Street food is an indelible part of Korean culture, with records of street food vendors dating back as far as the 14th century. The conditions in 1950s post-war South Korea gave further rise to a genre of cuisine which provided affordable sustenance to low-income parts of the population, with these street-side meals continually evolving and taking on regional differences. A trip to any Korean market will reveal a smorgasbord of these moreish snacks made to satiate ravenous travelers and locals alike. Keep reading to find out which street foods you should try when in South Korea.
The Korean Street Food Staple: Gimbap
Although most Westerners would suggest that these resemble California rolls, you best steer clear of using that moniker when you step foot in South Korea. Gimbap – quite literally translated to seaweed rice – is usually filled with crunchy veggies and occasionally meatier fillings like luncheon meat. Gimbap is one of South Korea’s most ubiquitous street foods for good reason: they’re accessible, budget-friendly, and filling, with the distinctive aroma of sesame oil and crunchy topping of sesame seeds providing a satisfying on-the-go eating experience. If you manage to visit Seoul’s Gwangjang Market, I would strongly suggest you search out ‘Mayak Gimbap’ – with ‘mayak’ meaning narcotic, or addictive. The secret to this gimbap’s addictive taste lies in its discerning choice of fillings (usually only radish and cucumber or carrot), and a dipping sauce known as ‘gyeoja’. This dipping sauce is made from vinegar, soy sauce, salt, sugar and mustard. As far as Korean street food goes, gimbap is the perfect on-the-go snack.
When Street Food Meets Comfort Food: Tteokbokki
It might not be immediately apparent, but these small, chewy snacks are actually made from rice. Not made directly from rice grains, but instead rice flour, which is then fashioned into bite-sized cylinders. When heated up, they take on a softer, pliable texture and are usually mixed in with a spicy gochujang (pepper) sauce, sometimes scalding hot – especially good for chilly winters. Common twists on this street food staple include cheese and viennas, often mixed together with fish cakes and boiled eggs. Tteokbokki is as versatile as it is delicious, with contemporary additions like ramen giving rise to dishes like ‘rabokki’, popular with students looking for a quick but filling food fix.
A Street Snack with a Sweet Twist: Hotteok
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, then hotteok is the Korean street food you have to try. These treats start out resembling a small ball of dough, are then pressed into circular discs on a buttered pan, and end up as miniature pancakes. Bite into the slightly crispy outer layer, and you’re met with a decadent filling of syrup and, depending on where you are, a smattering of nuts which give it a satisfying crunch. There are few things better than enjoying some late-night hotteok after a boozy dinner, and this indulgence is sure to delight even the toughest street food critic.
Something To Fill You Up While Traveling: Sotteok-sotteok
If tteok is rice cake, then you can perhaps infer that sotteok-sotteok is a portmanteau of sausage (pronounced so-si-ji in Konglish) and tteok, with the double-barrel a nod to the way in which the tteok and sausage alternates on the skewer. You will often find this snack not just at food markets but at highway rest stops too, where weary and famished travelers will stop to devour one of these before heading on to their destination. The tteok on this, however, is a little different from the aforementioned tteokbokki in that it is crispier on the outside, but just as chewy when you bite into it. Slather one of these in tomato sauce and mustard for the full street food experience.
The Perfect Winter Street Food: Odeng
While some Westerners might look disapprovingly on fish cakes, odeng occupies a special place on this list of must-try Korean street foods. Usually sat in piping hot broth, these fish cakes are made from ground fish with a thickening agent such as potato starch. This, too, makes a great winter snack with the hot broth warming your insides. You might also find that odeng goes by eomuk, as odeng is said to be an adaptation from the Japanese oden. Odeng has many variations depending on where you find yourself. Some markets in Busan are especially well-known for selling a wide variety of odeng, some of which include cheese, meat and vegetable fillings.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these five Korean street foods are not to be missed if you plan on exploring South Korea. Between roaming the streets of Seoul or ambling along the beaches of Busan, these snacks will keep you well-fed while you immerse yourself in all that South Korea has to offer.