Korean food continues to take the world by storm, and thanks to the increasing popularity of Korean pop culture, it shows no signs of slowing down. From neighboring Asian countries all the way to the Americas and Europe, global awareness of Korean food has never been higher. And while not all dishes have been a hit worldwide (hongeo, anyone?), there are quite a number of them that both foreigners and Koreans enjoy in equal measure. Here are 10 such dishes, in no particular order:
This spicy fermented vegetable banchan (side dish) is a quintessential Korean icon. Although napa cabbage is by far the most common type of kimchi, it can also be made with radish, cucumber, or other vegetables. Koreans consider a meal without kimchi incomplete, so it is always given for free at restaurants.
Aside from being served as a side dish, kimchi is also a key ingredient in some main dishes like kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) and kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew). Some adventurous Western chefs have also created new fusion dishes like kimchi cheeseburger!
Bibim means “mixed”, and bap means 'cooked rice', and that’s essentially what this dish is – a hearty, healthy rice bowl with mixed vegetables, ground meat, gochujang (sweet chili paste) sauce, and an egg. The meat is usually beef, while the vegetables are chosen for their diverse colors – cucumber, carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, soybean sprouts, cabbage, and seaweed, among others. To try the most prestigious variety of bibimbap, head down to the southwestern city of Jeonju.
A controversial addition to the list, for sure, as a 2021 survey found that 64% of Koreans did not consider this an authentically Korean dish. Regardless, this was found to be the most popular “Korean” dish among non-Koreans polled in 17 major cities worldwide. Korean fried chicken is made unique by its paper-thin batter and by double-frying it to achieve the perfect crisp without much grease.
Korean fried chicken comes in a wide variety of seasonings and glazing. One of the most popular is yangnyeom – a spicy sauce coating made of gochujang and sweeteners like honey and ketchup. Chicken is customarily paired with beer, a killer combination known as chimaek, from the words chikin (Koreans use this Anglicism to distinguish it from regular chicken, dak) and maekju (beer).
Bulgogi is thinly sliced beef marinated with soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, garlic, other basic aromatics, and pureed fruit as a tenderizer. Traditionally, this tenderizer has been Asian pears, but apples, kiwis, and pineapples are sometimes used as a substitute. Bul means “fire” and gogi means “meat”, referring to how the marinated beef is grilled on a barbecue. Unless otherwise specified, bulgogi almost always refers to beef, although dwaeji (pork) bulgogi can be found in some restaurants.
Japchae is a savory glass noodle dish with mixed vegetables and meat (either beef or pork). Glass noodles, which are semi-transparent, are made of sweet potato starch. All the ingredients are stir-fried in the classic Korean sauce mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, and a little sugar. Japchae is a staple at special occasions like birthdays or holidays and can be served as either a side or main dish.
(Common alternate spelling: “samgyupsal”)
When people think of Korean barbecue, they usually think of samgyeopsal, or grilled pork belly. After grilling, the meat is cut with kitchen scissors and served to individual diners. The best way to eat samgyeopsal is to dip it the pork cuts in ssamjang sauce and salted sesame oil, wrap it all in a lettuce or perilla leaf, and eat the whole thing in one go.
Samgyeopsal restaurants are especially popular in the Philippines, due in no small part to Filipinos’ famous love of pork and the vast influence of Korean pop culture among the country’s youth. Many of these establishments offer eat-all-you-can deals to satisfy their hungry customers. Once you’ve tried it, you can hardly blame them!
Galbi is another staple of Korean barbecue. Often confused to mean beef in general, the word “galbi” actually means “ribs”, so in common usage, it refers specifically to grilled beef short ribs. It is cooked, served, and eaten in a very similar way to samgyeopsal.
Grilled pork ribs are called dwaeji galbi. There is also a spicy stir-fried diced chicken dish called dak galbi, but despite the name, it does not use rib meat.
(Common alternate spellings: “topokki”, “dukbokki”)
Although commonly eaten as a snack, this dish is very filling because of its base ingredient: rice cakes, or “tteok.” Tteokbokki is made of cylindrical rice cakes simmered in a thick, spicy gochujang-based sauce with sliced fish cakes, hard-boiled egg, and green onions. Many restaurants also offer special add-ons like mozzarella cheese and/or ramyeon noodles.
(Common alternate spellings: “kimbap”, “kimbob”)
This popular snack consists of cooked rice stuffed with vegetables, fish, and/or meat and rolled and wrapped in seaweed. It is very similar to norimaki, and by extension, sushi. However, gimbap’s origins as a Japanese introduction or as an indigenous Korean dish called bokssam continue to be hotly debated.
Popular fillings include canned tuna, ham/spam, cheese, crab sticks, and many more. The most common gimbap shape is round slices, but there are also triangle versions.
(Common alternate spellings: “ramyun”)
Like “ramen”, the word ramyeon is derived from the Chinese characters 拉麵. But unlike ramen, a Japanese dish made of fresh noodles cooked in a carefully prepared meat broth, Korea’s ramyeon is dried “instant” noodles meant to be cooked quickly in boiling water with the spicy seasoning also found in the package. Confusion often arises because all kinds of instant noodles are called “ramen” in popular usage regardless of their country of origin.
Ramyeon is one of the biggest beneficiaries of global interest in Korean products, with Korea’s exports reaching a record $670 million in 2021. Whether eaten as part of an expensive restaurant dish like budae jjigae or on its own in a university dormitory, ramyeon’s staying power cannot be denied.