We’re adventurous eaters by nature – what some might call aspiring foodies. So we felt right at home in South Korea, a country that some speculate has the highest restaurant-to-person ratio in the world. Their feasts of meat and alcohol verge on excess, and by the end even we felt a little guilty for our level of consumption. But when in Seoul…wait, is that the right idiom? Anyways, here are twelve reasons we loved eating in Korea.
#12: It Takes You by Surprise
With the exception of one so-so meal at a Korean restaurant in Nepal, neither of us had tried Korean food before we got to Seoul. Back in Denver we dabbled in a lot of different types of food, from Vietnamese to Ethiopian – but somehow it never occurred to us to try anything from the Land of the Morning Calm. Not having any expectations made our visit that much better, since we couldn’t have guessed it would be so downright wonderful.
We can’t be the only people to have this experience, as Korean fare tends to be some of the most underrated, underrepresented world cuisine. Maybe that’s because Korea is nestled in between two culinary powerhouses – Japan and China – whose food has made it to most dinner tables in one form or another. While both countries’ cuisine has certainly informed gastronomy on the peninsula, Koreans have crafted many dishes that are distinctive and oh-so-tasty.
#11: It’s a Great Value
Eating out always takes its toll on a traveler’s budget, but we found that most restaurants in Korea had reasonable prices. If you stick to bibimbap and stews (more on those later), meals are usually priced around ₩6,000 ($6) each. Side dishes called banchan are included with every meal, adding to the value. Ambling through Korea’s many outdoor markets, you’ll find all sorts of stalls that sell piping hot street food for only a couple of dollars. Want something to wash it all down? Bottles of soju (the local rice liquor) are sold for as little as ₩1,200 ($1.20) at the convenience stores that dot almost every city street.
#10: It’s Everywhere
Koreans love to eat out, meaning that the next restaurant is always right around the corner. You’ll rarely have an issue finding a place to eat – rather, the problem is always choosing where. On days when Eric and I were feeling indecisive, we might walk around for an hour before finally settling on a restaurant. However, if you’re in Seoul or any of the other major cities, it’s hard to make a bad choice since most eateries seem to have their signature dishes down pat.
It’s also useful to note that many restaurants will convey their specialties by displaying them in tanks out front (in the case of seafood), or by hanging signs with photos of the types of animal they serve. In many cases the animals portrayed will look happy-go-lucky (sometimes they’re even popular characters from children’s shows), much to the chagrin of vegetarians passing by.
#9: It’s Communal
It’s unusual for people to eat out alone at sit-down restaurants in Korea since culturally, the emphasis is on sharing. Eating out is as much about enjoying the company of your friends, family and colleagues as it is about the food. The banchan and main meat dish are always communal, and sometimes the soup will be as well. Normally you’ll be served your own bowl of rice but otherwise it’s a free-for-all, with chopsticks digging through all the plates on the table. Korean barbeque is almost always served in portions large enough for two or more, and some restaurants won’t even seat you if you’re eating alone since you’d be using a table that could seat a larger party. So if you visit Korea alone (or with a vegetarian), you may have a very different experience.
If you do find yourself in Korea without a dining partner, noodle dishes, soups and hotpots can generally be served in smaller portion sizes. There’s also an increasing number of western-style restaurants available, although opting for American or Japanese food might diminish your experience somewhat.
#8: It’s Interactive
A lot of places allow the diners to cook for themselves. There’s something about being involved in the creation of the dishes that makes us appreciate them that much more. If you’re out for stir-fry or barbecue you’ll be presented with a hot grill and a slew of raw ingredients, and the eating doesn’t begin until everything has been cooked to perfection. The anticipation builds along with the aromas that waft throughout the restaurant and spill out onto the street, beckoning new customers to join in on the fun. The servers will dash from table to table, monitoring progress and assisting when necessary. So it’s like everyone in the restaurant is a chef of sorts, taking part in a symphony of stirring, cutting, flipping and frying.
#7: It’s Fresh
One benefit of a place where everyone eats out all the time is that the food turnover is high – meaning that the ingredients are always fresh. You really can taste the difference when the food came from the the butcher (or out of the sea) that very day. There are many fish markets throughout the country where you can pick your fish or seafood while it’s still swimming and watch them prepare it for you. It’s not for the squeamish, but it doesn’t get much fresher than that.