Korean food made by boiling rice or other grains or legumes with water. It is smooth, gentle to the stomach, and highly nutritious.
Koreans have been making porridge for a long time. It used to be served as a morning meal but is now eaten any time of the day.
Some of the most popular juk include dakjuk (chicken porridge), jeonbokjuk (rice porridge with abalone), and patjuk (red bean porridge).
7. Temple food has a touch of royal cuisine.
Buddhism is one of the most dominant religions in South Korea, hence the presence of Buddhist monasteries or temples.
Following Buddhist tradition, temple food is vegetarian or vegan. It also minimizes the use of artificially processed foods, instead opting for seasonal natural produce.
Some of the menu items from the royal cuisine are also found in Korean temple cuisine. Many of the royal kitchen maids retired from the palace and worked in temples as nuns, taking some of the recipes with them.
8. Tonkatsu used to be available only in western restaurants in Seoul.
Considering Japan’s annexation of Korea, and its proximity, it’s not hard to see why there are Japanese influences in some Korean foods. Interestingly, when the Japanese introduced tonkatsu (or don-gaseu to Koreans) around the 1930s, it failed to gain popularity.
But the dish made a comeback in the 1980s through western restaurants in Seoul. One of these restaurants is Italiano, located in Jeong-dong. Despite the Italian name, the restaurant’s best-known dish is don-gaseu, served on a big plate with kimchi and danmuji (yellow pickled radish).
Korean tonkatsu is often thinner than the Japanese version and is served unsliced. It remains one of the country’s favorite dishes.
9. The first Korean ramen, or ramyeon, was made by Samyang in 1963.
In 1963, Samyang Food Company (yes, Samyang of the Fire Noodles) developed the first instant ramyeon noodles, invented in Japan just a few years prior. It was sold for about 10 won (approximately 1 cent in USD) to help impoverished Koreans at the time.
Although the primary purpose was to help solve poverty, ramyeon remained one of the most popular instant foods in Korea. Koreans tend to consume 80 to 90 packets of this often-spicy treat annually.
Facts about Korean food traditions and culture
More than the dishes, Korean food culture is what sets Korean cuisine apart.
Certain customs and traditions surround Korean food and its preparation. Knowing these Korean food facts is also vital if you find yourself traveling to Korea or dining with Koreans.
10. Korean food is harmonious.
This is one of the most interesting Korean food facts for me and possibly anyone who studies Korean culture.
Korean cuisine is governed by philosophy and science. The strong belief in yin and yang requires nutritionally balanced food. The five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) are represented by five colors (blue, red, yellow, white, and black).
Colorful ingredients are blended to produce nutritious foods and stimulate appetite through the five essential tastes: salty, hot, sweet, bitter, and sour.
11. Koreans believe food is medicine.
Traditional Korean wisdom says that “food and medicine are grown from the same root.” Koreans eat food not just for satiety but for physical and emotional wellbeing.
This philosophy is seen in the abundance of vegetables, wild greens, and medicinal herbs like ginseng and bellflower root in Korean dishes. Even when eating barbecue, Koreans make sure to have lettuce for veggie wraps.
12. It’s not a Korean meal without banchan.
Whether you’ve dined at a Korean restaurant or simply watched Koreans eating from your screen, you’d know that Koreans have multiple side dishes on their dining tables.
This colorful assortment of small dishes looks like appetizers, but they’re not. Banchan are side dishes, typically fermented or pickled, meant to be shared and enhance the flavor of the main dish.
The number of banchan in a meal can be anywhere from three to twenty. This number is used to determine the diner’s status, which is why kings have the most number of side dishes.
13. Koreans eat seaweed soup on their birthday…
Miyeok-guk or seaweed soup is a Korean dish made of seaweed, lightly seasoned broth, and protein sources like beef, mussels or clams, prawns, or oysters.
Koreans typically eat miyeok-guk for breakfast on birthdays (although they also eat this on normal days). This is a way to remember and celebrate one’s mother.
Because seaweed is rich in calcium and iodine, miyeok-guk is often served for women who have just given birth. This association with childbirth led to miyeok-guk become the Korean birthday soup.
14. …and special foods to mark holidays.
Koreans love to gather and eat on holidays. They make the special occasions even more special by serving holiday foods.
On Seollal (Lunar New Year), it is customary to eat tteokguk, a traditional soup made of rice cake slices and marinated ground beef. During Chuseok (Thanksgiving Day), songpyeon, a half-moon-shaped rice cake, is a must.
15. Koreans fight fire with fire by eating samgyetang.
One of the most fun Korean food facts is this: Koreans beat the summer heat by eating hot food.
While Koreans enjoy ice cream on hot days, they also believe in the idiom “yi-yeol, chi-yeol” or “like cures like.” It is a tradition to eat hot food, particularly samgyetang or ginseng chicken soup, during sambok, the three hottest days of summer between July and August.
Samgyetang is made by stuffing a young chicken with glutinous rice, ginseng, jujube, and garlic, slow-cooked in a stone pot. Protein-rich food like jeonbok (abalone) and jangeo (grilled eel) are also popular during summer.
16. Koreans show respect for elders and seniors while eating or drinking.
Tradition dictates that you do not pick up your spoon or chopsticks until the eldest person on the table has started eating. In addition, be careful not to continue eating after the elder has finished.
When drinking, the elder or senior pours the first glass. And you have to clink your glass below your senior’s. Etiquette also insists that you turn your head away and cover your mouth when drinking with someone older or senior.
17. Jal meokgetseumnida!
K-drama viewers will no doubt recognize this phrase.
Koreans usually say 잘 먹겠습니다 (jal meokgetseumnida) before eating, which translates to “I will eat well.” This is to show appreciation for the person who cooked or prepared the meal.
Conversely, a meal ends by saying 잘 먹었습니다 (jal meogeotseumnida), which means “I ate well.” It’s another way of saying thank you for the meal, and it’s especially appropriate if someone treats you to a meal.
18. Koreans use metal chopsticks.
Unlike its East Asian neighbors China and Japan who use wooden chopsticks, Koreans use chopsticks made of metal.
Koreans originally used wooden chopsticks. When exactly and why they switched to metal chopsticks is unknown. But during the Baekje kingdom, it is believed that silver chopsticks helped detect arsenic poisoning.
Metal chopsticks are difficult to use at first but it has its advantages. They are said to be more hygienic and easier to clean, more eco-friendly, and more durable.
19. Sharing is caring.
You don’t often see Westerners ordering multiple dishes in a restaurant and sharing it with everyone on the table. But this practice is common in Asian countries like South Korea.
Koreans enjoy communal dishes, hence the side dishes that are placed on the center of the table and shared with everyone. It’s also very common to share main dishes among family and friends, sometimes even eating from the same bowl.
20. You can have food delivered to the park.
Korean food delivery service is unmatched in efficiency and convenience. It’s simple, well-organized, and fast.
Food can be delivered anywhere… and I mean anywhere! Seoulites enjoying a lazy afternoon in Hangang Park even get food delivery in the middle of the park!
There are multiple apps for food delivery. You can also pay with cash or card. And with some apps, the delivery man comes back later to collect the plates and containers that came with the order. How convenient is that?!
Facts about Korean cooking
Korean food can be prepared in a variety of ways and styles using various ingredients. Traditional methods include steaming, stewing, boiling, and smoking.
Just like customs that surround Korean dining, there are lots of interesting Korean food facts centered around cooking. Here are just a few.
21. A lot of Korean foods are hot and spicy.
But not all.
Koreans love chili and one of the most famous sauces or paste is gochujang (red chili paste). But compared to cayenne pepper, Thai pepper, or India’s ghost pepper, Korean chili pepper is kinder. It has a mild rating of 2,500 Scoville units.
While Korea’s spicy foods have gained popularity around the world, there are many non-spicy dishes. Some traditionally spicy dishes like tteokbokki even have non-spicy variations.
22. Korea has a special love for garlic…
Korea is among the world’s top producers and consumers of garlic.
According to the Korean Rural Economic Institute (KREI), the average consumption of garlic per Korean was about 7.4kg in 2019. In contrast, Americans and Italians consume around 1kg on average per person per year.
Garlic is one of the most used ingredients in Korean cuisine that chili pepper pales in comparison. Most Korean recipes like soups, stews, and side dishes call for garlic.
23. …and a great love for sesame oil.
Korea is one of the biggest consumers of sesame oil or chamgireum. However, they don’t use this amber, aromatic oil for cooking.
Instead, it is used as a seasoning or flavor enhancer, often drizzled into a dish during the last stages of cooking or preparation.
Compared to the sesame oil of the West, Korea’s sesame is more aromatic because it is made from roasted sesame seeds. This lends a nutty and buttery aroma and flavor to foods.
24. Koreans cook in stone pots.
Unlike the Chinese who use woks, Koreans use earthenware and stone pots. These include the ddukbaegi that’s used to cook stews and soups and the dolsot which is used to make bibimbap.
These days, steel cooking pans, cast iron skillets, nonstick pans, and air fryers are common. But traditional kitchens still use stone pots.
25. Koreans take grilling seriously.
So much so that they built in BBQ grills on their dining tables.
Korean barbecue is one of the most popular methods of cooking meat in Korea. Beef, pork, or chicken are often grilled on gas or charcoal grills. In restaurants, diners can grill their own meat on portable stoves or built-in grills.
Facts about common Korean foods
From the sheer number of Korean BBQ restaurants popping up in the West to the countless social media food trends spurred on by Koreans (i.e. the Fire Noodle challenge, dalgona coffee, mukbang), one thing is apparent: Korean food has already earned its place in the global food scene.
These Korean food facts will teach you a thing or two about some of the most famous Korean foods.
26. There are over 200 types of kimchi.
Kimchi is the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about Korean food. The most famous food of Korean cuisine, kimchi is known for its spicy taste, crispness, and health component. It’s rich in lactobacilli, the healthy bacteria found in some fermented foods.
But if you think the quintessential napa cabbage kimchi (baechu kimchi) is the only type of kimchi, you’re grossly mistaken.
This millennia-old dish has over 200 variations like the ggakdugi (chopped radish), gat kimchi (mustard leaf), and oi sobagi (cucumber). There are non-spicy types like baek (white) kimchi with no chili powder and dongchimi (radish water).
And in classic Korean ingenuity, they also use fruits like oranges, pears, and grapes to make kimchi.
27. Hanwoo or Korean beef is a luxury item.
You may be familiar with wagyu, Kobe, or Angus – types of premium beef that are priced accordingly. But have you heard of Hanwoo?
Hanwoo is a breed of small cattle indigenous to Korea, raised free-range in the countryside. This beef is coveted for its high marbling, excellent flavor, and slightly sweet taste.
The breeding of Hanwoo cattle is tightly controlled, allowing only the best of the breed to be passed on. This makes it one of the rarest meats in the world, with golden price tags to match.
28. Koreans eat raw beef.
If you’ve had steak tartare, you probably won’t mind eating yukhoe, a Korean dish made of minced raw beef with a marinade of soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and sesame oil. Korean pears, pine nuts, and raw egg yolk are typical garnishes.
Raw beef with raw eggs sounds nasty for some but yukhoe is a popular beef dish in Korea. Koreans are also known for eating raw baby octopus or sannakji drizzled in sesame oil. It’s so fresh that the limbs are still moving.
29. Korean fried chicken is twice-fried.
Korean fried chicken is one of the best things to happen in this world, if you ask me.
What makes Korean fried chicken unique and different from other styles of fried chicken is the way it’s fried. The exterior is very thinly battered in cornstarch or flour, allowing for paper-thin-like crispiness. The chicken is fried not once but twice, a technique that surprisingly produces less oily chicken.
This also ensures that the chicken is cooked through. It’s incredibly crunchy on the outside and moist and tender inside.
30. There are various types of rice cakes.
Most of us can recognize garaetteok, the cylindrical and chewy white rice cake found in tteokbokki. But the rice-loving nation of Korea has so many more types of rice cakes, some of which are served on ceremonial occasions and holidays.
Some of the popular rice cakes include sirutteok (steamed rice cake with crumbled red beans), injeolmi (rice cake rolled in bean powder), and hwajeon (flower rice cakes).
31. In 2016, pork production surpassed rice production.
For thousands of years, rice was Korea’s most produced agricultural product. But in 2016, pork production made history when it surpassed rice production for the first time.
Pork or dwaeji is a staple in the country. Virtually every part from head to trotters is enjoyed by Koreans but the most favored part is pork belly.
Samgyeopsal, one of Korea’s most popular dishes, consists of grilled slices of pork belly. It’s usually served with lettuce, dipping pastes, raw garlic and onions, and of course, kimchi.
32. You won’t run out of noodle options.
Korea has a great variety of noodle dishes. Called guksu or myeon, Korean noodles are everyday foods but are also served during special occasions.
Like in Chinese culture, noodles in Korea symbolize long life so it’s also served on birthdays.
Popular noodle dishes include kalguksu (knife-cut noodles), japchae (stir-fried noodles with vegetables), and bibim guksu (spicy mixed noodles).
33. They even have cold noodles!
And by cold, I mean icy broth.
Korea has a lot of cold noodle dishes but the strangest one for foreigners is mul naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles).
This noodle dish uses thin, chewy noodles and has a clear, refreshing broth made with beef or dongchimi (radish water kimchi).
It is usually served icy cold, almost like a slushy, and sometimes comes with ice cubes. It’s especially in demand in summer.
34. Gochujang is the most popular condiment.
It’s virtually impossible to find a household in Korea that has no gochujang.
The Korean chili paste is made from dried Korean chili, salt, water, fermented soybeans, and glutinous rice powder. These ingredients are mixed and fermented to make the paste spicier and more flavorful.
The result is a spicy but sweet, umami flavor that matches almost any Korean dish.
35. Liquors are fermented, too.
Korean traditional liquor is made by fermenting various grains like rice, black beans, millet, corn, or sweet potato.
Makgeolli is Korea’s most representative traditional liquor. This traditional rice wine is milk-colored, slightly sweet, and best paired with bindaetteok (mung bean pancake). Koreans traditionally drink it from small cups rather than cups.
36. Rice punch is a thing.
Rice truly goes a long way in Korea.
Sikhye is a traditional sweet beverage made from fermented rice. It is usually served as a dessert and is also commonly found in Korean spas called jimjilbang. It’s said to aid digestion and blood circulation and resembles a Japanese drink called amazake.
37. Chinese food in Korea is more Korean than Chinese.
Fans of Korean shows know how popular jjajangmyeon (black bean sauce noodle), jjamppong (spicy noodle soup), and tangsuyuk (sweet and sour meat) are in Korea. These dishes are referred to as Chinese foods or foods that comprise Korean-Chinese cuisine.
Although Korean-Chinese cuisine is adapted from Northeast Chinese cuisine, it has been “Koreanized” with Korean spices and ingredients. These dishes are quite different from their original inspirations.
38. Convenience stores are a paradise for snack junkies and foodies.
Convenience stores are, well, convenient. From food to toiletries to medication, you can find a variety of products. These are also available in pyeonijeom or convenience stores in Korea, but it’s especially convenient for hungry souls.
Some of the most famous Korean snacks are found in these convenience stores. But the inventory is certainly not limited to snacks – you can have a full meal in these stores!
From dosirak (Korean version of bento boxes) to instant noodles to kimbap and alcoholic beverages, you can have your fill. Most convenience stores also have tables where you can enjoy your meal.
39. Bingsu is one of the most popular summer treats.
Bingsu, Korea’s version of the shaved ice dessert, is a staple menu item for most Korean cafés in summer. Bingsu is made from shaved ice with various toppings like fruit, milk, and sometimes, ice cream.
The most common variety is patbingsu or red bean bingsu. This bingsu has sweet red beans with small injeolmi (rice cake) pieces and ground nuts. Other popular variants include mango, strawberry, green tea, and coffee.
40. Roasted sweet potatoes, steamed buns, and fish cakes are popular in winter.
Come winter, the selection of snacks becomes even more diverse.
Koreans warm up by eating seasonal treats like gun goguma (roasted sweet potatoes), jjinppang (steamed buns), and eomuk (fish cakes). These foods were only sold in roadside stalls in the past but now they’re also sold in convenience stores.
After reading all these Korean food facts, I’m sure you will agree that Korean cuisine is one of the most vibrant aspects of Korean culture. And now that you know more about Korean foods, you’ll know what to look for when you visit!