With the recent news of the Singapore-South Korea Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) arrangements, there has been talk of travel once again – and I for one am pretty excited. I thought about the ridiculous number of Korea trips I took across end 2017 to end 2019 and realised that I went there a whopping 7 times (I know, I’m crazy 나는 미친 야~). Not showing off, I do work for an airline (Scoot, which is currently having a sale on VTL flights to Seoul hehe over here) and I really do love so many things about this place – the dancing, the people, the culture and the FOOD!
Funnily enough if you had asked me say 5-10 years ago, I wouldn’t even have ranked Korean food in my top 5 favourite cuisines (sorry guys). But after I started going there and having locals show me what to actually eat, I seriously grew to love it. And long story short (okay it’s already pretty long), I’d now like to share with you some recommendations on what I think are some things to eat on your next trip to Korea that are not so basic and that are not so commonly found in Singapore.
1. 닭한마리 – Dakhanmari, which pretty much translates to ‘one chicken’
This is a dish I never knew about until I went to Korea for the first time as an adult in 2017 (the one time I visited on a family vacation when I was like 15 doesn’t really count). It’s literally a whole (or half) chicken, boiled in a pot with all sorts of good stuff, kimchi, mushrooms, vegetables, ramyeon and some kind of stock.
There’s so much intense flavour in the plump chicken meat and lovely soup (you can even add soju to it if you want), and the Korean way to have it is to dip it in a chilli, gochujang (?), garlic and chives sauce mixture. Super shiok in winter time!
2. 전복죽 – Jeon Bok Juk, Abalone Porridge
You know the ones you see people eat in Korean dramas when they’re sick, or the Bibigo packets on Shoppee (pretty much the only way we can get some here unless you make it yourself)? This is it!
And it’s (usually) pretty damn delicious. I’m not really that big on porridge but this is boiled for hours with abalone (there’s so much fresh seafood there!) and is so thick, with so much flavour. I’ve had this at various restaurants in Seoul, Incheon (yes, at the airport haha) and Jeju and they were mostly good.
I like how the flavour of the juicy shellfish is distributed across the gooey rice mixture, with chewy pieces of meat and sometimes mushrooms. This is definitely another comforting dish for Korea’s cold, sub-zero winters.
3. 낙곱새 – Nak Gop Sae, which is the first letter of the words for octopus (낙지), tripe (곱창), shrimp (새우)
I love this so, so much but I actually don’t really know where to get it (lol) – had this in a restaurant somewhere in Seomyeon, Busan, near one of the Latin clubs (this is the district for bars and clubs I believe). To be honest this ‘guide’ is potentially not really that helpful to follow to the T in terms of exact places (when the locals bring you and your command of the language is not that great, you kind of don’t get all the specifics haha), but perhaps you can find this dish in many other places around the country (apparently it’s quite popular in Busan).
In any case, this delicious, piping hot stew of octopus, shrimp and pork intestines (which I skipped, so just nak sae) with some kind of red sauce (potentially the ubiquitous gochujang again or maybe something kimchi related haha) and also, glass noodles soaked inside (my favourite) had so much flavour and was soooo delicious especially when mixed with some warm steamed rice and seaweed slices.
I’m not quite sure how to describe this flavour bomb of a dish but please just take my word that it was immensely good.
4. 대게, Snow Crab and Fresh Seafood in General
There are so many amazing seafood dishes in Korea that I don’t even know where to begin, but guess I’m just going to group some of them together here. In particular, because Busan and Jeju are near the sea – I’ve had a whole lot of lovely fresh fish, crab, clams, scallops, abalone you name it in these cities (NOT at Jagalchi Market though, it’s really just for tourists – avoid for the food but go for the experience, I’d say).
First thing on my list is the Steamed Snow Crab which I had in Busan – the tender crab meat was so juicy and succulent but I’m just going to skip to the best part – eat it Korean style, put the meat into the shell, add some rice and mix it in with the roe and you’ll have heaven on a plate right there.
The 게장 raw crab in marinated soy sauce is another version of this crustacean that the Koreans do really well, and this isn’t really easy to find in Singapore so I’d definitely recommend trying it in Korea too.
Had it in a few different places, sometimes as a side dish (which will make me want to wax lyrical about banchan, I love it so very much that you get lots of lovely little side dishes to have with your meal almost everywhere in this country), and the tangy, soy sauce with the sweet, juicy raw crab is rather pleasurable.
If heavy flavours is not really your thing, try 회 ‘hweh’, the Korean version of sashimi – the fishes aren’t as fatty as the Japanese versions, but they’re light and smooth on the palate, and rather enjoyable wrapped up in vegetables and of course, some garlic and gochuchang.
One fish that is more common here is the Korean mackerel that tastes great raw and also grilled or fried (try asking for ‘go tteng oh’, sorry I don’t really know how to write it haha). Also I think the raw version costs a small fortune in Singapore, so better to have it fresh and more value-for-money straight from the source.
5. 고기구이, Korean Bbq Meats
Okay stay with me here, I know this is pretty basic in Singapore and there are lots of K-bbq shops around, but if you go to Korea, you MUST eat this (if you are not a vegetarian that is).
It is truly different there, the environment, the methods of grilling, the freshness of the meat, kimchi, vegetables and other condiments. And the price too I guess, for the same or less in Singapore, you can get the full authentic and delicious experience with better, more meat and pairings.
And the best thing ever is eating freshly grilled samgyeopsal 삼겹살 with naengmyeon while the cool air blows outside, then downing it with some somek… Absolute bliss, 진짜 대박~
At some places with those black plate grills, you can fry the meat together with kimchi, beansprouts, egg, onion, rice etc too, whatever you like (at one of our favourite supper places after dancing in Gangnam, but I forgot the name and lost the pictures oops).
If you go to Jeju, there’s also the special black pork 흑돼지 bbq that you should try (though to be honest most of them are kind of the same to me, some bbq places were better than others but it’s really hard to pick the right places unless you’re a local).
Here’s a fun fact – did you know that Koreans prize beef much more than pork? If someone treats you to beef they’re valuing you as a guest, if they treat themselves to it it’s to celebrate or indulge.
6. 냉면, Naengmyeon
And on that note – 냉면 naengmyeon, or Korean cold buckwheat noodles, is something you should also have when in Korea. Don’t be fooled by the unassuming looks of these grey-brown noodles in a clear broth, the usual ‘mul’ or water version is actually prepared for hours, boiled with meat and some kind of pickled vegetable.
I can’t decide which I like better, Bibim or Mul, as they both have their attractive qualities. The former is full of spice and flavour and goes especially well with warm, oily grilled meats and the latter is slurpilicious with tasty, easy to drink, cold broth.
One type of naengmyeon I don’t particularly enjoy though is the Pyongyang style one – can’t quite recall why but I found the meat a little tough and the soup not quite so flavourful. But perhaps it’s more of a preference? Glad to have had the experience of these different types though, considering that a few years ago I didn’t even know this dish existed.
Another fun fact – surprisingly, naengmyeon was created and originally eaten during winter (where do you think the ice came from haha) and samgyetang conversely in summer (or so I heard).
7. 짜장면, Jjajangmyeon (and Tang Su Yuk)
Oops, another noodle dish on the list but sorry not sorry, I adore noodles. They’re like the best thing, nice long, chewy, gooey strands that have their own flavour and soak up whatever sauce they’re in with their porousness.
So anyway… there’s jjajangmyeon, and there’s seafood jjajangmyeon. And the one that I like, the one with chunks of prawn and squid mixed in with the gooey black bean sauce and springy noodles (like the one above), is this – and it’s not that easy to find in Singapore (also, expensive).
This octopus tempura one I had in Jeju is also, not possible to find here I think! And it was so delightful, the crunchy fried fresh seafood with the rich sauce and bouncy noodles…
I never did have a taste for 짜장면 until these Korea trips to be honest, and after recently watching the K-drama Wok of Love I’ve also developed a new appreciation for this dish as well as – ‘tang su yuk’, Korea’s version of Sweet and Sour Pork, which goes marvellously well with jjajangmyeon!
8. 삼계탕, Samgyetang or Ginseng Chicken Soup
I think the Koreans just do stews really well, and the ginseng chicken soup (which is kind of more like a stew in my opinion) is one of them. A whole chicken stuffed with ginseng, other herbs and glutinous rice and boiled – creating a lovely, fragrant, flavourful soup and meat.
It seems a lot but somehow it’s so moreish such that me, you (and others I’ve eaten this with), are able to finish the whole pot by ourselves!
I also rather like the slightly bitter, herbal taste of the ginseng and other herbs as it balances out the other notes in the soup, sometimes a bit of sweetness, perhaps from other condiments (red dates? pumpkin seeds?).
And yes, while you can find this dish in Singapore, based on the ones I’ve had so far I think the ones in Korea are much better – one place I had it, it tasted like they just added boiling water to powder and mixed it (perhaps they did…).
9. 김밥, Kimbap
Korea’s version of a ‘maki’, rice and ingredients wrapped up in seaweed, but which is quite different from the Japanese one. To be really honest, I wasn’t blown away by this dish – but I did feel like I got the whole local Korean experience when I had it – perched over a little counter in a train station, walking in the market with a cup of kimbap on a stick and such.
It’s my go-to takeaway snack to buy from Gangnam Station to enjoy on the bus ride to the airport and somehow it’s become part of the experience for me. It’s not dainty or packed with premium type of seafood or meats but it has a comforting, homely taste, stuffed with ingredients like luncheon meat, fried cutlets, tuna, radish and kimchi.
10. 한정식, Hanjeongsik or Korean table d’hôte
This is another thing I didn’t know existed before going to Korea, which is a traditional, full-course Korean meal (more like a feast) that locals bring people to eat when they want to impress them I reckon (I certainly was). I Googled it and read it as an ‘army’ of banchan dishes (when actually it said ‘array’ but same thing) and truly, there were A LOT of dishes.
It usually comes with favourites like bulgolgi, stews, a wide range of banchan, and the one I had in Busan even had some gejang type raw crab and prawn dishes too, which were really yummy. For someone who loves variety, this was simply wonderful.
[BONUS] Ridiculously Aesthetic Cafes
Er, I know this isn’t Korean per se, but frankly, it kind of is. Only in Korea can you get such ridiculously aesthetic cafes with a distinctive Western-Korean fusion style of coffee, pastries and/or desserts. Garosu-gil in Sinsa-dong is one such popular area for these (you can check out LadyIronChef’s article for some recommendations and there are so many more) – I went to a couple there but I think some have sadly in the past few years, closed down (perhaps due to Covid-19).
I can’t stop with the fun facts, but I’ve concluded that it’s a Korean thing to grab a coffee after a meal – I found myself doing that so many times with Korean friends that I pretty much just assume it’s part of it. Whether it’s at a nice cafe or just an instant one that’s offered by some restaurants, the meal seems to need to be finished off with a cup of coffee.
And yet another fun fact – Zapangi, the name of the cafe, also means vending machine, lol. It’s this love for aesthetic yet quirky sense of humour that just makes me love Korea… yes the country does have its dark parts but I guess what is brilliance without some shadows?
Ok phew that was quite a mouthful (haha pun sort of intended) of words, but that’s mostly what I have to share about my Korean eating experiences! Well, there’s more (I’m starting to think that Seolleongtang and Jjimdak should’ve been included, maybe Part 2?) but it’s so hard to put it all into words – best is to find some Korean friends to show you the wonders of their cuisine (the ‘famous’ places you can find online that are in English are good but not as good as some of the local places).
If you have any questions or thoughts to share, feel free to leave them below or drop me a message somewhere. I will leave everyone with a little food for thought (see what I did there) – 인생이 짧아. 맛있는 음식 먹어~ ^^