South Korea is renowned for its delectable street food that is never too far away when hunger strikes. From crispy fried chicken to sweet and spicy rice cakes, and delightful sugary hotteok – there’s a wide range of options that can satisfy your cravings. Embrace the Korean-style of eating by rubbing shoulders with locals around stalls or in cosy pojangmacha, which are tented street restaurants, while sipping on soju, a distilled spirit. This approach offers a simple way to explore and sample the diverse range of Korean flavours. Here are some of the most sought-after street food dishes to relish in South Korea.
Gimbap (rice and nori rolls)
Wrapped in dried seaweed (gim) and bursting with visible flavours. The lightly flavoured sesame oil rice (bap) and seaweed are given an extra zing with a side of kimchi. Popular fillings include canned tuna or beef, spinach, carrot, imitation crab, pickled radish, egg, and Korean perilla leaf, which has an herbaceous flavour similar to shiso.
Gimbap is available in both hearty, rice-filled slices, ideal for quick and satisfying bites, and delectable petite rolls with fewer ingredients. The smaller rolls are commonly found in street stalls and markets, while the larger versions are a staple at bunsik, simple lunch and snack shops such as the Gimbap Cheongook (Gimbap Heaven) chain. Packaged varieties are also widely available at convenience stores across the country.
Mandu can be enjoyed fried, steamed, or boiled, each cooking method offering a unique and delicious experience. As a popular street snack, the most common variation is the kimchi mandu, which boasts a filling of green onions, ground pork, and spicy kimchi that shimmers orange through the delicate skin. Another savoury option is the kogi mandu, featuring a gingery pork and green onion filling. These bite-sized parcels are bursting with warm, flavorful goodness, though sometimes they can be quite spicy, warranting a cautionary word from the chef. Typically, mandu is served in plates of six or seven, perfect for dipping in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar before devouring.
Hotteok (Korean doughnuts)
Hotteok, often dubbed Korean doughnuts, are more akin to pancakes with a delightful, sugary filling. Half the fun of enjoying them is watching vendors deftly flatten the balls of dough into disks and fry them to a beautiful golden hue. Prior to frying, vendors puncture a hole in the dough and stuff it with a mixture of brown sugar, cinnamon, and peanuts, which transforms into a gritty caramel as the dough cooks.
Be warned, hotteok is piping hot and may scorch your tongue if you can’t resist taking a bite before it cools down. In Busan, ssiat hotteok, a variant that includes black sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, is especially popular. Regardless of the type, hotteok is a dessert-lover’s paradise.
Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes)
If you’re not a fan of spicy food, you may want to skip this one. Tteokbokki, a popular Korean street food, consists of rice cakes swimming in a vibrant red-orange sauce made from a mixture of water, soy sauce, sugar, red chilli flakes, and gochujang – a fermented paste made from soybeans and red chilli peppers. Anywhere that Koreans gather for work, school, or socialising, you’ll find street vendors and tented restaurants cooking oblong pans of tteok in the bubbling sauce late into the night.
The best place to try this dish is Sindang Tteokbokki Town, a cluster of tteokbokki eateries in Seoul’s Sindang neighbourhood, where the modern version of the dish was invented and popularised.
Dak gangjeong (seasoned fried chicken pieces)
Dak gangjeong is a mouthwatering blend of flavours and cultures. Juicy chunks of chicken are coated in a sweet and spicy sauce, and then generously sprinkled with sesame seeds and peanuts for added crunch. The bite-sized boneless pieces are typically double fried, resulting in a satisfyingly crispy texture. A small serving is the perfect way to satiate your cravings. For an extra twist, some vendors offer a variation dusted with parmesan cheese, for a true fusion experience.
South Korea is a street food lover’s paradise, offering a vast array of delicious and unique dishes that are sure to satisfy your cravings. From the crispy and savoury fried chicken to the sweet and caramelly hotteok, there is something for everyone. Whether you’re exploring bustling cities like Seoul or wandering through charming neighbourhoods, you’re never far from a street vendor or pojangmacha serving up mouthwatering treats. With so much to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start, but we recommend trying some of the most popular options like gimbap, tteokbokki, mandu, and dak gangjeong. So come with an empty stomach and a sense of adventure, and get ready to taste some of the best street food in the world.