Korean food exhibits a complexity, depth and earthiness unlike any other thanks to its long history of fermentation and use of three key staples: dwenjang (coarse, salty soya bean paste), gochujang (fiery red, slightly sweet chilli paste) and ganjang (soy sauce). At least one of these can be found in almost any Korean dish.
It’s also famous for barbecue. Slivers of soy-, garlic- and ginger-infused beef (bulgogi) and pork belly (samgyupsal) cook almost instantly over hot coal grills built into the dining table. Diners then wrap the slices in cool, crisp lettuce leaves and layer on garlic, chilli, kimchi (fermented cabbage) and good smears of ssamjang (a salty, spicy, umani-rich sauce that combines dwenjang and gochujang). These parcels are eaten in one so diners can enjoy a mix of flavours and textures together (a crucial element in Korean cuisine which is centred on balance and satiating all of your taste buds).
In addition, typical Korean meals consist of rice and large selections of small dishes called banchan, an array of seasoned vegetables (namul), grilled seafood, tofu, meat, kimchi and pickles, that fill the table with flavours, textures and colours, creating that all-important balance.
In the South Korean capital, Seoul, a vibrant restaurant scene showcases both traditional and modern cooking, with edgy Korean Mexican restaurants cosying up to old-school kimbap (rice roll) shops. And while street food trends change rapidly, the locals cherish mealtimes, whether they’re social or business events. Eating is convivial and the night air often carries the smell of sizzling, smoky meats and bursts of loud laughter from those enjoying a glass of soju (surprisingly, the world’s best-selling spirit).
Five places to eat and drink:
The stalls are piled with kimbap (seaweed rolls), mandu (steamed dumplings) and soondae (black pudding), plus hundreds of types of kimchi. The bindaetteok is a must-try fried pancake made from ground mung beans and served with a soy vinegar dipping sauce.
Maple Tree House
Try an authentic Korean barbecue meal here. It ages its meat, uses prime cuts and serves the best Korean-raised beef and pork. Most diners splurge on Korean hanwoo beef which rivals Japanese wagyu in its buttery texture and marbling.
A modern Korean restaurant that specialises in seasonal cuisine. The dishes are presented beautifully and the flavours are authentically pungent. Menus highlight Korea’s most cherished ingredients such as rare ginseng, aged soy sauce, sweet persimmons and fragrant pine mushrooms.
Chicken in the Kitchen
Korean fried chicken, famed for its extra-crispy crust and moreish sauces, has become a global hit and this place fries up some of the best in Seoul. Look for the long queue to find it, tucked down a small alley, and don’t forget to try the rice cakes drizzled in an addictive sweet sauce.
This restaurant in Insadong looks homespun but has the best dumplings – you’ll be impressed with its fist-sized mandu. It’s known for its North Korean-style dumpling stew especially – they’re simmered at the table in a rich, spicy stock with beef, noodles and herbs.
Insadong 5-gil; 00 82 2735 7393