Seoul Delicious: A ranking of the best South Korean food

by - Sunday, October 08, 2017

I was never a fan of Korean food before I travelled to Seoul.

Their cuisine in my head consisted of rice and a hundred average tasting side dishes that weren't flavorful like Chinese food, refreshing like Vietnamese food, or as fun as Japanese food.

But my sister, who had been studying in South Korea for the past 4 months, aimed to change my mind by feeding me everything great and popular about Korean food. And in my recent overseas holiday, I truly ate my way through Seoul over 4 days. So from amazing to alright, here's my definitive rank of the Korean Cuisine:

1. Korean Fried Chicken // Chimaek (치맥):
It may not have 11 secret herbs and spices, but it's still better than anything KFC could do. Why? When it comes to their chicken, you could eat pretty much a whole box and not feel any regrets, unlike eating 2 1/2 pieces from a KFC bucket. It's not greasy, the coating is delicious, and their spicy version is tastier than any wicked wing. Also a plus: no bones. The chicken my sister bought for us was from a takeaway service who delivered it to us park-side of the Han River. We were outside and they came to find us. Up your game K Fry.

2. Shaved ice dessert // Bingsu (빙수):
While it's not the top shaved ice dessert ever (that spot in my heart is still saved for the Malaysian Ice Kachang) the snowflake-like iced milk shavings are the perfect summer dessert. Ours was covered in matcha green tea ice cream, red bean, bites of dark chocolate and small rice cakes - but careful about the sizes as the one I had in the centre of Myeongdong was definitely a two person filling dessert.

3. Korean BBQ // Gogigui (고기구이):
This was the first and last meal we had in Seoul, and it definitely requires you to bring your appetite to the table. It's a skill of multitasking, quick hands, constant movement and big mouthfuls as you grill, scoop, eat and repeat. The side dishes keep coming, and you walk out with your hair smelling of barbecue. Best with a few people around a table as you can take turns keeping an eye on it all. (My sister's suggestion, grill the kimchi and raw garlic too.) If you like pork, samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is a staple for a Korean BBQ. Cut it up, wrap it with lettuce, chives and a bit of soya bean paste... oh my gosh I'm hungry now.

4. Cold Buckwheat Noodles // Naengmyeon (냉면):
Cold buckwheat noodles are just what you need for lunch on a hot Seoul summer day. Refreshing, cooling, and just focused on a delicious cold bowl of rich broth soup and fresh garnish. The noodle has a nice delicate bite to it too that other cold noodle dishes like udon don't compare to.

5. Dumplings // Mandu (만두):
You can't go wrong with deep fried dumplings, as long as you cook it well. Ours were ordered by home delivery and were a great accompaniment to jajangmyeon.

6. Bibimbap (비빔밥):
Think of it like a mix-yourself Korean fried rice. Filled with vegetables like carrots, mushrooms, dried seaweed and a heaping of gochujang (red chilli paste), it's a healthy meal. I love rice but if I had to pick my favourite part of rice, it's finding a crunchy and slightly crisped section of rice amongst a bowlful of soft cooked rice. This definitely gives you that balance, while ultimately being presented in a colourful and nicely divided bowl that you control mixing up yourself.

7. Five Senses Tea:
We came across this tea house after walking the historical village in Seoul. A beautiful, traditional influenced wooden building that centred around this small peaceful garden, it truly was the perfect setting to get in touch with the five senses. With tea leaves grown in Moon-Kyung, Northen KyeongSang, it's a delicious drink I've never experienced before. Spicy, sour, sweet, bitter and salty, the tea was fruity, light, and is supposedly great for headaches, asthma and hangovers.

8. Spicy Pickled Cabbage // Kimchi (김치):
I ate enough kimchi in a few days to last me the year in Seoul. But I learned that there are many variations of kimchi and a real versatility to it in every savoury dish. Much like tomato sauce or mayo is a staple condiment in western cooking, kimchi is that perfect bit of zing to a standard Korean meal. But also careful about the amount you eat because sometimes after a meal, I still felt like I was tasting cabbage.

9. Seaweed Soup // Miyeokguk (미역국):
Sometimes it's the simple dishes that can satisfy. While seaweed soup explains what it is in two words, it's the broth that wins. Much like my love of a good miso soup, I could happily drink a few bowls of it for any occasion.

10. Black Bean Noodles // Jajangmyeon (짜장면):
When you're jetlagged, humid and lazy, these noodles are the perfect comfort food. We got this delivered to our Airbnb with a serving of dumplings, and while I'm not the biggest fan of dark sauce noodles, they were quite sweet and delicious.

11. Ginseng Chicken Soup // Samgyetang (삼계탕):
They say this dish is one of the best to keep you healthy and well - that's probably due to the whole chicken and all the ginseng it's stewing in. When you add ginseng, a root plant with plenty of health properties, to a chicken stuffed with rice, garlic and jujubes, it's like chicken soup times 100. We ate at a speciality samgyetang restaurant, on one of the warmest Seoul summer days, served to us in a hot pot that never really cooled down - which I felt was difficult because your whole body is so warm that it made you feel you were sweating out the soup. But they say that it's super healthy for these reasons.

12. Sweet Korean Pancake // Hotteok (호떡):
I didn't know what to expect to eat when my sister kept sending me photos of hotteok, but in the rarity of summer, she managed to get this deep-fried treat for me from a street vendor. Think of it as an oily fried doughnut filled with hot sticky sweet honey. I don't particularly recommend it during summer as burning your tongue and hands on a hot doughnut is the last thing you want to do, but it would definitely be the most delicious hand warmer.

13. Rice Cakes in Spicy Sauce // Tteokbokki (떡볶이):
A staple for Korean street food, tteokbokki is straightforward hot rice cakes cooked in a spicy sauce. The rice cakes aren't delicate things either, with a bit of chew in each bite. There isn't much flavour to the cakes themselves, with the focus all on the sauce. But if you can only handle a certain limit of spicy food, you only need a few pieces before your mouth is on fire.

14. Stir-Fried Glass Noodles // Japchae (잡채):
While I've had good versions of these in Korean restaurants in Auckland, this was not the best dish I ate in Seoul. Mind you, I also bought it from a lonely open side street vendor at 9pm. And when my little sister ordered it with chicken, she was not aware that the part of the chicken she ordered was ₩5,000 of chicken intestines. At the end of the dish, all I had were sad cold noodles, vegetables that needed to be cooked more, and chicken intestines you couldn't chew apart. However, the noodles, which are made from sweet potato starch, are quite delicious on their own.

15. Fish cake soup // Eomukguk (어묵국):
I can see the appeal of fish cake soup when you're out on the streets and you want a quick soup and fish cake skewer for a snack... Actually no I can't really understand it. But maybe when it's winter and you're waiting by a bus stop, and you want something that will warm your body and your soul, a good fish cake soup could be the way. The fish cake skewer is simple, but what makes it nice is the broth which is slightly spicy and is soaked into the flavour of the fish cake. Problem is that it's a two-handed meal to hold your soup while eating from the skewer, so don't even think about ordering other food at the same time - there's only so much you can juggle.

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