Korean cuisine encompasses foods from the land and the sea. You can enjoy a simple bowl of noodles, a 21-dish royal dinner, or anything in between. From a humble vegetarian meal at a Buddhist temple to elaborate banquets in Seoul's most expensive restaurants, South Korea has something for even the pickiest of eaters.
Koreans enjoy dishes with bold flavors, such as chili peppers and garlic, but usually traditionally royal cuisine and temple food is not spicy. Each town in the country is famous for a certain dish, a regional specialty, seafood, or a particular fruit or vegetable that is grown in the area.
The Korean Table
A Korean meal usually is made with balance in mind -- hot and cool, spicy and mild, yin and yang. At the core of every meal is bap (rice), unless the meal is noodle- or porridge-based. Koreans don't distinguish among breakfast, lunch, or dinner, so it's not unusual to eat rice three times a day.
In addition to individual bowls of rice, you may get a single serving of soup. Hot pots (jjigae or jungol), which are thicker and saltier, are set in the middle of the table for everyone to share. Because beverages are rarely served during a traditional Korean meal, there should always be a soup or water kimchi to wash the food down (although as a foreigner you'll almost always be offered filtered or bottled water with your meal).
Speaking of kimchi, there will usually be at least one type on the table. Often there are two or three kinds, depending on the season. Served in small dishes, kimchi helps add an extra kick to whatever else is on the menu. Like the rest of the food, kimchi is laid out in the middle of the table for everyone to share.
Mit banchan -- a variety of smaller side dishes, anything from pickled seafood to seasonal vegetables -- rounds out the regular meal. In traditional culture, the table settings varied depending on the occasion (whether the meal was for everyday eating, for special occasions, or for guests) as well as the number of banchan (side dishes) on the table. The settings were determined by the number of side dishes, which could vary in number -- 3, 5, 7, 9, or 12. As with all Korean food, the royal table was different from the commoner's.
There are no real "courses" per se in Korean meals. Generally, all the food is laid out on the table at the same time and eaten in whatever order you wish. If you order galbi (ribs) or other meat you cook yourself on a tabletop grill, your rice will arrive last so that you don't fill yourself up too fast. When you have hwae (raw fish), you will be brought a starter, the fresh fish (quite often the fish is netted for you fresh from a tank), and then a mae-un-tahng (spicy hot pot) made from whatever is left of your fish. Also, there is no such thing as dessert in Korean tradition; however, an after-dinner drink of hot tea or coffee is generally served with whatever fruit is in season.
Korean meals were traditionally served on low tables with family members sitting on floor cushions. Some restaurants still adhere to this older custom, but others offer regular Western-style dining tables. Although certain traditions have gone by the wayside, mealtime etiquette still applies, especially for formal meals.
For starters, you should always wait for the eldest to eat his or her first bite, unless you are the guest of honor -- if you are, then everyone will be waiting for you to take your first bite before digging in. Koreans usually eat their rice with a spoon, not with chopsticks. Unlike in other Asian countries, rice bowls and soup bowls are not picked up from the table. Completely taboo at the dining table is blowing your nose, chewing with your mouth open, and talking with your mouth full. Leaving chopsticks sticking straight out of a bowl (done only during jesa, a ritual for paying respect to one's ancestors), mixing rice and soup, and overeating are also considered inappropriate. During informal meals, however, these rules are often broken.
What Is Kimchi? -- Kimchi is a spicy dish, the most popular of which is made from fermented cabbage, and it is a source of national pride for South Koreans. When hungry, any Korean would swear that a bowl of rice and some kimchi are all that's needed to complete a meal. The most popular type is the traditional version made from napa cabbages, called baechu kimchi. Not only is kimchi eaten as a side dish, but it is also used as an ingredient in other dishes. For instance, there is kimchi bokkeum bap (fried rice with kimchi), kimchi jjigae (a hot pot of kimchi, meat, tofu, and vegetables), kimchi mandu (kimchi dumplings), kimchi buchingae (kimchi flatcakes), kimchi ramen (kimchi with noodles) -- the list is endless. Koreans love their kimchi so much that many homes even have separate, specially calibrated refrigerators designated just to keep kimchi fresh. When taking a photo, Koreans say "kimchi" instead of saying "cheese." If you like spicy, salty food, be adventurous and try some kimchi. You'll have over 167 varieties to choose from!
Sweet Goldfish & Silkworm Casings: Street Food
Wandering around the streets of South Korea, you can eat your fill without setting foot in a restaurant. You can choose from a wide variety of venues and dishes -- everything from little old ladies roasting chestnuts on the street corners (only in the winter) to pojang macha (covered tents), where you can get a beer or soju (rice or sweet potato "vodka"), too. Typical fare includes the following:
Dduk bokgi -- seasoned rice cake sticks that are spicy, a little sweet, and a lot tasty
Boong-uh bbang -- goldfish "cookies" filled with sweet red-bean paste (also available round with a flower print or in other shapes)
Ho-ddeok -- flat, fried dough rounds filled with sugar
Soondeh -- Korean blood sausage
Gimbap -- rice and other things rolled in seaweed (also available in miniversions)
Yut -- hard taffy usually made from pumpkin (may be rough on your fillings!)
Bbundaegi -- boiled silkworm casings, a toasty treat for the adventurous
Sola -- tiny conch shells
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.