Korean cuisine, unlike the people of the country who have retained their homogeneity, has evolved over centuries. While it has retained some of its originality, you can see traces of Japanese and Chinese influences. What makes it distinctly unique is its spiciness.
Korean cuisine makes ample use of spices and herbs and home-grown vegetables, rendering it one of the most nutritious cuisines in the world.
This South Korea Restaurant Guide gives an idea of what to expect when eating out in South Korea. For details of restaurants which you may want to try, go to our Seoul Restaurant Guide. And don't forget to visit our South Korea Shopping Guide to get some tips and hints about what kind of souvenirs you may like to pick up on your trip.
Korean cuisine does not compromise on the two most important factors of any kind of food - nutrition and taste. While you can have one of the two in most cuisines, Korean food has struck a great balance in retaining both in most dishes. Side dishes made with seafood or vegetables accompany the staple food rice, known locally as bap. If not the rice, you'll see rice noodles, referred to as chapche, and bean curd, known as duboo.
Koreans don't cook their vegetables - they pickle them. This is a uniquely Korean way of fermenting and preserving vegetables called Kimchi. This dish is served and eaten with almost every meal, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. The liberal use of chilli peppers also contributes to the spiciness of Korean food.
Bulgogi (pronounced pulgogi in Korean) is a very popular dish. This is a meat dish that may use beef, chicken or pork. Soups or stews made using bean paste are an essential part of a Korean meal.
All the four regions of South Korea have distinct cuisines. The capital city of Seoul has signature dishes that are widely regarded as some of the best symbols of Korean cuisine. The best known dish, perhaps, is the range of Pulgogi dishes. The main ingredient of a Pulgogi dish are very finely sliced beef strips that have been marinated in a mix of soy sauce, sugar, onions and garlic and, sometimes, black pepper.
Some restaurants have a gas-powered grill embedded in their tables, so with the help of the chef or the waiter, you can make this yourself - Korean barbecue. Pack the pulgogi you've made into a clean lettuce leaf, add a bit of rice and some stir-fried vegetables and kimchi, and bite into this little slice of happiness. Other types of meat like fish, seafood, chicken and pork can be used instead of beef.
If you're looking for a part of South Korea that's famed far and wide for its dishes, the Cholla-do area is a must visit. The different flavours and textures of Korean cuisine are best experienced here, where you get world-class agricultural produce from the fertile soil of the Honaam plain. One speciality is Pibimbap - stir-fried pibim- vegetables, bap - rice, bean sprouts mixed with a dash of spices, herbs and some red pepper sauce. This dish is usually served with bean sprout soup. Different areas have their versions of Pibimbap, so try at least two different versions and see if you can tell the difference. Tolsot Pibimbap (rice and vegetables kept hot on a stone pot) is a must try.
South Koreans are a rather focussed lot when it comes to drinking. Respect, courtesy and a little bit of formality is all there at the Korean drinking table. Toasts are raised, glasses of liquor are first offered before one sips from his own glass and the Korean host pays special attention to everyone's glass - getting up many a time if need be to top off empty or half-empty glasses.
Guests are expected to hold out empty glasses for the host to fill. Once you've drunk it all, you can return the glass to the person who offered it to you. The tradition of respecting the elders continues at the dinner table as well - if an older person hands a glass to a younger person, the younger Korean must receive the glass with both hands and as a mark of respect turn his face away from the older person while drinking.
The meal setting at the table in Korea is called Pansang. Up to 12 dishes (chop) are served in a regular Pansang arrangement. Chop means a side dish, actually. A 12 chop meal means that in addition to the staple rice, noodles, vegetables and kimchi, there are 12 more dishes on the menu. These are usually reserved for very formal occasions and celebrations. Tourists can expect to be served 3 or 5 chop meals in restaurants.