Korean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular outside of Korea, especially in other parts of East Asia and the U.S. It can be an acquired taste, with lots of spicy and fermented dishes, but it's addictive once you get used to it and Korean food is definitely in a class of its own, mixing spicy chillies and copious amounts of garlic with delicate ingredients like raw fish. Although Korean food is quite low in fat, a fact attested to by the observation that very few South Koreans are overweight, those with sodium-limited diets should beware, as Korean cuisine can be heavy in salt.
A Korean meal is centered around rice and soup and likely a fish or meat dish, invariably served with a vast assortment of side dishes known as banchan (반찬). The humblest meal comes with three types while a royal banquet may well feature twenty types of banchan. In addition to kimchi (see below), typical side dishes include bean sprouts (콩나물 kongnamul), spinach (시금치 shigeumchi), small dried fish, and much more.
The ubiquitous kimchi (김치 gimchi), made from fermented cabbage and chili, accompanies nearly every meal and ranges from mild to roaringly spicy. In addition to the common cabbage type, kimchi can also be made from white radish (깍두기 ggakdugi), cucumbers (오이 소박이 oi-sobagi), chives (부추 김치 buchu gimchi) or pretty much any vegetable that can be pickled. Many different dishes are made using kimchi for flavoring, and kimchi is served as a side dish as well. It is not uncommon to find Korean tourists carrying a stash of tightly packed kimchi when travelling abroad.
Two more condiments found in almost every dish are doenjang (된장), a fermented soybean paste akin to Japanese miso, and gochujang (고추장), a spicy chilli paste.
While many of these dishes can be found throughout Korea, every city also has its own regional specialities, such as dakgalbi (닭갈비) in the city of Chuncheon. See the various city articles for more details.
A common perception amongst Koreans is that foreigners simply don't like spicy food, so you might have to spend some time convincing people otherwise if you really want to eat something hot. Also, while Korean food undoubtedly has the neighboring bland-dieted Japanese and northern Chinese breathing fire, if you're accustomed to (say) Thai or Mexican food you may wonder what the fuss is about.
Foreign food restaurants are also popular, albeit usually with a Korean twist. Fried Chicken has been adopted and many believe it better than the American original. Pizzas are also ubiquitous although you may wonder quite where the inspirations behind the toppings came from. Vietnamese and Mexican food appeals to Koreans as well. Japanese style restaurants of all varieties are very common. Strangely enough Chinese food is somewhat hard to come by, and Koreans often think of Jajangmyeon (자장면 - noodles in thick soy based sauce and distant Chinese origins) with sweet and sour pork as Chinese dining.
Koreans use chopsticks with a twist: alone among the peoples of Asia, they prefer chopsticks of metal. Restaurants typically provide stainless steel chopsticks, which unfortunately for the chopstick learner, are very difficult to use! These thin and slippery sticks are not as easy as the wooden or plastic chopsticks but you'll still manage with some fumbling.
When eating as a group, communal dishes will be placed in the center and everybody can chopstick what they want, but you'll still get individual portions of rice and soup. Unless you are eating royal cuisine, most dishes are served family style.
In many traditional households, children were taught that it was impolite to speak during meals. Don't be surprised if there's complete silence while eating. People, particularly men, will use mealtimes to quickly eat up and move on to other things. This can be attributed to the short mealtimes during military service that most young Korean men must perform.
Some etiquette pointers:
- Do not leave chopsticks sticking upright in a dish, especially rice. This is only done when honoring the deceased. Similarly, a spoon sticking upright into a bowl of rice is also not a good sign.
- Do not start eating unless the eldest at the table has begun to eat.
- Do not lift any plates or bowls off the table while eating, as Koreans consider this to be rude.
- You can use your spoon to eat your rice and soup. Koreans will normally use a spoon to eat their rice and use chopsticks to eat the other dishes.
- Don't be self-conscious of whether you're doing something right or wrong. Just use your common sense of politeness and good manners, and everything will be fine.
Not all food requires chopsticks, with the common Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) restaurants providing knives and forks instead. Many Korean restaurants may also offer western cutlery to a westerner.
Going hungry in South Korea would be difficult. Everywhere you turn, there is always somewhere to eat. Korean restaurants can be divided into a few categories:
- Bunsik (분식) are snack eateries that have cheap, tasty food prepared quickly.
- Kogijip (고기집), literally meaning "meat house", are where you'll find grilled meat dishes and fixings.
- Hoejip (회집), "raw fish house", serve slices of fresh fish akin to Japanese sashimi, known as hwe in Korean, and complementary side dishes. You'll normally find these restaurants cluttering the shores of any waterway.
- Hansik (한식). The full course Korean meal, short for hanjeongsik (한정식), this Korean haute cuisine originated with banquets given at the royal palace. The course starts with a cold appetizer and porridge juk (죽). The main dish includes seasoned meat and vegetable dishes that can be either steamed, boiled, fried or grilled. After the meal, you are served traditional drinks such as sikhye or sujeonggwa.
- Department Stores have two types of food areas: a food hall in the basement and full service restaurants on the top levels. The food hall areas have take-away as well as eat-in areas. The full service restaurants are more expensive, but typically have the advantage of picture menus and good ambience.
Koreans love coffee and thus coffee shops can be seen virtually everywhere in the country (even in small countryside villages). There are a large number of Korean chain coffee shops as well as independent ones. Foreign owned coffee shops such as Starbucks tend to be much less common than their Korean counterparts. Aside from coffee, these cafes will usually sell food such as sandwiches, toasties, paninis and quesadillas as well as sweet options such as bingsu (Korean shaved ice), Korean style toast, pastries and a wide variety of cakes, some even vegan.
"Korean barbecue" is probably the most popular Korean dish for Westerners, split in Korea itself into bulgogi (불고기), which uses cuts of marinated meat, and galbi (갈비), which uses ribs, usually unmarinated. In both, a charcoal brazier is placed in the middle of the table and patrons cook their choice of meats, adding garlic to the brazier for spice. The cooked meat from both of these is placed on a lettuce or perilla leaf along with shredded green onion salad (파무침 pa-muchim), raw (or cooked) garlic, shredded pickled radish (무채 muchae) and some chili-soya paste (쌈장 ssamjang) and then devoured. All are optional, so be creative.
The cost of a barbecue meal depends largely on the meat chosen. In most Korean restaurants that serve meat, it is sold in units (usually 100 grams). Pork is by far the most common meat ordered. It's much cheaper than beef and according to diners tastier. You'll rarely see filet mignon; instead, common cuts of meat include ribs, unsalted pork bacon (삼겹살 samgyeopsal) and chicken stir-fried with veggies and spicy sauce (닭갈비 dakgalbi). Unmarinated meats tend to be higher quality, but in cheaper joints it's best to stick with the marinated stuff.
Bibimbap (비빔밥) literally means "mixed rice", which is a pretty good description. It consists of a bowl of rice with all sorts of condiments on top (vegetables, shreds of meat, and an egg), which you mash up with your spoon, stirring in your preferred quantity of gochujang (고추장 chili sauce), and then devour. Particularly tasty is dolsot bibimbap (돌솥비빔밥), served in a piping hot stone bowl (watch your fingers!) that cooks the rice to a crisp on the bottom and edges.
Another healthy and tasty option is gimbap (김밥), sometimes dubbed "Korean sushi". Gimbap contains rice, sesame seed, a Korean variety of spinach, pickled radish, and an optional meat, such as minced beef or tuna, all neatly wrapped in dried seaweed, topped with sesame oil and sliced. A single roll makes a good snack or meal depending on one's appetite, and they travel well. Basically what differentiates Korean gimbap and Japanese sushi is how they prepare rice: Korean style gimbap usually use salt and sesame oil to flavor the rice, while Japanese style uses sugar and vinegar.
More of a snack than a meal is tteokbokki (떡볶이), which resembles a pile of steaming intestines at first sight, but is actually rice cakes (tteok, 떡) in a sweet chili sauce that's much milder than it looks.
Soups and stews
Soups are known as guk (국) or tang (탕), while jjigae (찌개) covers a wide variety of stews. The line is fuzzy, and a few dishes can be referred to with both (e.g. the fish soup-stew dongtae jjigae/dongtaetang), but in general, jjigae are spicier while tang/guk are milder. Both are always eaten with plenty of white rice on the side.
Common versions of jjigae include doenjang jjigae (된장찌개), made with doenjang (Korean miso), vegetables and shellfish, and gimchi jjigae (김치찌개), made with — you guessed it — kimchi. Sundubu jjigae (순두부찌개) uses soft tofu as the main ingredient, usually with minced pork added, but there's also a seafood version called haemul sundubu jjigae(해물 순두부찌개) where the meat is replaced by shrimp, squid and the like.
Budae jjigae (부대찌개) is an interesting type of Korean fusion food from the city of Uijeongbu, where a US military base was located. Locals experimenting with American canned food like Spam, sausages, and pork and beans tried adding them into jjigae, and while recipes vary, most of them involve large quantities of fiery kimchi. Most places will bring you a big pan of stew and put it on a gas stove in the middle of the table. Many like to put ramyeon noodle (라면 사리) in the stew, which is optional.
Popular tang soups include seolleongtang (설렁탕), a milky white broth from ox bones and meat, gamjatang (감자탕), a stew of potatoes with pork spine and chillies and doganitang (도가니탕), made from cow knees. One soup worth a special mention is samgyetang (삼계탕, pron. saam-gae-taang), which is a whole spring chicken stuffed with ginseng and rice. Thanks to the ginseng, it's often a little expensive, but the taste is quite mild. It's commonly eaten right before the hottest part of summer in warm broth in a sort of "eat the heat to beat the heat" tradition.
Guk are mostly side dishes like the seaweed soup miyeokguk (미역국) and the dumpling soup manduguk (만두국), but a few like the scary-looking pork spine and ox blood soup haejangguk (해장국), a popular hangover remedy, are substantial enough to be a meal.
Koreans love noodles, and the terms kuksu (국수) and myeon (면) span a vast variety of types available. Often sold in fast-food noodle shops for as little as ₩3000. Wheat-based noodles are a staple of Korea.
Naengmyeon (냉면) are a Korean speciality, originally from the north, being thin, chewy buckwheat noodles served in ice cold beef broth, and hence a popular summer dish — although it's traditionally winter food! They're also a classic way to end a heavy, meaty barbeque meal. The key to the dish is the broth (육수 yuksu) and the recipes of well known restaurants are usually closely guarded secrets. Generally comes in two distinct styles; Pyongyang naengmyeon and Hamhung naengmyeon.
Japchae (잡채) is made from yam noodles, which are fried along with some vegetables (commonly cabbage, carrots, onions) and sometimes beef or odeng (fishcake). Mandu(만두) dumplings are also very popular and are served up in steamed or fried as an accompaniment to other foods, or boiled in soup to make a whole meal.
Ramyeon (라면) is Korea's variant of ramen, often served with kimchi (what else?). Korean ramyeon is well known for its overall spiciness, at least when compared to Japanese ones. Try shin ramyeon (신라면) for example.
Jajangmyeon (자장면) is considered to be Chinese food by Koreans, being somewhat related to northern Chinese zhajiangmian, a wheat noodle dish served with a black sauce that usually includes minced pork, onions, cucumber, and garlic, and typically served at (what are liberally described as) Chinese restaurants. Its sauce contains some caramel and therefore makes the overall dish sweet. A popular combination with 'Chinese' sweet and sour pork and chicken.
Finally, u-dong (우동) are thick wheat noodles which are effectively the same as Japanese udon.
Since Korea is a peninsula, you can find every type of seafood (해물 haemul), eaten both cooked and raw. Restaurants where you pick your own fish — or bring it from the fish market next door — are popular, but can be very expensive depending on what you order.
Hoe (회), pronounced roughly "hweh", is raw fish Korean-style (similar to sashimi), meaning it's served with spicy cho-gochujang (Korean hot pepper sauce with vinegar) sauce. Chobap(초밥) is raw fish with vinegared rice, similar to Japanese sushi. If ordering fish as hoe/chobap, the bony parts not served raw are often made into a tasty but spicy soup called meuntang (매운탕).
Another cooked specialty is haemultang (해물탕), a spicy red hotpot stew filled crab, shrimp, fish, squid, vegetables and noodles.
Whale meat is available in a few restaurants in the cities and at festivals in smaller coastal towns, but is not easy to find and unlike Japan is not considered part of national culture. The city of Pohang has a long history of whaling, and its seafood market still openly offers whale. South Korea has outlawed whaling following the International Whaling Commission international moratorium in 1986, although makes an exception for whales caught by 'accident' during regular fishing. A recent scandal has been the selling of whale meat sourced from Japan in some restaurants which is technically illegal (although usually ignored). Whale restaurants are easy to identify, with pictures of whales on the outside leaving you in no doubt. If you choose to eat whale then you should understand that the species in question could be endangered and therefore a decision left to your own moral compass.
Jeon (전), jijimi (지짐이), jijim (지짐), bindaetteok (빈대떡) and buchimgae (부침개) are all general terms for Korean-style pan-fried pancakes, which can be made of virtually anything. Pajeon (파전) is a Korean-style pan-fried pancake laden with spring onions (파 pa). Haemul pajeon (해물파전), which has seafood added, is particularly popular. Saengseonjeon (생선전) is made of small fillets of fish covered with egg and flour and then pan fried, and nokdu bindaetteok (녹두빈대떡) is made from ground mung bean and various vegetables and meat combined.
If barbequed meat is not to your taste, then try Korean-style beef tartar, known as yukhoe (육회). Raw beef is finely shredded and then some sesame oil, sesame, pine nuts and egg yolk are added, plus soy and sometimes gochujang to taste. It's also occasionally prepared with raw tuna or even chicken instead.
Sundae (순대, pron. "soon-deh") are Korean sausages made from a wide variety of ingredients, often including barley, potato noodles and pig blood. A (very) distant cousin of Black Pudding, sundae is very tasty in spicy sauce or soup.
A squirmy delicacy is raw octopus (산낙지 sannakji) — it's sliced to order, but keeps wiggling for another half hour as you try to remove its suction cups from your plate with your chopsticks. Sea squirts (meongge) are at least usually killed before eating, but you might be hard-pressed to tell the difference as the taste been memorably described as "rubber dipped in ammonia".
|Hound by the pound|
Yes, it's true — Koreans eat dog. Although it is technically illegal in South Korea to sell dog meat for human consumption, in practice the ban is rarely enforced, and dog meat soup (보신탕 bosintang or 영양탕 yeongyangtang) is often eaten for invigoration during the hottest days of summer. It is not regularly consumed as a common food item and is generally only sold in specialty dog restaurants. It is most commonly consumed as a spicy soup or stew or as suyuk (수육), which is just meat boiled with spices to eliminate smell and make the meat tender.
Due to the lack of legal recognition, the industry is completely unregulated, resulting in many issues around how the dogs are raised, butchered, and processed. Although dogs are generally no longer beaten to death to improve the taste, the conditions in which dogs are raised and butchered are often still inhumane. This is one intrinsic aspect of South Korean culture that South Koreans generally believe foreigners cannot hope to understand, and will rarely want to discuss with you.
You're unlikely to end up chewing on Snoopy by accident, as dog is only served by specialty restaurants. South Koreans are aware of western attitudes towards dogs and will not try to make you eat this, although you'd probably gain a lot of respect from your Korean friends if you give it a try. If you are interested, it is best to ask your Korean friends to take you to such a restaurant since they rarely advertise. If you do make the effort, a bowl can go for under ₩10,000 and you'll find that dog tastes broadly like beef or veal, if perhaps a tad gamier.
Most South Koreans do not eat dog meat regularly and these days more of them are considering dogs to be pets rather than food, with a growing number supportive of enforcing the ban on dog meat more strongly.
Vegetarians will have a hard time in Korea. As in most of East Asia, meat is understood to be the flesh of land animals, so seafood is not considered meat. Spam can also be confused as not being meat, so be specific in explaining what you do not eat. If you ask for "no gogi" (고기) they will probably just cook as usual and pick out the big chunks of meat. One good phrase is to say you are chaesikjuwija (채식주의자), a person who only eats vegetables. This may prompt questions from the server, so be prepared! It is probably best to have a very explicit list of foods you do and do not eat in Korean on a card or piece of paper to show restaurant servers and cooks; take a look at the Korean phrasebook section on eating: Korean phrases for eating.
Most stews will not use beef stock, but fish stock, especially myeol-chi (멸치, anchovy). This will be your bane, and outside of reputable vegetarian restaurants, you should ask if you are ordering any stews/hotpots or casseroles.
Spicy (red) kimchi will almost certainly have seafood, such as salted tiny shrimp, as an ingredient. Since it disappears into the brine, you will not be able to visually identify it. Another type of kimchi, called mulgimchi (물김치, "water kimchi") is vegan, as it is simply salted in a clear, white broth with many different vegetables. If you are willing to eat something flavored with brine shrimp then Kimchi will certainly take you a long way in Korea.
As per Korea's Buddhist tradition, vegans and vegetarians are perfectly safe at Korean monastery cuisine restaurants, which uses no dairy, egg, or animal products, except perhaps honey. There has been a recent vogue for this type of cuisine, but it can be rather expensive.
There is an increasing number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea - most are in the larger or medium-sized places. Some of these are run by Seventh-Day Adventists or Hindus.
When out and about, the following vegetarian and vegan food is relativity easy to find and safe to order:
- Sidedishes - available in most Korean style restaurants, these are many dishes often served with vegetables as an accompaniment to the main meal. Please note Kimchi usually doesn't qualify as vegetarian
- Bibimbap (비빔밥) is a great vegan option of mixed rice and vegetables and found pretty much everywhere! Still be careful because it is occasionally it is offered with ground beef, and often with a fried egg
- Somandu (소만두) are Korean dumplings with vegetable and glass noodle filling (stay clear of almost any other kind of dumpling)
- Japchae (잡채) are cold noodles in a vegetable broth, often with ice. Delicious in summer
- Gimbap (김밥) are Korean sushi rolls with rice and pickled vegetables, and can be found everywhere. There are many varieties, but you should look for the ones without spam or fishcake in the middle
Drinkers rejoice — booze is cheap and Koreans are among the heaviest drinkers in the world. Due to the strict social norms in effect at the workplace, the drinking hall tends to be the only place where inhibitions can be released and personal relationships expressed. Significant business deals are closed not in the boardroom, but in the bar. Promotions, grants, and other business advancements are secured over drinks at singing rooms, late night raw fish restaurants, and restaurant-bars. Many Korean men are what would be considered heavy drinkers in the west, and as alcoholism is being recognized as an ailment, public moves have begun to attempt to curb alcohol intake. Don't be surprised to see businessmen in suits lying around sleeping it off, and be careful not to step in the puddles of vomit common on the sidewalks in the mornings. The drinking age in South Korea is 19.
Compared to Western drinking habits, Koreans have adopted slightly different ways to enjoy their night out. Sure, you can find Western style bars easily, but going to a Korean style bar can be an interesting experience. Hofs (originally German, but 호프 hopeu in Korean) are just normal beer places, which serve beer and side dishes. Customers are supposed to order some side dish to go along their drinks at most drinking establishments in Korea. Recently, due to growing competition, many hofs have started to install various gadgets for entertainment.
Booking clubs are the Korean version of night clubs. What makes them interesting is the "booking" part of the name. It's basically a way to meet new people of the opposite sex by introduction of the waiters (who usually bring women to visit tables of men, but increasingly vice-versa). Booking clubs are slightly more expensive than normal bars and hofs, but can be extremely fun. These can be different from American-style clubs, in that in addition to a cover charge, you are pretty much expected to order booze and side dishes (which can be quite pricey in ₩200,000-₩500,000 range and up). But other than that, the dancing and atmosphere is about the same.
One of the customary things to do at a booking club is to "dress-up" your table or booth by purchasing expensive liquors and fruit plates, which signals your 'status' to the other patrons of the club (especially your gender of interest). Scotch whisky is especially marked up a great deal in Korea, so don't be surprised to pay very high prices for that innocuous bottle of Johnnie Walker. On the other hand, it is a better value overall to buy a bottle of liquor or a "liquor set" than to purchase drinks individually.
On the other end of the spectrum, many locals go out to drink and eat with their friends at the many Korean grillhouses found throughout the city. It is not uncommon for people to consume several bottles of soju (see below) each, and mixing beer and hard liquor is encouraged. Group bonding over liquor and food is a cultural feature across South Korea.
For those who love singing as well as drinking, karaoke is popular and therefore widely available in South Korea, where it's called noraebang (노래방). In addition to Korean songs, larger establishments may include some Chinese, Japanese and English songs.
There are a few etiquette rules to observe when drinking with Koreans. You're not supposed to fill your own glass; instead, keep an eye on others' glasses, fill them up when they become empty (but not before), and they'll return the favor. It's considered polite to use both hands when pouring for somebody and when receiving a drink, and to turn your head away from seniors when drinking.
Younger people often have a difficult time refusing a drink from an older person, so be aware when asking someone younger than you if they want to drink more as they will often feel unable to say no to you. Of course, this works both ways. Oftentimes, if an older person feels you are not keeping up with the party, he may offer you his glass, which he will then fill and expect you to drink. It is considered polite to promptly return the empty glass and refill it.
The national drink of South Korea is soju (소주), a vodka-like alcoholic beverage (usually around 20% alcohol by volume). It's cheaper than any other drink — a 350ml bottle can cost slightly over ₩3,000 at bars (as little as ₩1,100 at convenience stores!) — and also strong. Usually this is made by fermenting starch from rice, barley, corn, potato, sweet potato, etc., to produce pure alcohol which is then diluted with water and other flavors. The manufacturing process leaves in a lot of extraneous chemicals, so be prepared for a four-alarm hangover in the morning, even after drinking a comparatively small amount.
Traditionally, soju was made by distilling rice wine and aging it, which created a smooth spirit of about 40%. This type of traditional soju can still be found, for example Andong Soju (안동 소주) — named after the town of Andong — and munbaeju (문배주). These can be expensive, but prices (and quality) vary considerably.
History tells that there were numerous brewers throughout the country in the past until late Chosun dynasty and before Japanese colonization. However, by the Japanese colonization and the oppressive and economy-obsessed government in the 60-70s, using rice for making wine or spirits was strictly prohibited. This eliminated most of the traditional brewers in the country and Korea was left with a few large distilleries (Jinro 진로, Gyeongwol 경월, Bohae 보해, Bobae 보배, Sunyang 선양, etc.), that basically made 'chemical soju'. Brewery distribution and markets were regionalized, and until the 1990s it was difficult to find a Jinro soju anywhere else than Seoul (you would have to pay premium even if you found one), Gyeongwol soju outside Gangwon, or Sunyang outside Chungcheong.
Also, there are soju cocktails such as "socol" (soju + coke), ppyong-gari (soju + pocari sweat - ion drink), 'so-maek (soju + beer) and such, all aimed at getting you drunk quicker and cheaper.
|Cheongju vs. sake|
There are two major differences between Korean rice wine and Japanese rice wine. The first is that Korean wine uses nuruk, while Japanese wine uses koji. While both can be considered yeasts, nuruk contains various kinds of fungi and other microorganisms, while in koji a more selected breed of fungi does its job. The treatment of rice is also different: traditionally rice for making cheongju is washed "a hundred times" (paekse 백세), but for sake, the rice is polished until the grain size is as little as 50% of its original size. Therefore, some people comment that in general cheongju tastes more complicated and earthy, while sake tastes "cleaner" and "sweeter".
Traditional unfiltered rice wines in Korea are known as takju (탁주), literally "cloudy alcoholic beverage". In the most basic and traditional form, these are made by fermenting rice with nuruk (누룩), a mix of fungi and yeast that breaks down starch in rice into sugar, for a short while (3-5 days usually). Then this is strained, usually diluted to 4-6% and imbibed. However, as with the case of traditional soju, unless explicitly stated on the bottle most takju are made from wheat flour and other cheaper grains. Makgeolli (막걸리) is the simplest takju, fermented once and then strained, while in dongdongju (동동주) more rice is added once or more during the fermentation to boost the alcohol content and the flavor. Typically you can find a couple of rice grains floating in dongdongjuas a result.
Yakju (약주) or cheongju (청주) is filtered rice wine, similar to the Japanese rice wine sake. The fermentation of rice is sustained for about 2 weeks or longer, strained, and then is kept still to have the suspended particles precipitate. The end result is the clear wine on top, with about 12-15% alcohol. Various recipes exist, which involves a variety of ingredients and when and how to add them accordingly. Popular brands include Baekseju (백세주) and 'Dugyeonju (두견주).
Those with an interest in the wine production process and its history will want to visit the Traditional Korean Wine Museum in Jeonju.
One expensive but tasty type of alcohol you can find in Korea is Korean ginseng wine (인삼주 insamju), which is believed to have medicinal properties and is particularly popular among the elderly. It is made by fermenting Korean ginseng, just as the name implies.
Western-style lagers are also quite popular in Korea, with the three big brands being Cass, Hite and OB, all of which are rather light and watery and cost around ₩1,500 per bottle at a supermarket. Korea's version of the beer pub is the hof (호프 hopeu), which serve pints of beer in the ₩2,000-5,000 range, although imported beers can be much more expensive. Note that you are expected to order food as well, and may even get served grilled squid or similar Korean pub grub without ordering, for a charge of ₩10,000 or so.
Tea and coffee
Like their neighbors, Koreans drink a lot of tea (차 cha), most of it green (녹차 nokcha). However, the label cha is applied to a number of other tealike drinks as well:
- boricha (보리차), roasted barley tea, often served cold in summer, water substitute for many household
- insamcha (인삼차), ginseng tea
- oksusucha (옥수수차), roasted corn tea
- yulmucha (율무차), a thick white drink made from a barley-like plant called Job's tears
Like Chinese and Japanese teas, Korean teas are always drunk neat, without the addition of milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea is available at Western restaurants and the usual American fast-food chains.
Coffee (커피 keopi) has in recent times become widely available, especially from streetside vending machines that will pour you a cupful for as little as ₩300, usually sweet and milky, but there is often a plain option.
Latte snobs will also be glad to know that quality western coffee shops are available in all cities costing around ₩4,000 from a good chain or independent coffee shop. Local chains such as 'Cafe Bene' and 'Angel in Us' serve good coffee, and there are plenty of Starbucks shops selling coffee just like in the rest of the world.
It is worth to hunt out independent coffee shops that take great pride in their coffee. Many Koreans dream of having their own coffee shop, some of them actually do.
If you find yourself in a smaller town then the ubiquitous bread shop 'Paris Baguette' will give you a decent latte for around ₩2,000.
Some other traditional drinks worth keeping an eye out for:
- sikhye (식혜), a very sweet, grainy rice drink served cold
- sujeonggwa (수정과), a sweet, cinnamon-y drink made from persimmons served cold
Whilst smoking in Korea is not quite as popular as in Japan or China, many Korean men and an increasing number of Korean women smoke, and it's fairly cheap compared to much of Europe and America. A pack of twenty costs around ₩5,000 and cigarettes can be bought from all convenience stores. Koreans favor mild cigarettes (around 6mg tar) so Korean-made cigarettes may taste bland and flavorless compared to those from America or Europe, and even the Korean-produced Western cigarettes are much lighter than the originals (e.g. Full-strength Marlboro Reds in Korea have only 8mg tar, the same as Marlboro Lights in the US). If you prefer stronger cigarettes it's wise to bring some duty-free cigarettes with you.
Smoking is forbidden in public buildings, public transport and restaurants. Various establishments will tacitly allow smoking despite the ban, although they will never explicitly tell you that you can smoke, for fear of legal repercussions. Smoking in public is also banned, but this is largely unenforced and designated smoking areas are sparse.
Note that in Korean culture, smoking is not regarded as a feminine activity and that women who do may give a negative impression to some people. This is obviously sexist, but it is an aspect of Korean society to be aware of if you are a female smoker.