One of the wisest decisions I made on a recent Seoul vacation was to take a street food tour on day one. While I’ve eaten my fair share of bibimbap and Korean barbecue, the world of snacks and desserts was largely unknown to me.
O’ngo Food Communications, recommended to me by the concierge team at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, organizes food tours and cooking classes that allow people experience Korea through food. I booked and paid directly through O’ngo, but I was thrilled that to hear when I arrived that many people booked through our site affiliate, Viator.
The knowledge gleaned from the tour enabled me to eat my way through the city with ease via recognition of dishes I liked. This post begins with the food that I ate while on this fabulous Seoul street food tour and finishes with other fantastic Korean food and street food I ate or saw elsewhere in the capital.
Pajeon (Korean Pancake)
First, we watched a live cooking demonstration of how to make a Korean pancake at the O’ngo cooking school, where we all met before the tour. If I had more time in Seoul, I definitely would have taken a cooking class here.
The recipe for Korean pancakes varies but is savory, usually including an egg batter and scallions. It’s eaten at all times of the day and is a popular street food snack. It’s pictured at a vendor stall in Myeongdong in the top photo.
Kimchi is a fermented vegetable side dish that accompanied almost every main course I ordered in Seoul. It was fascinating to taste various preparations. I recently read that the Korean Field Museum in Seoul has documented 187 different varieties and there are many more.
This major Korean staple dates back to the 7th century. Originally, kimchi was stored and fermented for months at a time in underground jars. Winter weather in Korea is quite harsh and kimchi was one of the only ways for people to get nutrients from vegetables.
We ventured into an underground market where vats of kimchi were sold in addition to jars for fermenting it. It is a dish that I’ve grown to really love.
Next up is the popular gimbap or kimbap, an adaptation of norimaki sushi that was born after the Japanese occupation of Korea. Gimbap is steamed rice with vegetables and/or various meats rolled up in seaweed.
It’s delicious. The Shinsegae department store food court had a gorgeous gimbap bar where you could take uncut rolls to-go. Street vendors sell it, too.
Also, Korean rice is very, very short grain rice. It looks almost round.
North Korean Mandu (Dumplings)
Oh my goodness. You must fill up on these delicious, huge dumplings. Some were steamed while others are fried.
These decadent North Korean-style mandu are about the size of my hand and some of the best I’ve had. I believe they were filled with ground meat and vegetables. They were crispy on the outside while moist and flavorful on the inside.
I didn’t actually meet a dumpling in Seoul that I didn’t like, but these are pretty extraordinary.
Sundae (Blood Sausage)
The most common type of sundae is pig intestines stuffed with cellophane noodles and, of course, pig’s blood. It’s so popular that there is a neighborhood in Seoul with multiple vendors selling this street food snack called Sundae Town. Of course, blood sausage has a number of variants. It is honestly very good and tastes like a moist Western-style gourmet sausage.
Tteokbokki (Rice Cake)
Tteokbokki was my favorite dish. It’s a small rice cake served with a red chili sauce that is a tiny bit chewy. We ate it sort of like a soup but many street food vendors sell it on skewers.
The red chili sauce is excellent for dipping. We were told to dip our twigyam (below) in it… so good.
Twigim (Battered Snack)
Our guide cut up the twigim with kitchen shears for us to share, which I will remember the next time I eat it at home. It was tasty and easy in bite-sized form! If you bought it on the street, you’d snack on it whole, however.
This Korean fried vegetable dish is quite similar to Japanese tempura but its batter is less crispy.
Beongdegi (Silkworm Pupae)
Yes, these are an incredibly popular Korean street food for both taste and medicinal benefits. Order a cup and eat them with a toothpick while on the go.
I couldn’t bring myself to try these, but a handful of other people on our street food tour did and said that they were actually good. I’m told that they are crunchy on the outside with a sort of explosion of juice after the first bite. People eat them to help control diabetes and fatigue.
Hangwa is a general term for Korean desserts and there are shops all around Seoul retailing a variety in beautiful packaging (these boxes are great souvenirs).
I particularly liked Yakgwa, the Korean flower cookie made from honey. Because honey is considered to have medicinal properties, yakgwa is also known as the medicinal cookie.
These delightful fish-shaped desserts have a slightly sweet and crispy battered outside and a warm, sweet red bean paste inside. This vendor also sold a custard version. Yes, I ate and loved both.
We actually finished our street food tour with a traditional Korean barbecue lunch and though I was completely stuffed, I managed to enjoy it.
My favorite part of Korean barbecue is the banchan (side dishes).
The proper way to eat Korean barbecue involves wrapping a touch of meat and whatever banchan you choose in a leaf (or two) of kale, lettuce, shiso and other leaves. Eat it like a taco but in one bite. Keep the one-bite idea in mind when packing your leaves. I would dare say that this can be a healthy meal.
All of the above is what we ate on my street food tour. The glorious Korean food below I ate elsewhere or spotted on my walks around Seoul.
Gyeranppang (Egg Bread)
This popular winter street food warms the soul on a cold day. It is literally an egg baked into bread and served warm. There are variations that include things like cheese.
I opted for bulgogi at Maru inside Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, where I was staying, on my final night in town. While this is no doubt an upscale version of the dish, the thin slices of marinated and barbecued prime beef were melt-in-your-mouth good. When paired with banchan and rice… it’s something I could eat all of the time for sure.
French Fry Covered Corn Dogs
I ran into these gems in the Namdaemum Market in Myeongdong. Two great things that go even better together? I would say probably!
Korean Fried Chicken
I had one opportunity to try Korean fried chicken but I was simply too full. This is my one regret from my Seoul trip so don’t make the same mistake. Asian fried chicken, in my opinion is the BEST. It’s a fusion food also stemming from American influence during the Korean War and usually has a kick of spice.
Seoul street food is all about convenience and that means hefty skewers of meat, tteokbokki and more.
Bibimbap translates to “mixed rice” and is by far my favorite Korean food. It’s a bowl of warm white rice topped with a variety of seasoned vegetables, meats, chili pepper paste and other condiments that is mixed together before eating. It’s amazing.
It was one of the choices on my American Airlines flight from Dallas to Seoul and I dare say delicious even as airplane food. I didn’t seek it out in Seoul mostly because it can be found in San Diego and I had access to the bibimbap bar at the breakfast buffet at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul.
Big Ice Cream
You could dedicate a post much longer than this to ice cream in Seoul. Ice cream here is big, literally. It must be a stabilizer that allows soft serve to reach great heights. I did not have enough time to indulge in every Instagram-worth frozen treat. But you may want to seek out rose-shaped ice cream at Milky Bee in Myeongdong, popcorn ice cream, ice cream stuffed into waffles, fish waffle cone ice cream and so much more. This is a great list of places to eat ice cream in Seoul.
Seoul’s Poop Cafe
The fabulous Insadong neighborhood is also home to one of Seoul’s strangest cafes, the Poop Cafe. I read that it’s called Poooop to make it sound cuter but I can’t read Korean so am not completely sure. I ordered one of the famous poop breads (which is actually just filled with red beans sort of like the bungeopangs mentioned above) for a photo because I knew my daughter and her friends would go crazy for it.
I took a bite. It’s actually pretty tasty. The interior of the restaurant is full of poop decor, but I read that the coffee drinks are also very good.
This is a shot of the street food and retail vendors lining the main street of Insadong. I can’t tell you how awesome this neighborhood is for eating and shopping.
I’m convinced that it’s one of the best things to do in Seoul.