Eat like a local while soul searching in Seoul. Here’s our list of five classic South Korean dishes you have to try, beloved by Koreans everywhere.
Here’s the lowdown on ganjang gejang that you need to know. A type of jeotgal—traditional Korean salted seafood—the name can be literally translated as ‘crabs marinated in soy sauce’. The secret behind a truly mouthwatering serving of ganjang gejang lies in the marinade, which includes ingredients such as soy sauce, cheongyang peppers, onions, garlic, ginger and salt. Ganjang gejang is prepared by soaking freshly caught blue crabs in this brine for a couple of days. It might sound simple, but don’t be fooled because ganjang gejang is actually one of the most complex Korean dishes you may come across. Get the soy sauce-salt-water ratio wrong, and you could end up with something that’s too salty to the palate. On the flipside, if the sauce is not strong enough to ferment the crabs, you run the risk of spoiling the crabs. Ganjang gejang is typically served with a bowl of rice and some banchan. Scoop up the crab meat and eggs with some rice, and let the dish’s flavourful notes wash over you. Pro tip: make the most of your meal by mixing some rice into the crab shell, so you can savour every morsel.
If kimchi were to hold the top spot as the (unofficial) national food of Korea, it probably wouldn’t be too far a stretch to crown bibimbap of a worthy second. A rice dish topped with sautéed or seasoned vegetables, and a portion of hearty proteins like sliced meat and egg, the bibimbap’s claim to fame might just lie in the way it’s presented—the most popular rendition of the meal often arrives at the table in a hot stone bowl, accompanied by audible sizzling sounds. The bibimbap’s origin story is shrouded in a combination of history and lore; some claim the dish was whipped up to placate an ancient Korean king’s whim for a light snack, while others point to the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894, citing the dish was created when hungry peasants tossed several ingredients into a single bowl due to a lack of plates. The bibimbap still occupies a prominent spot in popular culture today—a black pork variety of the hot pot dish is rumoured to be one of BTS’s favourite food.
Next on our list are nurungji and dak baeksuk, scorched rice porridge and whole chicken soup. One of nurungji’s earliest appearances in recorded history is in none other than medieval Korean medical literature. In the Dongui Bogam from the 1600s, nurungji is recommended as a remedy for upset stomachs and a pick-me-up for individuals who may find it difficult to swallow food while sick. Today, it’s relied on as comfort food for when you’re feeling under the weather or fighting off an illness. Dak baeksuk is prepared by dunking an entire bird into a simmering broth, along with ingredients such as ginseng, Korean dates and garlic, for several hours. The cooking process is time consuming, but it yields a phenomenal soup with clear and subtle taste notes. Nurungji and dak baeksuk make for an interesting dining combo—the succulent strips of chicken complements the scorched rice porridge, making for a truly hearty meal.
Take your gastronomical sense of adventure to the next level on your trip to Seoul with hongeo. Be warned, because hongeo is not for the fainthearted and will definitely test your olfactory senses. Made from fermented skate fish, hongeo is distinguished by its distinct ammoniac stench. What sets skate fish apart from other animals is the fact that it urinates through its skin. Hongeo, which is made by fermenting skate fish flesh in its own urine for about a month, can trace its roots back to the 1300s, when migrants from Heuksan Island of the Jeolla province discovered that the fermented fish did not spoil when others did. Jeolla natives would insist that the dish should be eaten on its own, but if you’re worried that it might be too overpowering and challenging to palate, you can always layer the slithers of hongeo with a slice of bossam (pork belly) and kimchi. The combination, known as hongeo samhap, does a pretty good job of masking the fermented skate’s taste while adding a new range of flavours to your dining experience.
Ready for your Korean sundae treat? We’re talking about the local blood sausages, of course. In sundae, pork blood is mixed with ingredients such as cellophane noodles, vegetables and glutinous rice, before being stuffed into cow or pig intestines. Sundae is often steamed or boiled, resulting in a sausage that’s tender and soft to the bite. The origins of sundae are rooted in antiquity. Some of the earliest references to sundae can be traced back to the Goryeo Kingdom of 918 AD, which utilised wild boars. Today, sundae is typically served with a mixture of salt, pepper and gochugaru (ground chilli flakes), as well as sides like kimchi.