For foodies like me, the best way to get immersed in a culture is to food-crawl our way through it. Food is a valuable cultural asset and this couldn’t be truer in South Korea, a country now known for its amazing food.
For a timeless food culture experience, eating traditional Korean foods is a must. These classic Korean dishes open a window into Korea’s culinary past and its customs. These are the foods that you’ll find in Korean homes and restaurants, traditional markets, and during Korean holidays.
Classic Korean main dishes
This dish of thinly sliced marinated beef is one of the known symbols of Korea. Bulgogi, which translates to “fire meat”), is so popular that it was among the 26 Korean words added to the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) September 2021 update.
Bulgogi has a centuries-old history in Korea. This sweet and spicy dish is one of the oldest traditional Korean foods with roots in the Goguryeo era (37 BC–668 AD).
Traditional bulgogi is grilled, barbecue-style, to give it a smoky, rich meaty taste. However, stir-fried bulgogi is also popular, especially for cooking at home.
You can enjoy this dish on its own or with rice and banchan (side dishes) but Koreans typically wrap the freshly cooked meat in lettuce leaves to make ssam. Add extras like garlic, kimchi, and gochujang (Korean pepper paste), then shove the whole thing into your mouth. Yum!
No trip to the rice-loving nation of Korea is complete without a taste of bibimbap, one of the best-tasting and best-looking traditional Korean foods.
Bibimbap is a composite of the Korean words bibim (mix) and bap (rice). A bowl of white rice is topped (and later on, mixed) with seasoned vegetables, meat (typically beef), and gochujang. A raw or fried egg may be added to the mix.
This colorful and nutritious bowl is easy to do at home. But it’s also worth seeking out popular versions of the dish such as the dolsot bibimbap (served in a very hot stone pot) and Jeonju bibimbap (uses rice cooked in beef broth).
Dakgalbi combines gochujang-marinated chunks of chicken with vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, and sweet potatoes, as well as tteok (rice cake), and spices like gochujang.
In restaurants, it’s typically placed in a large pan and stir-fried at the customer’s table. Sometimes, cheese and noodles are added.
This spicy stir-fried chicken dish is available everywhere in Korea but as with many traditional Korean foods, it’s a local specialty best eaten in the city where it originated — Chuncheon. I had the chance to indulge in Chuncheon dakgalbi when I visited Korea and I have not forgotten it since.
Bossam is a dish of thinly sliced boiled pork (typically shoulder). If you think that’s boring, then think again.
The dish itself sounds simple but it is complemented by an assortment of side dishes: spicy radish salad, raw garlic, ssamjang, salted shrimp, and kimchi. It also comes with vegetables such as lettuce, kkaennip (perilla leaves), and napa cabbage, which can also be used to make a wrap or ssam.
In fact, the ssam in bossam stands for “wrapped” so it’s meant to be enjoyed this way. This is also why bossam is popular as an anju (drinking snack) and yasik (late-night snack).
Koreans have always loved roasting meat… except when they turned vegetarian due to the rise of Buddhism. But once meat started making a comeback, there was no stopping it.
Today, Korean barbecue is almost synonymous with samgyeopsal or pork belly. One of the most popular traditional Korean foods, it is thick, juicy, smoky, savory, and generally affordable.
While there’s no denying that this Korean classic is tasty, a huge part of its popularity is because of the culture surrounding it. Eating samgyeopsal is more of a social event than a meal. Grilling and making ssam with friends, clinking your soju-filled glasses — this is the way to enjoy samgyeopsal.
Traditional Korean soups, stews, and porridge
Chicken soup is universally known as soul food. However, traditional Korean foods like samgyetang provide a different kind of healing. This chicken and ginseng soup is used to fight heat with heat in summer.
That doesn’t mean Koreans exclusively eat samgyetang on hot days. This is a nutritious meal of whole chicken packed with rice, garlic, jujube, and ginseng, submerged in an aromatic, hearty broth. I don’t know about you but that sounds like a perfect winter meal to me.
Dating back to the Joseon dynasty, seolleongtang or ox bone soup is a local delicacy of Seoul. This wholesome soup is made by simmering ox leg bones, brisket, and other cuts and seasonings like pepper, garlic, and chopped spring onions over a low flame for several hours.
The result? A distinct milky white and cloudy soup that’s best enjoyed with rice (sometimes added directly to the soup) and banchan like napa kimchi and kkakdugi (diced radish kimchi).
8. Kimchi jjigae
Not only is the versatile kimchi always present as a banchan; it is also found in many traditional Korean dishes.
Kimchi jjigae or kimchi stew is a great use for leftover or ripe kimchi. Aside from baechu (napa) kimchi, it typically uses tofu, and meat, usually pork, canned tuna, or mackerel. I love cooking this at home because it’s simple yet comforting and filling.
As this one’s spicy and served hot, you’ll want to keep a bowl of plain rice handy.
9. Doenjang jjigae
Another popular jjigae, doenjang jjigae’s main ingredient is well, doenjang or soybean paste. One of the most iconic traditional Korean foods, it is cooked with tofu. Often, various vegetables like zucchini and green peppers are used. Meat or mushrooms are optional.
Don’t confuse doenjang jjigae with doenjang-guk (soybean paste soup). Although both are classic Korean dishes, jjigae is thicker and has more ingredients than guk. It is also often served as a main dish, while guk is typically a companion to rice.
If tteokguk sounds familiar, that’s probably because it uses the same main ingredient as tteokbokki, a popular Korean snack. Tteokguk or rice cake soup is one of the symbolic traditional Korean foods eaten on New Year’s Day.
The soup consists of rice cake slices, garnished with marinated ground beef, julienned eggs, crushed laver, and sesame oil. Eating this on New Year’s Day is believed to make you a year older and grant good luck.
When and where that tradition originated is unknown but this custom was mentioned in the 1849 book Dongguksesigi so we know it’s an age-old practice!
Juk or porridge is one of Korea’s oldest foods. It used to be consumed as a traditional Korean breakfast but now, it can be enjoyed any time of the day.
Hobakjuk or pumpkin porridge is one of the known varieties of juk. To prepare, the pumpkin is steamed or boiled and blended with glutinous rice flour. Red beans or kidney beans as well as glutinous rice cake balls may be added.
The result is a viscous, creamy golden porridge that’s sweeter than savory. While it’s often served to recovering patients or the elderly, it’s also a great winter treat.
Traditional Korean noodles
Japchae is a popular stir-fried noodle dish and is one of the most versatile traditional Korean foods.
Also called glass noodles, japchae is eaten on its own, served as banchan, and is a mainstay in special events like birthdays, weddings, and holidays like Seollal (Lunar New Year). It can be enjoyed warm or cold.
Japchae is made by stir-frying glass noodles with various vegetables and meat. Interestingly, the original japchae was part of the Korean royal court cuisine but it had neither noodles nor meat! Joseon’s japchae simply had stir-fried vegetables and mushrooms. Can you imagine?!
Kalguksu, which translates to ‘knife noodles’, is among the heartiest traditional Korean foods. Its name comes from the chunky wheat flour noodles cut by hand, not extruded or spun.
Kalguksu’s steaming broth is made with anchovy, chicken, or beef stock. Shellfish or meat may be added, along with vegetables like zucchini, potatoes, and scallions. The thick broth goes well with the thick noodles.
Traditional Korean side dishes
No list of traditional Korean foods would be complete without kimchi. Easily the most recognizable Korean icon, this thousand-year-old dish is a staple in Korean kitchens.
Traditional kimchi is called baechu kimchi, which is made by fermenting whole napa cabbage heads. However, there are about 200 types of kimchi and not all of them are red and spicy.
Kimchi not only pairs well with most Korean meals; it’s also a healthy dish, thanks to the healthy bacteria formed during the fermentation process. It’s packed with vitamins, too!
Also called ‘winter kimchi’, dongchimi is one of the traditional Korean foods that are famous in both South and North Korea. Hamgyeong and Pyeongan in North Korea are particularly known for their dongchimi.
This type of kimchi consists of Korean radish, napa cabbage, scallions, pickled green chili, ginger, Korean pear, and water brine. It is traditionally consumed in the winter and makes for a great side dish. It can also be used for making cold noodle soups like dongchimi guksu and naengmyeon.
Acorns are a favorite dish of some woodland creatures. But did you know that they’re also used in traditional Korean foods?
In Korea, dotorimuk or acorn jelly is a beloved banchan or an ingredient in salads. Owing to the abundance of oak trees in mountainous regions of Korea, the product of tannin-free acorn flour or starch is possible.
The light brown jello is usually served cold and topped with chopped leeks and soy sauce.
A fixture in Korean meals, jeon is a savory (sometimes sweet) fritter made of sliced vegetables, seafood, or meat, coated with flour and egg wash before frying in oil.
The most popular types of jeon include pajeon (made with spring onions or scallions), haemul pajeon (seafood with spring onions), and gamjajeon (made of potatoes). Hwajeon is a dessert type of jeon as it contains honey and edible flowers.
Jeon is typically consumed as an appetizer or banchan. But it also makes for a good anju and pairs well with makgeolli (traditional rice wine).
Traditional Korean street foods, desserts, and snacks
Kimbap has to be one of the most all-rounded traditional Korean foods.
This simple rice roll filled with vegetables and meat is delicious and filling so you can have it as a snack or as a complete meal in itself. It’s common in picnics and hikes as well.
Fried egg, kimchi, luncheon meat, pork, tuna, and cheese are some of the more common fillings of kimbap. While fillings may vary, two ingredients remain constant: the rice and kim or dried sheets of seaweed.
The idea of rice cake in itself is already stranger for Westerners. But add bean powder to the mix and it sounds even weirder.
And yet, injeolmi or rice cake rolled in bean powder is one of the popular traditional Korean foods. It is made by steaming glutinous rice flour and pounding it until it becomes very sticky.
It is then cut into small bite-size pieces and rolled in bean powder. Soft and chewy, it makes for a snack. It is also often used in desserts like injeolmi patbingsu, injeolmi croffle, and injeolmi cream buns.
Korea’s sundae is nowhere close to looking like sweet ice cream. In fact, it makes many people queasy at first.
A type of blood sausage, sundae is made by steaming cow or pig’s intestines stuffed with rice, vegetables, glass noodles, and other ingredients. It may not sound particularly appetizing but it’s a popular and cheap street food that has been around since the Goryeo period (918–1392).
Sundae is typically dipped into salt and pairs well with a cold beer.
One look at bindaetteok or mung bean pancake might fool you into thinking that it’s a jeon. However, traditional bindaetteok doesn’t include eggs and flour, two of the most common ingredients in jeon.
This golden savory traditional Korean street food is made by grinding soaked mung beans and adding vegetables, meat, and kimchi into the batter. It is pan-fried into a round, flat shape.
It is said that richer households in Joseon used to distribute bindaetteok to poorer citizens during times of hardship. Today, the best bindaetteok can be found in traditional markets.
Mandu or filled dumplings that may be steamed (jjin mandu), grilled or fried (gun-mandu), or boiled (mul mandu). Ground pork or beef are the most common fillings but vegetarian and vegan options are also available.
Traditionally, mandu was part of the Korean royal court cuisine. Now, it’s served as an appetizer, side dish, or as the main meal by itself. It is most popular as a snack, however, and can be bought in supermarkets, convenience stores, restaurants, or in street stalls.
Koreans sure love their pancakes. Besides traditional Korean foods like jeon and bindaetteok, hotteok or sugar-filled pancakes are also popular.
Hotteok is closer to the pancakes we’re familiar with. A flour batter is rolled into a ball and filled with crushed peanuts, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Then, it’s pan-fried and gradually flattened with a round metal utensil.
Tasty, filling, and cheap, hotteok is a favorite street food of many. It’s especially popular during the cold winter months.
Another favorite of mine, yakgwa or fried honey cookies is a traditional Korean cookie.
Flour, honey, sesame oil, and wine are used to create the magic that is this sweet and soft cookie. These ingredients are kneaded into a dough, pressed into a cookie mold, or cut into squares, before being fried then dipped in honey.
Traditional, this Korean confection was offered in a jesa or ancestral rites. Like many traditional Korean foods, yakgwa is also consumed on festive holidays such as Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day).
On regular days, however, you can simply enjoy it as a dessert or snack. It makes for a great food souvenir, too!
Songpyeon, half-moon-shaped rice cakes, are also Chuseok favorites. Chuseok is a major harvest festival in Korea and as a way to celebrate the bountiful harvest, traditional Korean foods such as songpyeon are eaten.
Korean families use to make songpyeon with freshly harvested rice which is powdered and made into a batter by adding saltwater. The batter is shaped into small half-moons and filled with various sweet or semi-sweet fillings such as sesame, chestnuts, dates, honey, or red beans.
Songpyeon, which translates to ‘pine cakes’, is steamed over a layer of pine noodles. This is where it gets its distinct taste and smell.
There you have it! This list of traditional Korean foods should be enough reason to visit South Korea. And when you do, you can try more traditional Korean dishes that didn’t make this list.