A hungry traveler’s guide to the best street food in South Korea


In South Korea, you are never far from delicious street food to satisfy your cravings. Skewers of tangy chargrilled chicken, seafood pancakes with kimchi pizzazz and golden fish-shaped waffles with a sweet surprise filling can make for a full meal.

Eat Korean style – not walking but rubbing shoulders with locals around stalls or under cozy pojangmacha tents with a cup of soju (a Korean spirit). It’s an easy way to see and taste-test some Korean flavors in bite size.

Here are some of the most popular to sink your teeth into on the streets of South Korea.

Tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes)

If you hate spice, look away now. Tteokbokki comes with a bright red or orange sauce called gochujang, made by fermenting soybeans and red chilis into a sauce that is used extensively in Korean dishes, most famously in bibimbap. Well into the night, you will find street stalls and pojangmacha stewing oblong pans of tteok (rice cakes that resemble overblown penne pasta) in the bubbling gochujang.

Tteokbokki used to be just for the royal court to eat, but now even partygoers stop on the street to fill up on it. The chewy rice cakes taste neutral and almost demand the spicy and sweet sauce. Dressed-up tteokbokki variations add slices of fish cakes, boiled eggs or ramyeon (ramen or wheat noodles).

For a quick and convenient version, try tteokkochi, where the rice cakes are threaded onto a skewer.

Two Asian women eating gimbap (Korean sushi) with plates of kimchi
Korea has its own version of sushi, called gimbap © Boontoom Sae-Kor / Shutterstock

Gimbap (Korean sushi)

It looks like sushi, but this is its Korean cousin, gimbap: dressier with a seaweed (gim) wrap and glazed in flavor you can almost see. The rice (bap) and seaweed are lightly infused with perilla oil, and the rolls are given a kick with a side of kimchi. Fillings are much like sushi with meat, spinach, surimi, tofu, pickled radish and egg roll, but they can include butter lettuce or herbaceous perilla (Korean shiso-like herb) rolled into the gimbap to lift the freshness.

Gimbap are at their most mouth-watering as petite rolls, but they can come in hefty, rice-filled slices, which make for speedy hunger busters. These rolls are ubiquitous at street stalls and markets, and fresh versions can even be found in convenience stores all over the country.

Korean fried chicken

Yes, Korean-style fried chicken (yangnyeom tongdak) is a fusion food, the origins of which go back to when American soldiers met Korean tastes during the Korean War. But what a fusion! Tender, smaller chicken pieces are drizzled with finger-licking spices or chicken in spicy honey sauces, sesame seeds, garlic, peanuts and chili flakes.

The spice-shy can try Korean fried chicken with a crunchy coating under a nest of grease-cutting spring onion threads. The combination of Korean chicken with beer (mekju) is so right, with the beer and a side of pickles cleaning the palate for more. It’s no wonder this combo, known as chimek (chicken plus mekju), is popular in bars and casual diners, but you’ll also find Korean fried chicken at street stalls. The small boneless bite-sized pieces are still double fried, giving them a distinctive crackle. A small box is a great way to satisfy a craving or try parmesan flavor for maximum fusion.

Twigim (Korean-style tempura)

Koreans don’t tiptoe around frying their street food. Twigim are various ingredients that taste great fried in a batter (think Japanese tempura but more substantial): succulent squid, a hash of vegetables, sweet potatoes and even boiled eggs. You will be hard pressed to find twigim outside of Korea, so fill up. Pick up the pieces you want with tongs and pay for all of them at the end.

Woman making mandu (dumplings) in Seoul, South Korea
Dig into mandu dumplings, filled with pork and kimchi © Anthony Plummer / Lonely Planet

Mandu (dumplings)

Korean dumplings (mandu) come deliciously fried or boiled in a noodle soup. As a street snack, the most likely choice is kimchi mandu, filled with sweet onion, ground pork and a lot of spicy kimchi that you can see shimmering orange through the soft skin. Kogi mandu are stuffed with gingery ground pork and green onions. These pockets of flavor are warm and delicious, but sometimes spicy enough to warrant a warning from the chef. Dumplings are served six or seven to a plate. Dip them in soy and vinegar sauce and chow down.

Also mandu in name but steamed instead, jjinppang mandu are soft fluffy buns with various fillings, usually coarse red bean paste, pork, or pork and kimchi.

Myeon (noodles)

Bowls of noodle (myeon) soup might not sound like street food, but in fast-moving Korea, everything is ready for a quick meal between meals. Cool down with naengmyeon (a North Korean dish of cold buckwheat or sweet potato noodles with cucumber, radish, beef and a boiled egg in an icy broth) or keep warm and satisfied with sujebi (hand-torn noodles in a clam and vegetable broth) and bites of raw green chili.

Circle of four friends holding a Korean fish-shaped pastry called bungeoppang
Bungeoppang are shaped like fish but filled with a sweet red bean paste © Nabbit / Shutterstock

Bungeoppang and gukhwa-ppang (red bean waffles)

In any town in Korea, you’ll find cute fish-shaped sweet cakes on the streets. These bungeoppang have a golden brown, waffle-like exterior that is both soft and crispy to bite into, giving way to hot sweet red bean paste. Bungeoppang don’t contain any actual fish, and you’ll find street vendors pouring a kettle of batter into molds of other shapes, too, such as chrysanthemum-flowers to make gukhwa-ppang.

Hotteok (Korean donuts)

Hotteok are sometimes called called Korean doughnuts, but they are more like spiced, filled plump pancakes. The theater of watching the balls of dough pressed and fried into disks until they are golden brown is half the pleasure. A winter crowd can form just to watch the hotteok, still shimmering with heat, being filled with a mixture of cinnamon, brown sugar and sometimes sunflower seeds, which instantly turns into a grainy caramel.

It’s hot stuff and one that burns when you inevitably can’t wait to bite into the hefty, fragrant pancake oozing with the delicious fillings, which can include black sesame seeds, peanuts, red beans and honey. It’s a sweet tooth’s dream.

Gyeranppang (egg muffins)

Literally “egg bread,” gyeranppang is an oblong golden muffin with a moist whole egg baked on top and a dusting of parsley. Dense and comforting, and both savory and sweet, it’s a road to addiction.

Person making Korean pancakes (pajeon) at a food stall in South Korea
Korean pancakes called pajeon can include fresh vegetables or seafood © markhanna / Getty Images

Pajeon (pancakes)

Savory pajeon pancakes are a full meal on the go. The plain version is stuffed with leeks and green onions, while haemul pajeon is filled with lots of squid and sometimes shrimp or mussels (depending on how fancy the stall is), and then fried in batter. Pass a slice of the cakey morsel through the soy dipping sauce while it’s still hot and fresh off the pan.

If you want something vegan and gluten free (without the dipping sauce), try nokdu bindaetteok, a traditional thick pancake made of a unique batter of mung beans. They are yellow, puffy and especially popular at Gwangjang Market in Seoul.

South Korean street food on a skewer

Korean street vendors know that putting anything on a skewer makes street food easier to handle with less waste. Skewered street food options can be as straightforward as juicy corn cobs grilled on hot coals, and even envelopes of wood-fired sweet potato or slices of sundae (blood sausage) can be eaten with toothpicks or chopsticks. Here are a few other treats you’re likely to see on the streets of South Korea.

Odeng (fishcake skewers)

Odeng are hot, easy-to-eat fishcakes on a skewer. If you are spice- or meat-shy, odeng is your street-eat savior. The main flavor is a soft and smooth fishcake. The fishcake is either elongated or flat and folded over, and the skewers jut out from steaming vats of broth. This hot soup is a gentle seafood and green onion-infused broth that Koreans say cures hangovers. It’s popular in winter and many Koreans drink the soup alongside soju to temper the alcohol’s fire.

Everything is self-serve. Just ladle the satisfying broth, help yourself to the skewers and the stall keeper will count up the sticks when you’re done. In larger places, you’ll find different colored skewers that correspond to different prices on the price board.

Eomukba

Eomukba is a skewer of fried fish cake with touches of carrot and perilla leaf wrapped around surimi. It’s a fast-food cross between the fried snacks of twigim and the fish cakes of eomuk.

Gamja dog

This is a corn dog (battered sausage) further fried in batter with a crust of French fries (yes, really). It’s the kind of fun food that reminds you of being at a fairground.

Dakkochi

Dakkochi are grilled chicken and green onion skewers that hum with a smoky charred flavor under a sticky tangy barbecue sauce.



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