The Scrumptious Guide to Craveable Korean Foods Your Mouth Will Love

top view of korean traditional dishes near chopsticks and cotton napkin on wooden surface
Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory | Edited By: Aditi Khandelwal

March 26, 2021

An Introduction to Korean Food 

Trying new things always takes a leap of faith, but we guarantee this leap will land you into a heavenly new food craze you’re sure to love. Korean food has been rapidly gaining popularity around the world, and we are going to answer all of your questions so that you can go out and try it with confidence! We are going to break down the most common main dishes, side dishes, and desserts you may encounter at Korean restaurants, explain what each dish is, and get you familiarized with the Korean names for each dish. 

Korean food is known for its bold spicy flavors and vast variety of soups and side dishes served with each meal. There is so much variety, it’s impossible to exhaust all of the irresistible combinations. Moreover, it can be easily altered to fit a vegetarian or vegan diet – and lactose rejoice, dairy is rarely used in Korean cooking! So get your chopsticks ready because you are about to become a menu-reading pro for the next time you visit a Korean restaurant!

Why Eat Korean Food?

Besides the delicious array of robust flavors common to the cuisine, there are health benefits to a Korean diet as well. Traditionally, this culture follows the idea of Yak Sik Dong Wong, which is the notion that food and medicine have the same roots, thus, the food we eat can also heal us. Korean food has adopted the Chinese principle of Yin and Yang, which translates into a balance of five elements which correspond with five colors and flavors. The result is a well balanced standard meal, meaning there is not an excess of one particular food being consumed. 

Health Benefits of Korean Food:

  • Fermented foods (like kimchi) are high in healthy probiotics that aid digestion. 
  • Most side dishes feature vegetables high in nutrients and vitamins.
  • Spices such as chili pepper and garlic can boost metabolism and help your cardiovascular health. For more foods that can boost your metabolism, check out this post, “15 Foods to Boost Your Metabolism this Winter”
  • Soup is eaten with most meals, which is filling yet low in calories. 
  • While Koreans do enjoy red meats, it is often in small balanced portions, rather than the bulk of a meal. Moreover, most meats are grilled, rather than fried, making them lower in saturated fats. 
Naturally, any one thing can be bad in excess. So if you start eating Korean food and find that your plate is more one color than others, you may not reap all of the expected health benefits. Now that we have worked up an appetite, let’s learn all about these tempting dishes!

Traditional Korean Meals 

Korean meals have many components to them. There is the main dish (usually meat or seafood), soup, steamed rice, and vegetable side dishes. When looking at an authentic restaurant menu, there may not always be descriptions of each item. Let’s break them down, so that the next time you order, you can be confident about what you’re ordering. 

Quick Terminology Guide:

  • Myeon = noodles
  • Jjigae = soup/stew
  • Jeon = crispy pancake/fritter
  • Gochugaru = red chili flakes
  • Gochujang – red chili paste

1.

Bibimbap (비빔밥)

Above view of a bowl of Korean bibimbap
Bibimbap translates to “mixed rice”. This staple exemplifies the delicious simplicity of a rice bowl. It is traditionally topped with beef, seasoned vegetables, and a raw or cooked egg. The fantastic thing about bibimbap is the flexibility you have with the toppings! This dish can be endlessly transformed by switching out the toppings, allowing for vegan and vegetarian alternatives! What makes bibimbap special from your standard rice bowl is the gochujang – a red chili pepper paste with a savory and spicy taste. You can adjust the amount of gochujang in your dish to control the spice level, or add extra if you like a kick!

2.

Bulgogi (불고기)

Bulgogi translates to “fire meat”. This dish features thinly sliced cuts of beef that have been marinated then grilled or cooked on a stove-top griddle. While it can be made using pork, the traditional way calls for rib eye, sirloin, or brisket cuts of beef. These juicy tender pieces of meat are marinated in an addictive bulgogi sauce made of brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, green onion, and pear (puree or juice). Bulgogi is typically served atop steamed rice along with other side dishes. 

3.

Japchae (잡채) 

three bowls of japchae
Though japchae translates to “mixed vegetables”, this dish is actually made from sweet potato starch noodles (dangmyeon), which are commonly referred to as glass noodles. The confusion in naming comes from the fact that originally japchae was a royal dish made of stir-fried vegetables – there were no noodles at all. The dish as popularized today was not made of glass noodles until the 20th century. 

These bouncy noodles can be served in small portions as a side dish, or topped with meats and vegetables to make a full meal! They can be served hot or cold, depending on how you enjoy them. Japchae has a slightly sweet nutty (sesame) taste, which pairs easily with many flavors. 

4.

Kimchi Jjigae (김치찌개)

small bowl of kimchi jjigae
Jjigae refers to a type of Korean stew – this popular variety features kimchi (typically a side dish) as the main star. This comfort dish is made using aged kimchi – often which has been left over from another dish – as well as meat (typically fatty pork), tofu, and garnished with vegetables of choice. Its signature red color comes from the kimchi as well as the addition of gochujang (red pepper paste) or gochugaru (red pepper flakes). The broth is typically an anchovy broth, but chicken or vegetable broth can be substituted in. The result is a bold flavorful stew that will warm you up and fill your belly.

5.

Seolleongtang (설렁탕)

bowl of seolleongtang
Seolleongtang is the name of ox-bone soup, the beloved local dish of Seoul, South Korea. Making seolleongtang takes only a few ingredients, the trick is in the many hours of cooking down the ox bones until the broth becomes its unique white color. Along with the sweet richness of bone marrow, the soup also incorporates cuts of beef like shank or brisket which adds a depth of unami to this soul-warming dish. Unlike most other soups, this one is typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and green onions, at the table according to each individual’s liking. 

6.

Sundubu-jjigae (순두부 찌개)

bowl of sundubu jjigae
Sundubu (“soft tofu”) jjigae (“stew”) is a hearty spicy stew craveworthy anytime of the year. The key to this dish is the soft tofu, but there are many varieties that use pork belly, seafood, or even kimchi to make the stew more filling and flavorful. Most of its flavor comes from the red chili pepper oil and flakes, which give the stew its vibrant red color. As a final touch, a raw egg is cracked directly into the bubbling stew before serving!

7.

Tteokbokki (떡볶이)

bowl of tteokbokki with hard boiled eggs inside
Tteokbokki, or spicy rice cakes, is a popular Korean street food. If you have never had Korean rice cakes, you’re missing out on soft chewy heaven. Traditionally, tteokbokki is made using anchovy stock which adds a hint of saltiness, along with fish cakes mixed in with the cylindrical rice cakes. Like most Korean dishes, it has a signature bright red color from the gochujang. This dish is highly customizable for different diets and spicy preferences, with the ability to make it vegan by changing out the broth and adding cabbage in place of fish cakes!

8.

Naengmyeon (냉면)

close view of bowl of naengmyeon
Naengmyeon translates to “cold noodles”, which is precisely what this dish is. There are two main ways to make naengmyeon, mul-naengmyeon (served in a clear broth) or bibim naengmyeon (the spicy red version). This dish features thin chewy buckwheat noodles served in a chilled broth – perfect for a refreshing summertime meal. Mul-naengmyeon has all of the hearty richness of a hearty noodle soup, just in an ice-cold broth! Beef broth is used to give the cold soup it’s delicious umami flavor. 

9.

Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) 

bowl of jjajangmyeon
Jjajangmyeon is a Chinese-Korean dish of noodles in black bean sauce. This beloved dish is a daily favorite in Korea, in fact it is one of the most common items ordered for delivery! The thick wheat noodles are perfect for holding the chunjang (black bean paste) along with chopped up pork belly and vegetables. The result is a scrumptious homey dish as common in Korean households as spaghetti is to the typical American.

10.

Haemul Pajeon (해물파전)

plate of haemul pajeon with a side of white rice
Haemul (“seafood”) pa-(“onion”) jeon (“fritter”) is a savory scallion seafood pancake. Similar to Vietnamese bánh xèo, this crispy fritter can be shared as an appetizer or savoured as a main course. 

Korean Side Dishes (Banchan) 

In South Korea, it is commonplace for a meal to be served with several banchan, or side dishes. These side dishes are served in small bowls and shared by everyone at the table. They are often just dishes of a single vegetable that has been seasoned, fermented, or cooked. There are dozens upon dozens of banchan, meaning you are bound to fall in love with a few, and there are endless combinations to try! Here is a quick rundown of a few of the most common banchan.

1.

Kimchi (김치)

bowl of kimchi with jars of kimchi in the background
Probably the most well known side dish from Korea is kimchi. The main ingredient of kimchi is napa cabbage, along with scallions and Korean radish. Kimchi recipes vary greatly from family to family, with the incorporation of different vegetables. This means the taste can vary greatly as well, with the greatest variant being how long the kimchi has been left to ferment. Due to the nature of kimchi – a fermented dish – it has a slightly sour spicy taste. 

2.

Kkakdugi (깍두기) 

bowl of kkadugi
Kkakdugi is a type of kimchi, but instead of cabbage, the main ingredient is radish! The radish is cut into large cubes, allowing for a cool crisp bite. Unlike cabbage kimchi, kkakdugi is not left to ferment as long, so the taste is milder, with a slight sweetness from the radish – overall this banchan is as refreshing as they come! 

3.

Musaengchae (무생채)

plate with a pile of musaengchae
Mu is the Korean word for radish, whereas saengchae refers to a salad-like dish of uncooked vegetables, thus musaengchae is a spicy radish salad. You may have seen this dish served at Korean barbeque restaurants without quite knowing what it was. The radish is sliced into thin noodle-like pieces, about the length of a matchstick, and coated in gochugaru and seasonings, along with chopped scallions. These fresh radishes are wonderfully crunchy and juicy, making them a cooling palette cleanser along with your meal. 

4.

Oi Muchim (오이무침)

small plate with oi muchim on it
Oi is the Korean word for cucumber, and muchim essentially means “seasoned”, so this dish is composed of fresh cucumber thinly sliced and covered in a spicy sauce. The cucumber is salted during preparation to draw the water out, making the cucumbers crisp and crunchy. The natural coolness of the cucumber helps balance the spice of the gochugaru in this dish.

5.

Sigeumchi Namul (시금치나물)

bowl with small pile of sigeumchi namul
Sigeumchi is the Korean word for spinach, and namul refers to a seasoned vegetable dish, thus, this dish is simply a yummy side of seasoned spinach. The spinach is quickly blanched, then the excess water is gently pressed out, it  is then seasoned, and viola! The usual seasonings for sigeumchi namul include soy sauce, sesame oil, green onion, garlic, and sesame seeds. This banchan is one of the less spicy varieties, making it the perfect companion to a spicier dish, allowing your taste buds a break between bites.

Korean Desserts 

Now, onto the sweetest part – dessert! Sweet treats in Korea come in many forms, so we will introduce you to some of our favorites.

1.

Hotteok (호떡)

White plate with 4 hotteok and one cut open hotteok.
Breakfast for dessert? Say no more, we’re there. Hotteok are Korean pancakes with a sweet filling! They resemble a regular pancake, with a bit more integrity (i.e. not so floppy) but pack a sweet surprise in the middle. The traditional filling is made from brown sugar, cinnamon, and nuts – a simple yet irresistible snack you will crave hours before dessert time. Hotteok is a popular street food in South Korea, served hot and crispy all day long. 

2.

Bingsu (빙수)

bowl of bingsu with strawberry topping
If you’re looking for a cool summer treat, bingsu is the perfect indulgence. Bingsu is Korean shaved ice. The most common variety is patbingsu, which is bingsu topped with sweet red beans. The toppings can be customized to your liking, some popular toppings include: fresh fruit, sweetened condensed milk, mochi, roasted grains powder, cookies – it is as on-going as a frozen yogurt toppings section.

3.

Sikhye (식혜)

bowl of sikhye
Dessert doesn’t always have to be something you bite into, in fact this South Korean favorite entices us to drink our dessert instead! Sikhye, also known as rice punch, is a sweet drink made of fermented malt and rice. It is served during holidays and special occasions, but can also be found in cans ready to buy in stores. 

The sikhye is never fermented long enough to become alcoholic, only long enough for the sugars in the rice to break down, which naturally sweetens the beverage (added sugars are optional when making this). It can be enjoyed served hot or cold, and can even be made into a slushie with added toppings!

4.

Bungeoppang (붕어빵)

three pieces of bungeoppang
In Korean, bungeo means “carp” and ppang means “bread”, but don’t worry, there isn’t actually any fish in this dessert. Bungeoppang is the Korean name for Japanese taiyaki, a fish-shaped pastry filled with sweet red beans. Today, the fillings have expanded to include options such as nutella, custard, and even peanut butter. Similar to hottek, this dessert has a crispy outside and a hot soft center that you will be craving for days once you try them!

Hungry yet?

 We know we are! Korean food is adventurous and unique, and we know you will love giving it a try! We hope this guide helped you to better understand this cuisine and the rich culture behind it. We challenge you to go out and try a new Korean dish this week, and to share this post on social media to encourage your friends to do the same!

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory