Seoul Food - What's Cooking in Korea's Capital
A trip to Seoul, Korea provides an incredibly varied and rewarding culinary adventure!
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While there are tons of fun things to do and see in Seoul (check out my post on Seoul things to do and travel tips), the food of Seoul deserves its own post!
Like any large city, Seoul has a dizzying array of things to eat and food purveyors. You can find everything from street food to fast food to fine dining to Korean barbecue to international cuisine to espresso. According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the city’s population is over 10 million. This means that to support a population this big, there are tons of food outlets to try!
We visited Seoul for a couple of days on our way to Japan and also on our way back. Here are some highlights that cover what to eat and where to eat. Enjoy!
When traveling, we try to find establishments that are filled with locals and don’t have tourist menus. While this may mean struggling a bit more, you’ll find better food. Restaurants will often serve banchan (the free appetizers brought out before the meal); I enjoyed the variety of these and loved the kimchi and other pickled vegetables. We enjoyed visiting restaurants in different parts of the city and trying dolsot bibimbap (which is bibimbap served in a hot stone dish that makes the rice crispy on the bottom, Korean barbecue (where you literally grill the meat at your table), fried chicken, long green peppers stuffed with ground meat and spices and then fried, and some kind of paella-like dish.
South Korea is very high-tech and this carries over to dining. In most restaurants, you will need to press a button to get the waiter/waitress to swing by your table. We learned this the hard way and then paid it forward by helping other tourists we saw struggling with this later.
For places like this with menus posted outside, I recommend staying outside and figuring out what you want, then going inside when you’re ready to order. This way you’re doing less fumbling and don’t require extra time for restaurant staff. In a high-volume restaurant, they’re not set up to spend tons of time hand-holding.
On our visits to Seoul, we stayed in both Namdaemun and Myeongdong. I especially loved the Namdaemun area and our hotel was right across from the shopping area. One of our great finds was a wonderful shop serving fresh dumplings for takeaway only. They make the dumplings on site and sell both pork and kimchi and pork dumplings. The kimchi and pork dumplings are delicious!
And it turns out that this place is highly acclaimed! After I returned home to summarize my findings, I discovered that a well-respected Seoul-based food blogger featured this place on his blog (check out the Seoul Eats’ post here). Great minds think – and eat – alike!
I inherited my father’s love of grocery shopping. I know, it sounds weird to count grocery shopping as a hobby. However, there’s always something interesting to see and it gets even better when you travel overseas and go shopping! For instance, a large supermarket in south Vietnam had an entire section on durian-flavored cookies and candies. On top of that, I have been obsessed with graphic design and packaging since I was in high school.
We happened upon a couple of markets in one of the busy neighborhoods in central Seoul. One of them was called Lemon Mart. Some of the snacks we found include: dried cuttlefish, spicy almonds (they must be extra spicy since the package depicts an inferno), pesto almonds, blueberry Pocky sticks (I had never seen this flavor in the U.S.A.), a Twinkie-like dessert, and some sort of junk food snack for kids with incredibly bright pink packaging.
We also found Korean staples like gojuchang, a spicy chili paste that’s becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.A, as well as umpteen varieties of canned and bottled kimchi. The packaging on one particular kind of canned kimchi was striking in its simplicity and it reminded me of how Andy Warhol (the king of pop art) turned the Campbell’s soup can into a very famous work of art (read more about Warhol and the Campbell’s soup can series on the Sotheby’s page here).
STREET FOOD, FAST FOOD, AND POPULAR MARKET AND SHOPPING DISTRICTS
Seoul offers a cornucopia of street food, especially in the open-air markets and shopping districts. Some of the items we saw included grilled octopus on a stick, egg and cheese toast, fried anything and everything, fried anything and everything on a stick (one particular indulgence is a cheese-filled hot dog that’s deep-fried with French fries attached), bulgogi breakfast sandwiches (a cool fusion of east meets west), and so much more. Many drinks are also available for grab-n-go including espresso, condensed milk lattes, salted cheese tea, and all kinds of soft drinks. If you’ve tried the salted cheese tea, let me know what you thought of it. I actually regret not trying it (total FOMO (fear of missing out)). With respect to coffee, we had no trouble finding good strong coffee and drinks made with 2 shots of espresso. We especially enjoyed the condensed milk latte at Coffee Only and appreciated the kind gentleman working there who came out front to help us when we were struggling with self-serve ordering kiosk. Apparently the U.S.A. is finally catching up with these electronic ways to order (see Forbes article here).
You can get the scoop on the Namdaemun Market, Gwangjang Market, Myeondong Market, and Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market in my post on things to do in Seoul. I’ve also included plenty of photos and links to reviews and helpful information there. And yes, there is nothing like picking out an Alaskan king crab at the fish market and having it cooked fresh for you at one of the restaurants upstairs. If you do that, don’t forget to try the “crab soup” (the main body turned upside down filled with crab juices and crab broth)! It’s delicious!
Seoul has many fancy and expensive stores department stores like Lotte, Hyundai, and The Galleria. (For info provided by the Seoul Metropolitan Government including store addresses see here; also, here is Trip Advisor’s page on department stores in Seoul). These establishments often have high-end grocery stores and food courts inside (similar to what you see at Selfridge’s in London and some department stores in Japan). Even if you’re not hungry, it’s worth a look at the food. These grocery stores feature international food (it’s funny to find Philadelphia cream cheese at an upmarket place like this overseas), baked goods, lots of fancy and super expensive fruit, as well as desserts so perfect that you’d feel bad eating them. We saw melons so beautiful that they looked fake – and with a price tag of 30,000 Korean won each (this is about USD$30!!).
With respect to the food courts, you will likely pay more for a meal here, but hey, you’re on vacation, so treat yo’self!
As you can see, there are so many tasty food items to try along with a huge variety of food purveyors. If you are on the fence about visiting Seoul, I hope that this convinces you to go! Happy travels!