Seoul is a foodie paradise, especially for those who like to indulge in local street food to take advantage of flavorful local fare at wallet-friendly prices. A lot of the food here comes with a spicy kick — but not all of it. Much can be customized to your tastes, depending on your level of spice tolerance. Aside from spice, much of the food you’ll find in Seoul is comforting, simple and in a lot of cases, fun to eat. Not sure where to start? Here are 12 essential dishes to try in Seoul on your next visit.
Colorful, healthy, fun to eat and easily adaptable to many food and dietary preferences, bibimbap is one of the most well-known dishes in Korea and very easy to find in Seoul. Bibimbap consists of rice, topped with a variety of vegetables, often beef, and comes with a fried egg on top. The whole bowl is mixed with gochujang (Korean chili paste) and tossed together to create a savory, flavorful combination that’s filling without being too heavy.
Some restaurants offer a more traditional take on the dish, while others exchange beef for other proteins such as octopus or other unique options. No matter which options you go for, the dish is sure to please most palates and you can find it everywhere from hope-in-the-wall eateries to more upscale establishments.
Probably the most quintessential Korean food on this list, kimchi is something that goes with nearly everything in Korea and a meal is often considered incomplete without it. The spicy and slightly sour fermented side dish is also known to have several health benefits, including those attributed to the healthy bacteria that comes from the fermentation process.
Kimchi is most often made with cabbage, but there are a variety of ways to make it, including with cucumber or Korean radish. It gets eaten alongside a meal, or mixed with rice, adding a nice, spicy kick to whatever you’re eating. You can learn more about kimchi at Seoul's Kimchi Museum, which even offers visitors a chance to make some themselves.
This is one of the most common foods you’ll see in Seoul being sold by street vendors. Locals stop by on the way home from work, or at lunch for the cylindrical rice cakes, triangular fish cake and vegetables, cooked in spicy and slightly sweet red chili sauce that offers a flavorful and affordable meal, either on the go or to take home.
You might walk by a vendor selling kimbap (also called gimbap) and mistakenly assume you’ve stumbled upon a sushi cart. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong – kimbap is actually nicknamed ‘Korean sushi’ since the two dishes are so similar. This quick, on-the-go snack or pick-me-up between meals consists of rice rolled with a wide variety of fillings (from carrots and cucumber, to beef or strips of omelet) and wrapped in seaweed. Kim (or gim) means seaweed in Korean, and bap means rice. This is a more casual dish than its Japanese counterpart, with kimbap being treated almost like a sandwich and meant to be eaten with your hands.
Korean fried chicken
One of the most popular foods in Seoul is Korean fried chicken (called, funnily enough, KFC or just “chikin”) and you can find it everywhere in the city, from no-name, hole-in-the-wall shops to well-known sit-down restaurants. But this isn’t just any fried chicken. KFC is fried twice and comes out lighter and crispier than what you’ll find in North America with the meat itself retaining its juiciness. Going for KFC is often a social activity in Seoul, accompanied by a cold beer (or two).
This dish of grilled, marinated beef is one of the most popular Korean meat dishes. Beef is sliced thinly and put into a marinade that usually consists of some combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and sometimes pureed Korean pear and ginger. Since the beef is cut so thinly is doesn’t need to marinate for long and the dish is most often grilled (although it can also be pan fried).
You’ll find bulgogi served with rice, or as lettuce wraps with various toppings such as onions, sliced vegetables and kimchi.
“Jeon” is a term that basically means a savoury Korean pancake, often eaten as a snack or appetizer. You might be thinking of the syrup-soaked version you might order at brunch in North America, but this is a little different. In this case, meats, seafoods, vegetables and eggs are mixed with flour batter and then pan-fried with oil. Depending on the ingredients of choice, the pancakes are named differently. For example, a pajeon is made with spring onion, and a kimchi jeon is made with kimchi. This is a great between-meal snack to try as you explore Seoul and its as tasty as it is fun to eat.
Who doesn’t like deep fried foods? OK, there are people out there who might opt out, but for the most part, fried things are always a popular choice. Twigim is a popular street food found in Seoul and considered an ideal accompaniment to a cold beer. Often referred to as Korean tempura, this dish is basically items, including sweet potatoes, eggs, shrimp, fish and assorted vegetables, covered with a flour batter and deep fried. In markets and at street stalls you’ll see carts piled high with glistening twigim – a tempting snack at budget-friendly prices.
Looking for something to satisfy your sweet tooth in Seoul? Look no further than hotteok, easily found at many street-food markets and stalls. These sweet, satisfying treats consist of a dough-based pancake filled with sugar and cinnamon and sometimes nuts, or other sweet ingredients that gets fried, resulting in a pleasingly crisp exterior and soft, gooey interior. They can also be found with savory filling.
Another popular street food in Seoul, dakkochi make for an easy on-the-go snack or small meal when you want something that packs a lot of flavour but that isn’t too heavy. This dish, basically grilled chicken skewers with spring onions in a spicy and tangy marinade, can be found all over the city and makes for a simple yet satisfying snack or small meal.
Healthy and packed with vegetables, japchae consists of sweet potato noodles (or glass noodles) stir-fried with nutty sesame oil and thinly sliced vegetables and beef. The noodles themselves are a bit sweet and slightly chewy and the dish is often garnished with sesame seeds. Since the noodles aren’t your typical wheat-based pasta, the dish is refreshingly light yet satisfying.
Gyeran bbang, Korean egg bread, is a comforting street food found all over Seoul and a popular snack in the colder winter months. When you see Gyeran bbang in food stalls it basically looks like an oblong muffin topped with an egg – and that’s essentially what it is. You get a soft, simply-flavored muffin (as in, not too sweet, not too savory) with a whole egg either inside or sitting just on top. It’s an easy snack to eat on the go for a quick energy boost while you sightsee.