Best Things to Eat in Seoul When Your Stomach Is a Black Hole
On the first day I arrived in Seoul, I had been awake for more than 38 hours. My plane departed Tokyo at 2 a.m. and landed in Seoul at 5 a.m. After everything was all said and done, I arrived at my Airbnb by 7 a.m. Deliriously tired, hungry, and excited to be in Seoul, I dropped off my luggage and went in search of Seoul eats. It was only a little before 8 a.m.
Being that it was my first day in K-pop capital of the world, I was keen on having some authentic Korean food as my first meal, so I prowled the side streets, which teemed with restaurants…that were not yet open. The pictures looked great though--sigh.
Much to my chagrin, it turns out that Korea is not really a breakfast-eating sort of country. They do eat food of some sort at breakfast hours, but there doesn’t seem to be breakfast-specific foods, like the pancakes and bacon we have in America. Most places don’t even open until lunch time, and many of the ones that are sell bakery goods or fast food.
Thing to know: Don’t expect to find a many food choices between the hours of 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Finally, I happened upon a place that served Korean blood sausage in a soup with diced up pig trotters. It was served with rice and banchan (side dishes). It’s worth noting that while I don’t love kimchi, I love pickled stuff. And kimchi, onions, and radishes are all pickled stuff, so me likey very much.
And the best part?
You can often help yourself to refills. And I would later find out that nearly all restaurants would refill your banchan dishes if you asked for more.
Thing to know: You can get “unlimited” refills for banchan (side dishes).
Sometimes it’s self-serve or you have to ask the wait staff. Now I’ve never tried refilling things more than three times, so take my use of “unlimited” with a grain of salt (and a bit of common courtesy).
Later that day, I learned something that everyone should take note of when they eat in Seoul.
Here’s the story: after waking up from a nap and finishing up some work, I was ready for dinner. I went to a fried chicken place that I had filed away in my head during my walk earlier. No one else was in the restaurant. The guy seem surprised that I was going to eat there alone, not order takeout.
Whatever, guy! Don’t judge me.
Plates of chicken cost around 18,000 won (which was roughly $15USD at the time). That seemed kind of pricey, but having come from Tokyo where that was almost the standard, I thought I’d merely just gotten dinner prices. Cool, so I ordered some chicken with rice cake stir-fried in a very Korean sweet, slightly spicy sauce. I also ordered a side of rice. So far so good.
The food came out on what looked like a pizza platter. I was like, okay, at least the portion is reflective of the prices and proceeded to kill the whole thing. I’m pretty sure the two dudes that worked there probably guessed I was American. The whole meal cost 20,000 won. Again, kind of pricey for a single dinner, especially since I thought Seoul was less expensive than Tokyo.
The thing is…my housemates would later tell me that it’s actually quite difficult to eat alone in Korea. The portion sizes and prices are often made for two or more people. So, that’s why.
I just polished off enough food for two people. No biggie.
Thing to know: It’s not easy to find normal one-person portions at restaurants here. You’d either have to eat a lot of food, find someone to eat with, or eat street food.
It’s quite a wonder how Koreans can keep from getting huge. Walking around Seoul, I didn’t notice too many overweight people.
It’s not just the portion sizes. A lot of Korean dishes seem to be really, really high in sugars and carbs because of the sauces they use. The red, spicy sauce (gochujang and a few others ones I’m not too familiar with) that’s often used in their food are going to add–I’m guessing here–at least 30 grams of carbs (about two slices of bread) to your meal.
Not surprisingly, it’s also really damn spicy, even at the lowest level.
Thing to know: If you can’t eat spicy food in Korea…like, you would need to build your tolerance quickly or be unable to fully embrace Korean cuisine.
Also, if you DO eat mildly spicy, always go for the lowest level. My god.
I’d always been a fan of Korean food, even before visiting Seoul. I ate Korean BBQ, tofu soup, seafood pancakes, and rice cakes on the regular back in California. My month in Seoul, however, introduced me to a whole lot of other stuff I never knew about, and now I love Korean food even more. Here are a few of the dishes I’m particularly a fan of. Note that I’ll be adding my thoughts on the estimate macronutrients.
Not sure what I mean by macronutrients? Read my other article on: How to Eat Healthy When You Travel and Avoid Getting Fat
Ginseng Chicken Soup
Ginseng is an herb that’s most recognized in Chinese medicine, as well as in some products and food (mainly for medicinal properties). It’s bitter and makes you think you’re actually eating tree bark, but I like it.
In Korea, they use a special species of ginseng (red ginseng, I believe) and cook a whole chicken that’s about the size of a cornish hen, or a really small chicken, in the ginseng-infused soup. The chicken itself is stuffed with chunks of ginseng, red dates, chestnuts, and glutinous (particularly sticky) rice, all served in a pot.
Estimated macros: Obviously, if you remove the skin, you can save yourself a lot of fat. The whole meal is quite filling since you’re eating a whole tiny chicken. Let’s say the chicken is about the size of Big Mac, so we’re looking at 15 grams of fat (without the skin), 70 grams of carbs, and 50 grams of protein.
Boiled slices of pork belly with a pickled salad drenched in red, chili sauce. You eat it by taking a pork slice, some kimchi, and whatever else you want and wrapping them in a leaf of romaine lettuce. Then you shove it in your mouth.
Estimated macros: This is a pretty paleo-friendly option if you’re into that. Keep in mind that the carbs you try to cut out by using the lettuce are more than partially made up by the red sauce they liberally douse the kimchi salad with. If you skip that, you can keep this meal very low carb. Since the bossam itself is pork belly, it’s a whole lot of fat. After eating about 3-5 slices (depending on how big they slice them), which is about 3 ounces, it’s about 20 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbs (with the sauce and fixings), and 22 grams of protein.
“Jims” are basically stews in a sweeter sauce mixed with glass noodles, rice cakes, and other goodies. Usually, it’s spicy. And this one that we ordered was really, really spicy. Even at the lowest level, it was way too spicy for me and my friend.
Estimated macros: The beef is of the brisket variety for stews, which is to say it’s not very lean (tasty as hell though). The sauce is also very sweet. That said, for a few big chunks of fatty beef (let’s say 4 ounces) it’s about 30 grams of fat, 8 grams of carbs, and 28 grams of protein.
Gopchang (Cow or Pork intestines)
An assortment of beef or pork offal with what I assume is a whole lot of pepper on a really hot iron skillet. Now I love offals, but this particular one gave me a bit of stomach issues. It was good at the time though…
Estimated macros: Now before you get grossed out, intestines (or chitterlings as they’re also called) can be a great source of some key micronutrients, like selenium, zinc, and vitamin B12. They’ve also got an even ratio of fat and protein. For about 3 ounces of intestines, you get about 12 grams of fat and 10 grams of protein.
Chicken Bulgolgi With Cheese
Chicken thighs stir-fried with the red chili sauce…and topped with cheese! What’s not to love? You could also order a skillet with its own cheese moat, where it’s basically an outer ring of melted cheese and you can dip the chicken or whatever in it. But seriously, friends, cheese on pretty much any Korean food works. The place I went to was Yoogane in Sinchon.
Estimated macros: It ain’t pretty man. Chicken thighs (with the skin on) generally come out to about 11 grams of fat and 24 grams of protein per 3 ounces. Add the sauce which can range between 10-25 grams of carbs and tantalizing cheese pulls (another 12 grams of fat on average) and you’ve got a food coma.
Korean Fried Chicken (KFC)
Here’s how I feel normally feel about fried chicken: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Basically, I don’t care for it. However, Korean fried chicken (the real “KFC”, of course) is the real deal. That skin though…it’s like crack, particularly if it’s done right like at popular chains Kyochon or Bon Chon, where the skin is double-fried to make the skin like an extra crispy shell. Hnnnggggh. Some other chains here imitate the heavily battered, flaky Louisiana or Kentucky style as well if that’s your thing.
The major chains are Kyochon, BHC, Nene’s chicken, Mom’s Touch, and a few other ones. They’re all pretty good, but they differ in how they’re fried and sauced.
Estimated macros: Because the skin, sauce, and the way they fry the chicken here, I will assume a close equivalent is Popeyes fried chicken. It provides a good buffer if you’re tracking. That said, a big piece of fried chicken thigh with skin eaten and everything would be about 29 grams of fat, 16 grams of carbs, and 26 grams of protein. A wing is 14 grams of fat, 8 grabs carbs, and 13 grams of protein.
One of my favorite things to eat in Korea: just pure short ribs and soup that you eat with rice and other banchan. I had this particular one to nurse a slight hangover from too much beer and soju the previous night. In the background, we have some bulgogi cooking on a hot plate. Also good for a hangover.
Estimated macronutrients: This is just basically boiled short ribs. A large piece of short rib with little fat on it is still 14 grams of fat and 18 grams of protein. With lots of visible fat, the fat goes up to 25-30 grams.
You can think of bibimbap as sort of a Korean mixed rice salad. It typically has a variety of vegetables (like bean sprouts, kimchi, lettuce, mushrooms) all mixed with Korean chili sauce. You can add meat, seaweed, and a fried egg. Note the purple rice!
Estimated macros: Here is one of those dishes where it’s just easier to break down the nutritional value of its individual components. Sometimes the rice is already under that pile of food. A serving of rice at a restaurant is about 70-80 grams. A fried egg is about 8 grams of fat and 7 grams of protein. The rest of the vegetables are almost negligible, but they add sesame oil to it so it brings the fat count to about 10 grams. The sauce adds another 15-25 grams of carbs.
Sunduboo (Tofu soup)
Tofu soup in Korea can be served with a variety of things, such as seafood, dumplings, beef, pork, or in my case, beef innards. It’s served to you piping hot (bubbling and everything), so you take a raw egg and crack it in there to let it slowly simmer and cook. And this restaurant already had a whole basket ready at the table.
This particular restaurant served a crazy amount of food and some really special rice. Typically, when you’re eating Korean BBQ you’ll take the cooked meat, along with certain sauces and whatever, and wrap it in a leaf of lettuce. Shove in mouth. Eat with rice. Bliss.
Estimated macros: Well, I’d hate this to be a cop out, but it depends. Korean BBQ has a huge variety of meats, along with rice and side dishes. And some places offer all you can eat options. So if you’re really keen on tracking this, you can just look up the individual proteins you eat. The standard Korean BBQ meats are pork belly, short ribs, boneless short ribs, flank, sirloin, chicken thigh, and a few others.
Various Street Food
Korean street food culture is pretty big. Typically, it’s a lot of fried stuff along with rice cakes, blood sausages, and fish cakes.
I’ll admit that I avoided eating street food, mainly because ever since my food poisoning bout in Maui I’ve been less confident in my stomach. Also, you really can’t be too sure of how often they switch out the oil when they fry or cook the foods.
Estimated macros: Fish cakes are high in fat and carbs. If you get rice cakes (tteokbokki), that’s mainly all carbs–maybe even 60 grams worth. Basically, you won’t find much protein.
Bingsu (shaved ice)
My favorite dessert here, hands down. Korean shaved ice is so finely shaved that it has the consistency of a slushy cream once it’s combined with condensed milk. You can get any bingsu with a variety of toppings, but these are also meant to be shared (some of them are HUGE). I personally like any of the ones with red bean, black sesame, or soybean flour.
Estimated macros: At their core, bingsu is a bunch of finely shaved ice. No harm there, but then they put all sorts of milk, cream, and toppings and all of a sudden the calories literally pile on. Bingsu can be between 500-900 calories, but an exact macro breakdown is next to impossible.
I know there are a ton more foods, so if you didn’t see your favorite food here hit me up in the Contact page to tell me about it. Then maybe I could add it to the page! As an aside, I’d thought that I’d get sick of kimchi and Korean food during my time there, but nope…it never came down to that. Nom.