By Natalya Pobedova
When I decided to visit Korea, the first thing that everyone said to me was “You’re going to love the food!” And, good travelers of the world, they were totally right. Korean food is unique and totally delicious. It’s completely unlike any other food you’ll encounter in Asia. I absolutely loved it, and most importantly, it barely cost me anything. This place is a meat-lovers paradise, with endless portions of beef, pork, chicken, and whatever else you want. (You can even eat bugs if you really want to, but as I’ll explain later, that’s where I drew the line.)
The Staples of South Korean Food
The core of the Korean dish is Kimchi. At first, Kimchi might appear to be for the adventurous, but once you get used to it, it’s a really amazing dish. It also is full of history and ancient culture, and it really defines Koreans as Koreans. Kimchi is cabbage, shredded and fermented in clay pots, then dipped in red-hot spicy sauce. It’s got a strong sour and spicy flavor. It goes in side dishes, soups, fried rice, and literally everything else you can think of. It’s also really very good for your digestive tract, and a great way to warm up in the cold Korean winter.
Most Korean meals are served with sticky rice, and you’ll also encounter dried seaweed really often. Most Korean meals also come with meat, which must be a bummer to vegetarians–but as I am not a vegetarian, I pigged out. (Figuratively and literally–there’s a lot of pork.) Eating Vegetarian in Korea is possible, but as with most international travel, it can put some pretty strict barriers in your way.
A lot of Korean meals are cooked at the table. Some of the best restaurants are wide empty rooms with several low tables where patrons sit on the floor. You’ll soon discover that these family-owned places are bare, and poorly lit with florescent tube lights, but they are the cheapest places to get the best food. In the center of each low table, there’s a heating element that holds he hotpot or hot plate to cook raw meat. Koreans use spoons and chopsticks, and unlike other Asian countries, they usually use flat metal chopsticks. These make great gifts on your way home, too–I picked up a few sets at a dollar store for my family, and they thought they were super classy.
Don’t leave Korea without eating these 6 things!
Bibimbap is a bowl of rice with lots of vegetables on top, staple Korean spicy sauce, and a fried egg to top it off. It arrives in a giant bowl and you mix it all together, adding more sauce if you want. A good variation is Dolsot Bibimbap. In this version, the restaurant brings your dish to you with a raw egg and a very hot stone bowl. As you mix it, the hot stone cooks the egg and you get a thicker consistency. I got the best Bibimbap at the no-name corner restaurants, where old ladies whispered excitedly in the background and watched weird news stories on the corner television. Better yet, travelers should head down south to Jeonju for famous “Jeonju Bibimbab” where the dish was invented. There’s whole restaurants dedicated to it there with all sorts of local variations.
This is one of the more entertaining dishes that you can get in Korea. You can get it in almost every Korean town, and it is really the best way to end a day of hiking, exploring, or traveling by bus. The restaurant owner will bring you a plate of raw pork, and a series of side dishes: kimchi, tiny fish, little bits of squid–and plates of lettuce and mint leaves. (And rice, of course.) The job of the restaurant patron is to cook the meat to their own perfection, then wrap it up in the lettuce and chow down. The old Korean businessmen at the table next to you will inevitably encourage you to eat the morsel in one bite–and then probably buy you a bottle of soju if you can do it.
When you’re on the run or on a bus, kimbap is the best way to eat while still moving. You can get it at all sorts of hole in the wall restaurants. It is a large ‘sushi’ roll with pickled deliciousness, rice, and the meat of your choice in the center. There are a couple of good chains restaurants that sell all sorts of exciting things. I probably survived my trip by eating Chamchi Kimbap (Tuna Kimbap with mayonnaise) literally every day. It costs under three dollars and is easily a full meal.
4. Kimchi Jjigae
Eat this on cold nights, or when you need some serious Korean comfort food! Kimchi Jjigae is a hot kimchi soup with pork and a little bit of onion. It is delectably spicy, boiling hot, and one of the best things to eat in Korea. It’s best to get this in a restaurant that specializes in soups!
As legend goes, this dish came into Korea when the Mongols tried to invade centuries ago. They cooked hotpot meals in their helmets, which morphed into the delicious three-course meal called ShabuShabu. It begins with a boiling broth, and you can add meals, vegetables, and especially delicious Korean mushrooms all into the mix. The second course is noodles, and the third course is rice, which turns the final broth into a stew that is rich and hearty. This meal is not only delicious but also a whole lot of fun, and it’s a great way to celebrate the end of a hearty day of hiking.
6. Street Food
Korea wouldn’t be Korea without street food. I tried out some spicy deoppokki–tubular rice cakes slathered in thick red spicy sauce. It’s very filling and a good dish to share with your travel companion. There’s also Odaeng, a fish cake that isn’t for the faint of heart.
And finally, the one thing in Korean cuisine that I couldn’t ever bring myself to eat… The one thing that makes foreigner’s eyes pop out of their head, and their noses run for cover–Bundaegi, or silk worm larva. It’s a favorite after hiking, and a favorite street food at temples, but throughout my whole time there–no matter how adventurous I got with kimchi and raw meat, I just couldn’t–couldn’t eat Bundaegi. Hopefully, fellow traveler, you’ll be more courageous than me!
Bio: Natalya Pobedova is a travelling nomad and backpacker from beautiful Brno Czech Republic. She is 27 and makes a living as a freelance web developer to support her traveling needs. She also runs a budget flight search website for backpackers as a hobby: http://www.travelsiders.com/. She dreams of visiting Brazil and speaks Portuguese fluently. She visited 14 countries already and most of them are in Europe.
By Natalya Pobedova http://www.travelsiders.com/
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