To be honest, I am shocked by how much I don’t know about Korean food. After spending four years in Melbourne, which is home to many Korean restaurants, I thought I knew enough about Korean food before I travelled to Korea.
I find that korean don’t just eat the good ol’ Korean BBQ, or a sizzling plate of bulgogi, or a hearty bowl of bibimbap. There’s literally hundreds of traditional food in Korea that I have not even heard of.
And I love it that way. Because I will never know what I am gonna get. I went into a few restaurants without knowing a single thing offered on the menu (except rice and soju)! Not knowing any korean alphabet and with limited help from Google translate, I just trust my instinct and point to the picture that appeals to me the most.
Bear in mind that Korean restaurants are pretty specialised in serving their bestsellers. For example, a dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken in a big wok) restaurant will serve only dakgalbi (and its variants). A soup restaurant can be so specific to the extend that it sells only sseoleongtang (ox-bone broth). It’s just like how a burger place will just sell burger and some other small stuff, whereas a brunch place will serve mainly brunch food.
Okay, enough intro let’s get down to business. These are my top 3 Korean food that I had tried while travelling in Korea!
I have to say that there’s a little bit of bias here. I was in Korea for Christmas, which means I basically had subzero temperature for my entire length of stay.
Dak Hanmari is a hearty dish that Koreans have it all the time, but especially so in winter. I had Dak Hanmari on my last day of stay in Seoul thanks to my amazing Korean friend who brought me there! Sad that I met Dak Hanmari (a.k.a my true love) too late.
So Dak Hanmari is like a baby of Baeksuk, which means boiling meat or fish by itself in clear water creating flavourful stock or broth. The ingredients are simple: chicken, noodle and rice cake with some Korean seasoning. It normally comes with a spicy, tangy sauce to go with the chicken which you can opt out if you are not too confident about your spice tolerance. Normally, I love spicy sauce but I didn’t think that the chicken needed extra seasoning. It’s already so good by itself.
The noodle that they used in that restaurant that I dined in was Kal-guksu, which mean knife-cut noodle. I know it doesn’t really make any sense but it basically means that instead of the dough getting spun or extruded (like pasta), it’s cut using a knife. So it’s pretty thick and it has got an amazing texture.
Okay so what does it taste like? You know those moments when you are sick and then a good bowl of chicken soup that your mum thought would miraculously cure you from your seemingly unbearable illness? Yes it’s as good as that. The soup is halfway between a broth and a cream soup. The thicker texture is due to the starch of the rice cake. You normally finish the chicken and rice cake before the waiter put a serve of noodle in it to soak up all the beautiful liquid. God damn it. Now I am hungry and I’m writing this now at 12am here in Melbourne. Worst timing to write something food-related.
So if you happened to have Samgyetang before (rice wrapped in whole chicken, slow-cooked in medicinal broth topped with ginger liquor), I would say that Dak Hanmari is its long lost brother. However, I would say that Dak Hanmari is much lighter because it’s served without the alcohol. And it’s much much better than Samgyetang, taste wise and flavour wise.
For 2 pax, you can get a big bowl of Dak Hanmari to share between both of you and it won’t cost more than 15 AUD (per pax) with soju included! The place where we had it was called Baek Boo Jang Jip. There’s normally a line and we waited for around 30 minutes. It’s gonna be so worth it trust me.
Funny how Gamja tang doesn’t have potato in it when the directly translation of Gamja tang is “potato soup“. However, after being enlightened by my Korean friend, I was told that the word “Gamja” is an old word and it actually translates into “bone marrow” too!
You guessed it. It’s sort of like a bone soup. More specifically, it’s pork spine stew. And if you are wondering if there’s even any meat on the spine bone, there is. HEAPS. Normally, restaurants use neck spine and stew them for hours before serving them in a “dolsok“. Dolsok, a stone bowl that is also commonly used for bibimbap, is pretty important to allow better conservation of heat for this dish. This is to ensure that when you are halfway through your meal, you still have a bowl of warm soup.
Gamja Tang is not spicy. As much as I love spicy food (which is why Korea is a heaven for me), it’s good to have a little break for your tongue to recover. Instead if the red spicy bean paste (gochujang), Gamja tang is cooked using soybean paste (doenjang). There might be red chilli pepper flakes in them but they are optional. The soup is SO FLAVOURFUL because when you cook your soup with bones, all the flavours in the bones are gonna infuse into it make a wonderful bowl of soup! I had two serves of rice just because I want every single grain to soak up the gorgeous liquid.
I had gamja tang twice and the better one I had was at Dongwon-jip, which was pretty close to my accommodation. The gamja tang at Dongwon-jip has got potato in it and it’s so soft!! It cost me 7000 won (around 8 AUD). There were 4 humongous pieces of spine bone in there and I remember that made my day even though I just lost my wallet.
OMG this thing is so good and cheap! And you can’t not know about it!
So Dak Galbi is called spicy stir-fried chicken. The main ingredients are chicken, gochujang, sweet potato and cabbage. It is actually not that spicy (but again you can’t really trust my spicy tolerance because I can eat the Korean Samyang Black noodle without any problem).
In this kind of restaurant, all the dining tables will have a humongous flat frying pan in front of you. What normally happens is that your waiter will bring out a plate of raw ingredients plated beautifully after you order. When the pan is smoking hot, s/he will then cook the chicken for you until the chicken is perfect cooked with juices running clear when cut. You then enjoy your chicken with shoju or whatever.
You can also have beef or pork belly if you prefer them over chicken. I had all three of them but I prefer the chicken one the most. The chicken pieces aren’t cut too small so when the outside is perfectly brown, the inside is still juicy but not raw. I thought the addition of sweet potato was really smart because I would never thought that it would make such a great combination with chicken!
After cooking all the vegetables and meat, there will be flavourful scraps that sticks on top of the pan. My waiter deglazed the pan with a small amount of shoju. And then the waiter will bring out this plate of white rice and fry it in front of you, with all the flavours from the veggies and the chicken being absorbed by the rice.
My lord. I am drooling just by looking my photos while editing this post. It is one of the best fried rice that I have had in my life.
Ogeunnae Dakgalbi is one of the best places to have dakgalbi. It even made it to the Michelin Bib Gourmand list!
My two cents...
So obviously I have not had all the Korean delicacies due to my short 2-week stay but these are the top 3 dishes that I will crave for and actively seek for when I am back in Korea.
Korea is definitely one hell of a foodie paradise and you should go now! I have also written up an extensive travel guide for Seoul including food, nightlife, alcohol, accommodation suggestions and more!
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Born and raised in Malaysia, Aaron is a medical student that is deeply in love with travelling. He loves to inebriate all his readers with the crazy travel stories and personal travel tips that he has gathered throughout years of travelling experience. Learn more about him here!