South Korea: Food for the Seoul

Food plays a major part in the national character of every country around the world, but in South Korea, food is an integral part of the culture that visitors see from their first meal to the last. Come along on a journey of discovery to the world-famous food markets, humble Korean restaurants and seaside sea food stalls across the country to sample the tastiest Korean food.

There is no shortage of tasty food to discover across South Korea, from kimchi (salted and fermented chili cabbage and radish) that is served with every meal, BBQ meats and vegetables, bibimbap (white rice topped with gochujang chili sauce, soy sauce, mixed raw vegetables and an egg), bulgogi (grilled marinated beef slices), tteok-bokki (stir fried rice cakes) and bingsu (red beans and rice cakes served on shaved ice), but food is more than just something to eat, in South Korea, food is a way of life.

Pork and mushrooms cooking on an at-table Korean BBQ

Food seems to dominate every aspect of life in South Korea. Elderly Korean women can often be seen in a morning preparing the freshest fish on their market stalls, students gather around kimchi stalls for a hearty breakfast before going to university, businessmen can be spotted expertly transferring BBQ meats and rice wrapped in peppery green Perilla leaves from their plates into their mouths at lunchtime, and tourists flock to the hot and smoky food markets as the sun sets to enjoy traditional Korean foods washed down with a few bottles of Soju rice wine.

Food culture in South Korean varies depending on region — in the northern half of the country, particularly in the capital Seoul, meats and vegetables dominate, whereas in the coastal southern half, with Busan at its heart, sea food is more prominent — but one thing that binds the two together is the national dish of Korea, kimchi, with its unmistakable smell of fermented cabbage and soft but slightly chewy texture.

Visitors to Seoul and Busan are treated to the unique foodie cultures that are present here. Come along on a journey to South Korea’s two major cities and discover what the locals like to eat, where to buy them, and why to sample these foods in each city.

A typical Korean meal of kimchi, mustard sauce, onions in soy sauce and gimbap (steamed rice, carrots and radish wrapped in seaweed)

Seoul

As the capital of South Korea, the bustling metropolis of Seoul is undoubtedly the heart of foodie hedonism in this Asian country. Every type of food that any visitor could desire can be found here, from traditional Korean dishes to American fast food, Japanese sushi and Chinese take away. What every visitor to Seoul searches out is the tastiest and freshest traditional Korean foods using recipes and ingredients passed down through generations of families.

Variety of Korean vegetables for sale in Gwangjang Market, Seoul

Gwangjang Market

Gwangjang Market (formerly known as Dongdaemun Market) was the first permanent market in Korea, founded in 1905 as somewhere for locals to buy all of their culinary ingredients and textiles and clothing in one place, a market that was free from Japanese colonial control. The market is spread over 42,000 sq.m., and employs more than 20,000 people on some 5,000 stalls; 65,000 people visit the market each day. The standout section of the Gwangjang Market is its vast and bustling food alleyways.

Every traditional Korean food is sold here, all served with a side dish of kimchi of course. There are countless small stalls that can cook dishes for visitors and locals alike and bring them to you in basic but clean seating areas. The market is perhaps most famous for its fresh cooked-to-order bindaetteok (fried mung bean pancakes) that are very moreish, salty and slightly spicy with a satisfying nutty greasiness from the oil that lingers in the mouth. Mayak gimbap (steamed rice with various vegetables, meats or seafood wrapped in laver seaweed) is also a popular snack available throughout Gwangjang.

The market is large, busy and confusing for first time visitors (and some locals), so if you are feeling hungry and want to sample some traditional Korean foods, then the best thing to do is just follow your nose and you will soon find yourself in the midst of the food section and spoilt for choice for what to eat. Gwangjang is firmly ingrained into the culture of Seoulites, so to get a sense of what everyday life is like for Koreans in the capital, a visit to this market is a must.

Stall holder in Gwangjang Market, Seoul selling various meat and rice cake dishes

Busan

Located on the southern shores of the country, the second city of Busan is dominated by its seaside location. Quite inevitably, sea food plays a major part in the culinary scene here, with market stalls located right on the beaches where locals can be seen buying the freshest fish, crustaceans, octopus, sea cucumbers, urchins and sea snails plucked straight out of the sea. There are few places in the world where you can literally see fishermen hauling their catch onto the rocks and being instantly sold to locals eagerly awaiting their next meal.

Locals sell seafood taken directly from the sea in Busan

As is common across South Korea, Busan has no shortage of traditional food markets that are still the mainstay of shopping by locals gathering ingredients for their dishes to cook at home. Busan’s food markets are more than just somewhere to shop, however, they are also a collection of family-owned restaurant stalls and meeting places for locals after school and work.

Jagalchi Market

Jagalchi Market is the largest seafood market in the country. It is an absolute maze of narrow and winding alleyways, the sights of locals trying to entice passers by to visit their stalls, the smell of fresh fish, the sight of live octopus squirming in tanks of water, and vegetables of every colour in the rainbow catching the eye. The market has been given the nickname “Jagalchi ajumma”, the word “ajumma” meaning middle-aged or married woman in Korean. It is primarily elderly women selling fish and vegetables in the market.

The sounds and smells of unfamiliar foods and locals haggling for the best prices is enough to confuse the senses, but you simply cannot visit Jagalchi Market without trying some of the famous street food that has had local flocking here for decades. If you are feeling brave enough, then you could sample fresh octopus with its suckers attaching to your tongue and cheeks as you chew. If not, then there is plenty of “normal” foods to choose from to satisfy your hunger pangs.

Kimchi is served as a side dish with every meal, so never fear if you are having cravings for salty cabbage, but tteok-bokki — fried rice cakes coated in gochujang sauce (Korean chili paste), buchimgae pancakes (eggy pancakes cooked over a griddle), and bubbling vats of jigae (stew combining every ingredient imaginable) are never too far away. Alternatively, Domi Maeuntang (spicy Red Snapper stew) and salmon bulgogi (grilled salmon coated in chili and soy sauce) are perfect for seafood lovers. Busan is beside the sea after all, so there is no better place to sample fresh fish cooked by expert locals.

Assorted Korean BBQ ingredients

Jeju Green Tea

It may not originate in Seoul or Busan, but green tea from Jeju Island is popular throughout South Korea. The tea has a unique sweet and earthy flavour, so it is worth highlighting the number of green tea cafes that can be found right across the country’s two major cities. As in much of Asia, tea and traditional ceremonies linked to tea are to be found in South Korea. Different variations of green tea of various strengths are available, and it is steeped in small teapots with sipping bowls to drink. The green tea shops also mix their teas into ice creams and cakes.

Green tea at O’sulloc Tea House, Seoul

South Korea is one of the best places in the world for food. The historical and cultural developments that have taken place throughout Korean history have resulted in the wide variety of foods available in the markets right across the country. The country was closed off to the outside world until recently, so the traditional recipes and ingredients used throughout the country have remained unchanged for centuries — which is a rarity these days. Korean food is unique and must be tried, and where better to sample it than in South Korea?

This trip was sponsored by Korea Tourism Organization (UK). More information about travelling to South Korea can be found on their website: english.visitkorea.or.kr.