With visa-free short-term trips, scenic beauty, forward-thinking fashion and design, constant technological innovations, art everywhere, a rich history and cities that truly never sleep, South Korea is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Besides doing more shopping than you’ll ever do, delving into the street culture and visiting the top sights, eating the local food is a must-do while visiting this Asian country. Get your tastebuds tingling with our ultimate culinary bucket list for South Korea.
braai, south-korean style
This DIY meal is one of the most popular in the country. A Korean barbeque consists of deliciously marinated and spiced strips of meat – from beef ribs to pork belly – which arrive raw for diners to cook themselves on a table-top stove. As most Korean waiters will recognise unitiated foreigners’ confusion, they will happily demonstrate how to cook the raw meat. The best part? The banchan – or sides. From kimchi and black beans to rice and spinach, banchans will differ from restaurant to restaurant, but they are all delicious, and all unlimited. The traditional way of eating Korean barbeque is to place a piece of cooked meat and a selection of banchan on a leaf of lettuce which is then rolled into a ball and consumed – neat, fun and bursting with flavour.
fried chicken and beer?
If you thought fried chicken was at its best in Kentucky, you might change your mind after trying Korea’s chimaek (a portmanteau of ‘chicken’ and the Korean word for beer, maekju). It’s fair to say that Koreans are the Asian masters of chicken, from braised and pan-fried to dunked and deep-fried. In fact, it’s such a popular dish that there is even a chimaek (also called ‘chimac’) festival held in Daegu every year. Combined with beer, the fried chicken is an important part of Korea’s drinking and social culture and, tossed in tasty Asian spices, it’s truly delicious.
Rice is a staple in almost every meal in South Korea, from breakfast to dessert. The Korean dish bibimbap is essentially a large bowl of rice topped with an array of vegetables, meat, egg and spicy sauces. It’s healthy, colourful, tasty and is served in a sizzling hot stone bowl that renders the rice at the bottom crispy and golden. As with the rise in popularity of poke and ramen, we expect that bibimbap is not far from becoming the next big global foodie hit.
a tea for everything
While South Koreans have been falling in love with coffee recently, they still hold their tea culture in high regard. From jujube fruit (a Chinese date) and ssanghwa cha to iced cinnamon punch and herbal teas, Koreans have a brew for every occasion – and a ceremony to match. Paired with iced fruits and an assortment of fluffy rice snacks, the tea-house tradition is one to remember.
If you’re a seafood lover, then South Korea is the place for you. Abalone, stingray, octopus, eel and sea cucumber are just some of the weird and wonderful aquatic offerings that tourists will encounter in the many fish markets. Most markets display live sea creatures swimming in tanks, only to end up in your shopping bag five minutes later. For the freshest of the fresh, pay a visit to Jeju Island’s Haenyeo: a community of women (some of them quite senior at 80 years!) who free-dive 10m under the sea to gather shellfish for your dinner table.
that’s the spirit
When enjoying your Korean delicacies, make sure to order some soju – a rice-based liquor that is Korea’s most popular alcoholic drink. Although not as strong as vodka or tequila, it still packs a punch and is easy to consume in large amounts. To lessen its potency, pair it with beer to make somaek, which adds flavour to the almost tasteless spirit. Lastly, watch out for the spices: while Korean food is a celebration of flavour, it doesn’t go easy on the heat factor – so be prepared for some pungent culinary experiences.