Samgyetang (Chicken and Ginseng Soup)
A simple soup made by simmering a whole young chicken (most are under a pound—just enough for a single serving) stuffed with glutinous rice in a broth flavored with Korean ginseng, garlic, ginger, and plenty of scallions. An immensely popular dish, it's available at many restaurants, some of which serve nothing but variations on the theme. Thought to ward off sickness, the dish is most popular in the height of summer. Having just eaten it in the dead of winter, I can tell you that its warming aroma and rich flavor are a welcome respite from the cold Seoul December. Popular variations include those made wolfberries, jujubes, angelica, chestnuts, or with black-fleshed silkie chickens for an extra dose of get-well-soon.
Fresh Fish at Noryangjin Fish Market
A massive wholesale fish market, Noryangjin is the fish hub of Seoul. Pretty much any fish you eat in the city or surrounding areas will have passed through this market. Unlike the similar Tsukiji market in Tokyo, there's still a very lively retail scene here after the wholesale auctions end at around 6 a.m. Get here early in the morning before the crowds, walk down the aisles, pick out a fish that looks especially appetizing to you, then talk to one of the restaurant waiters walking up and down the market. They'll take you to a seat in the back, pick up the fish, kill it, and serve it straight up sashimi-style. For a few extra won, they'll simmer the bones in a hot and garlicky broth. There's no better way to start a day, unless you add in a bottle of soju to the mix.
My favorite form of bibimbap, the Korean dish of mixed vegetables and meats on top of rice, is cooked in a hot stone dolsot, so that the rice gets a nice, brown, crunchy crust underneath. Regardless of how it's cooked, all bibimbaps share a few characteristics: rice topped with marinated vegetables, and a good dollop of gochujang (Korean sweet chili paste). Meat or fish can be added, as can an egg. Everything gets stirred together into one big happy family before consuming. One big, happy, delicious family...
Perhaps the Korean dish we're most familiar with in the U.S., kalbi (or galbi) is made by marinating thinly sliced short ribs in a sweet soy-based sauce then grilling it over hot coals. It comes served with ssamjang (a fermented bean and pepper paste similar to a spicy miso) and perilla (shiso) or lettuce leaves for wrapping. At high end restaurants, you can expect the meat to come carefully butterflied but still attached to the bone, while more haphazard slices are the norm at the typical kalbi-house—raucous restaurants in which groups of diners drink plenty of soju amidst waiters scurrying back and forth with buckets of red hot coals.
A hearty spicy stew made with plenty of Korean chili and soft tofu, soondubu jjigae makes my short list of best foods on the planet. It's relatively simple to make at home (stay tuned for a recipe later this week), and immensely satisfying. Rich and flavorful with Korean chili paste, soy sauce, and a broth made from sea kelp and anchovies (don't worry, it doesn't taste fishy), the simmered tofu takes on a tender, custard-like consistency that is best eaten with a stuffy nose and a cold to get rid of.
This is one that you don't exactly have to seek out because no matter where you dine, you are bound to be served a spread of pickles, salads, and other small plates that are meant to be consumed alongside the main meal. Common banchan include kimchi (fermented vegetables, most frequently spicy cabbage), namul (marinated vegetables), Jeon (thin pancakes and patties), and Bokkeum (stir fried vegetables). Most meals will offer at least three types of banchan, though for fancier meals, you may see as many as a dozen or more.
Ok, so it's not food, but it's absolutely essential to Korean dining culture. Cold soju—a distilled vodka-like spirit made from potatoes, rice, or other grains—is available at any restaurant and is usually cheaper than any soft drink on the menu. Consumed chilled and neat from small glasses, it goes down easy (it's only 20% alcohol by volume), but sneaks up on you quick.
Korea may have the best fried chicken I've had anywhere in the world. It starts with the excellent diminutive Korean chicken (small birds with tender flesh are essential to prevent the breasts from drying out during cooking) which get coated in a cornstarch-based slurry before being double-fried, french fry style. Extraordinarily crisp but light as a feather, the chicken is great on its own but is usually available with a variety of dipping sauces.