Whether you’re a Korean food connoisseur or a first-timer, dining out in South Korea is a blast. City street food scenes are strong all year round; it’s a true treat hopping from stall to stall as you wander and take in the surrounding cityscape. There are numerous open-air markets to dine in, as well as Korean barbecue restaurants and chimaek (fried chicken and beer) establishments. But of course, there is so much more to Korean food than meets the eye, and if you’d like somewhere to start, here are five to try.
1. Chuncheon Dak Galbi
This spicy cheesy chicken dish is a must-try, and a firm favourite of Jason Lee, owner of Glen Waverley modern Korean barbecue restaurant Hinoak. "This is my hometown dish from Chuncheon, northeast of Seoul,” Lee says.
It’s basically a spicy chicken stir fry that is cooked at the table on a large cast iron pan with vegetables, chicken, sometimes noodles, rice and even seafood. “It is often enjoyed with cheese on top in order to reduce the spiciness of the sauce,” he adds.
2. Korean barbecue
Lee's other favourite thing to eat? Of course, it’s barbecue. "Korean barbecue restaurants [can be found] wherever you go in Korea. The most popular item to order is pork belly, as in South Korea Wagyu is very expensive. Traditionally Korean people usually eat cold buckwheat noodles with barbecue as it helps with the heat and spice level,” says Lee.
A barbecue session is also a great opportunity to indulge in the smoky goodness that is beef bulgogi, which aptly translates to 'fire meat'. The thinly-sliced meat is marinated in the likes of soy sauce, brown sugar, pear or apple, garlic, ginger and sesame oil, adding lots of addictive umami flavours.
Pair your grilled meats with some kimchi, wrap in some lettuce (a style of eating called ‘ssam’) and get gobbling!
Kimchi is a classic Korean pickle that can be made from just about any vegetable. This one uses wombok (Chinese cabbage) and is pungent and addictive.
Host of Asia Unplated, Diana Chan is perplexed as to why people don't make bibimbap more often at home. "You eat it everywhere throughout Korea and it's something so simple to make," Chan says. "Bibim basically means varied ingredients and bap means rice.”
In Australia, bibimbap is commonly already made up in a bowl or stone pot when ordered. But in the many markets of South Korea you can take a seat at a bibimbap vendor and point to the goods you would like combined to create a custom bowl. On a bed of rice, diners can add a rainbow of vegetables and protein – carrots, bean sprouts, spinach, mushrooms, kimchi, eggs, beef, chicken, tofu...Whatever your flavour craving.
Soju is South Korea's national liquor, so it would be rude to miss a tasting opportunity. “It's a rice-based liquor, similar to vodka but not as strong," explains Lee. "The most common soju among the elderly is the 'classic' soju or 'fresh soju', unflavoured and around 20 % alcohol. However, it's more common for young adults to enjoy flavoured soju, and the options seem endless; peach, pineapple, blueberry, pomegranate, the list goes on. Lee's preference? "Grape, all the way."
To cool off and refresh, many Korean people indulge in bingsu – a frozen dessert that has taken Asia by storm. The shaved ice-cream is made from milk, sugar and/or condensed milk that's "put through a machine and turned into snow,” or so Lee explains. It's often topped with a combination of different fruits, sweet red bean, taro or chocolate for an extravagant looking treat.
Catch Diana Chan and friends cooking and eating their way across Asia in Australia in the brand-new series, Asia Uplated with Diana Chan. Airs on SBS Food at 8pm Thursdays from 19 December 2019 to 20 February 2020, or catch up on SBS On Demand.