It’s no secret that I think Korea is a playground for those of us who treat eating like an extreme sport–for those of us who agree with Tony Bourdain that our bodies are not temples, they’re amusement parks.
A lot of these foods spawn from necessity, belief in medicinal properties, or, in my opinion, complete shots in the dark.
So here are the top fifteen strange foods that have made Korea so interesting to me.
Don’t go to Lotteria for the regular hamburgers and such. You’ll be disappointed, even though the cheeseburgers do come with both sliced cheese and cheese sauce. Lotteria’s specialties are its Korea-centered menu items and “what were they thinking” specials.
The best out of the bunch are the Shrimp Burger and the Frico Burger. The Shrimp Burger is a fried patty that is so filled with shrimp it still has a firm shrimp texture. The sauce that accompanies the sandwich makes it taste strikingly similar to a New Orleans Po’ Boy.
The “Freaky” Frico advertises that it uses Dutch Maarsdam cheese, yet not just thrown on the burger. The cheese is sliced, breaded, and fried before being placed with a meat patty, lettuce, tomato, pickles, yellow bell peppers, and black olives. It’s a surprisingly good combination.
The Gochu Burger, loaded with fresh Korean peppers and a fried hashbrown–not too bad. The Squid Burger is ho-hum. The Kimchi Burger? Only Lotteria’s shameless nationalist appeals (우리 김치버거 –>”Our Kimchi Burger”) sell that nasty monstrosity.
Yet the Vegetable Rice Burgers win the prize for oddity. Did they even test market these things? Instantly these burgers were pushed into the public with prerequisite boy band holding them in their hands. I tell you, those burgers they’re holding in the ads had to be plastic props. I tried one of those things, and it was a disaster.
You see, the gimmick for these burgers is that instead of buns, they have rice and vegetables shaped in bun shapes. These do not hold the insides together and promptly fall apart into basically a burger bibimbap.
Nonetheless, whenever Lotteria has a new promotion, I look forward to trying it.
14. Budae Jjigae 부대 찌개
I love this stuff. Yet when I tell fellow Westerners what’s in it, they stay far away from it. They’d rather eat dog soup.
Serious. They would.
There are many legends to the origin of Budae Jjigae (“Army Base Stew”). Whether it was created by Korean cooks near the Army base in Seoul to accommodate soldiers on the town, created out of necessity from Army surplus by a starving populace, or created by an Army cook to give President Lyndon B. Johnson a taste of Korea using American ingredients (where it’s known as “Johnson Stew”), we know that Budae Jjigae definitely originated in Itaewon, the foreigner ghetto.
So what’s so scary about this stuff?
It’s hot dog and Spam™ soup. It’s done up in the traditional spicy Korean style, sometimes with some ramen noodles and processed cheese thrown in there. I personally like this stew, and I call it Fourth of July in a Pot.
13. Korean Sandwiches, Pizzas, and Western-style Bakeries
This is one of those areas where I don’t think some people are “getting it.” Many ex-pats and I have a constant frustration with pizzas, sandwiches, and the selections at Korean bakeries (the ones that try to make themselves look like Paris boulangerie).
My first and main criticism: why does everything have to be sweet?
Yes, that works fine on fruit pies and cinnamon buns. Yet strawberries in ham and cheese sandwiches? Sugar on a seafood tart? Kiwi sauce on a toasted bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich? Sweet potato puree in pizza? Sweet pickles with pizza, steak, and spaghetti?
Does every Western food have to be turned into candy for Korean public consumption?
Oh God, and then there was this cruel trick.
What looked like a normal fruit-filled pastry ended up being chewy rice cake with red bean paste surrounded by a clever pastry disguise. You know, if I wanted red bean-filled chewy rice cake, I woulda bought red bean-filled chewy rice cake. Is it so hard to get a simple apple pie?
12. Pressed Fish (Juipo 즤포)
I had no idea what these mysterious marbled disks were at first. They looked pretty. They looked like something you’d decorate a Venetian home with or dragon scales.
Yet they’re food.
Eun Jeong describes them as pressed fish. Juipo is kind of a fish jerky. Don’t be put off by that. It’s kinda tasty. And it doesn’t stink up your fingers like dried squid.
You can have it plain, grilled, or, my favorite, deep fried. If you have not tried this yet, order some fried Juipo (Juipo Twigim the next time you’re enjoying friends and drinks at a Korean establishment. I have helped create many addicts to this delicacy.
11. The Meat Buffet (Gogi Bupae 고기 부페)
If you’re in town for a short while and want to try as many different Korean foods as possible in one seating–and if you have a strong fortitude and no qualms with health ratings–try the Gogi Buffet.
This has a freezer full of as many kinds of protein as you can think of from a variety of animal species. Take what you want and grill it at your table.
Ooh, what is that? Duck or pork? Is that intestine? What’s that odd pointy shellfish?
Just grab it, grill it, and find out for yourself.
The Gogi Buffet also has a big supply of serve-yourself side dishes. And they encourage you eat those and not gorge fully on meat.
Be aware that even though this is an all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s also a take-all-you-want-but-eat-all-you-take buffet. You get charged extra for plates of uneaten food when you leave your table.
10. Sundae 순대
This is the great street food that challenges tourists out on the town. Sundae is basically a blood sausage with glass noodles thrown in, giving it a jelly-like texture. People from England, France, and Germany are pretty much used to blood sausages. Americans and Canadians–“Eww, blood?”
The thing is, many non-Koreans already become fans of Sundae before finding out what’s inside them. Yet really, if you can ingest a hot dog, you can ingest a blood sausage.
What takes Sundae over the top is the other bits and pieces that are chopped up and served with the salt and spicy dipping sauce: liver, heart, organs with big veins.
The ultimate Sundae dish is SundaeGuk 순대국, a manly stew of Sundae, intestines, liver, and other organs in a rich spicy broth that tastes like rendered bacon fat. Not for the faint of heart or anyone who cares about the condition of their heart.
9. Hangover Soup (HaeJangGuk 해장국)
After a night of drinking and munching on blood sausages, sit down at a restaurant with fellow liver abusers and enjoy a steaming bowl of HaeJangGuk. I call this Dinosaur Soup because of the Fred Flinstone sized meat bones in it. I still don’t know what’s in this stuff completely. It tastes similar to GamjaTang 감자탕 (literally “potato soup,” even though there’s more meat in it than potatotes).
This soup was created during the days of curfews in Seoul, where people would lock down the clubs. All the restaurants and businesses were closed. People out all night would hole up in whatever night club they were in until the curfew was lifted. When it was lifted, only a handful of restaurants were open. One of them was serving this dish, and it caught on as a hangover cure.
Oh yeah, there is coagulated beef blood in there too. I think the British call this blood pudding. Enjoy.
Okay, it’s not a food, but I couldn’t pass this up. Eun Jeong brought this home one day, and I got hooked on it. I personally am not a fan of minty toothpastes. I don’t get what is supposed to taste so good about them.
Yet I looked at the tube of this toothpaste and thought, “No, that’s just an image. It’s not what I think it is.”
I then brushed my teeth with it and was pleasantly surprised. It was like one of those Peppermint Patty™ commercials. Yet instead of being in some frosty ski resort, I was transported to the Pacific Northwest with pine trees, lakes, and dancing little people in red suits.
7. Acorn Jelly (DotoriMok 도토리묵)
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared M. Diamond talks a bit about why certain foods were domesticated and harvested. Zebras couldn’t be domesticated like horses, which was why there weren’t many African cavalries. Even though elephants could be caught in the wild and tamed, they were difficult to breed and domesticate in captivity. And even though acorns were nutritious food sources, the process to make them edible in great quantities was too laborious.
Yet we eat acorns in Korea in the form of Acorn Jelly. By itself it’s fairly bland, but you eat it for the texture and the nutrients. I’ve had it a few ways, but my favorite way is in a spicy garlicky salad, like the one Sue makes on her site My Korean Kitchen.
6. CheongGukJang 청국장
I love Doenjang Jjigae 됀장 찌개, the fermented soybean paste stew that is the riper (and I think, superior) cousin to Japanese miso. I swear by it.
For those of you who understand the pleasures of rot, decay, fermentation–stinky cheeses, good beer, great wine, artisan sourdough breads–you would not be disappointed with CheongGukJang.
This is the stinkiest of stinkiest soybean pastes. It is strong stuff. I’ve heard of people evacuating their apartment buildings in the U.S. when someone tried making this.
I’ve become a bit of a fan of this, as has Andrew Zimmern–referring to it as “dead body soup.”
5. Chicken Feet (Dalk Bal 닭발)
This is one of those Korean foods that some Koreans I know are themselves too scared to try (ahem, Eun Jeong).
Yet when I tried my first good plate of these much neglected chicken parts, I was hooked. Great chefs also are aware of this secret. They’re full of the stuff that makes chicken taste so good, particularly the crispy skin and soft cartilage. It’s no secret that chicken feet make the perfect low cost chicken stock. According to Bill Buford’s book Heat, where he tries to become a food professional, Mario Batali uses chicken feet in the stock for his upscale restaurants.
Many people in America have tried them in dim sum restaurants. And most of the people I’ve talked to have loved them.
In Korea, they’re sweeping the nation like the Buffalo wing swept America. The best places serve them charcoal grilled dripping in a sweet garlicky sauce so hot, they supply you with plastic gloves to eat them. These inflict unforgivable pain. The sauce is made from Korean peppers. Unlike habaneros and Thai chillis, which hit you immediately with their heat, Korean chillis are sneaky.
They lie in waiting.
You’ll eat a few chicken feet, Bul Dalk 불닭 “fire chicken”), or Sh-wing “Krazy Korean” wings, thinking, “Oh, these aren’t so bad.”
Then, all of a sudden, it hits.
Your mouth starts salivating beyond control. Your nose starts running. Your hearing become muted. Your eyes go blurry. The heat from ten pieces of chicken hits you all at once. There is nothing to stop it.
LORD! MAKE IT STOP!!
Which brings me to my one criticism about Korean chicken feet and bul dalk–a constructive one, really. I wish something creamy like a ranch or blue cheese dressing could be served with these things to give us some relief from the heat. It’s all about balance.
Yet if I’ve learned anything from Korean food and culture, as eloquently stated in Lee Won-bok’s Korea Unmasked, it is full of extremes.
Here’s a video of us just eating “Krazy Korean” chicken wings at Sh-wing. Note poor Eun Jeong’s face when she eats her first one.
4. Grilled Intestines (Gobchang Gui 곱창 구이)
I’ve told the story many times before of Brant and myself enjoying a meal of Samgyeopsal outside and watching this cool flambe show at the restaurant next door. We sat down to try it, not knowing what it was we were ordering. The proprietor even asked us if we were sure.
What came out was a sizzling dish of potatoes, onions, livers, and what looked like macaroni.”Um, Brant, I think these are intestines.””Really? Try one. How does it taste?””Good. Pretty damn good.”
Thus started my love affair with Korean chitlins. I have since introduced other Western and Korean friends of mine to this delicacy. Yes, I knew Koreans who hadn’t tried this either. Everyone, even the pickiest of the bunch, at least liked the stuff. It’s grilled in a pan and flambeed with soju.
The big challenge was some of the side dishes served, including blanched tripe (like chewing on condoms) and raw cow’s liver (not too bad if dipped in sesame oil and salt).
There are many ways to enjoy these delicacies. Here’s a video of us enjoying them stir-fried in a very hot sauce.
3. Live Squid and Octopus (San Ojingeo 산 오징어, San Nakji 산 낙지)
This is the big “I dare ya” food.I have only had this in chopped up form. I have yet to eat one whole, but believe me, when I do, there will be a video camera there.I had this for the first time during my first month here at a Hui 회 (Korean sashimi) restaurant. One of the dishes moved when I touched it with my chopsticks. I realized what it was immediately. They’re difficult to pick up with chopsticks. Like plastic wrap, they cling to anything except to the object you want them to cling to.
By themselves, there’s not much flavor. It’s the thrill of eating something live and squirming. They feel cool. Yet at Hui restaurants, I’ve had them dressed up in sesame oil, vinegar, and cucumbers, where they taste sophisticated as well as creepy.
Here’s a video of some of us at a Hui restaurant. It was the first time two of our friends had ever had raw fish, much less live squid.
2. Dog Meat (Kaegogi 개고기)
The food that has caused poor Korea a lot of notoriety, even though it is by far not the only nation to eat dog. I’m not even going to touch the politics of eating dog right now. Believe me, I will in the future.If you have trouble with it, do what King Baeksu does and call it dork. We call cow meat beef and pig meat pork, we might as well call dog meat dork. Well, actually, if you want to go into etymology of those words, they come from French. The history of English is the absorption of words from other languages, especially if those languages’ home countries have a famous field of expertise. Many of our words for music and architecture come from Italian. The French infused our language with our words for food. Beef (boeuf), pork (porc), venison (venaison). So if we use this logic, let’s just call dog meat chien.
Anyway, I have had chien only once, and it was good. Pricey, but good. You have to go to a reputable restaurant–one that advertises that the dogs are not beaten nor abused.
The meat itself tastes like a gamey pork. Soft, tender, and a perfect amount of fat.
Oh, and I’ll let you in on a little practical joke. That navigation bar at the top of the web site. You know, the one with the tasty meat and soup that likely made you drool?
That’s dog meat.
If you want to have even more sadistic fun, you can do what my friend Christina has done and name your dog Kaegogi. If you’re not that cruel, you can at least buy one of the “Kaegogi” dog t-shirts from the ZenKimchi Fun Store.
Now, –oh– we’re at number one. Okay. The number one strangest food I’ve had in Korea (thus far) is…
I had never eaten a bug before I came to Korea, unless you count lobster, crawfish, and shrimp. People were daring me from the start to try Beondaeggi 번댁기, silkworm larva, which are a traditional snack.
According to Eun Jeong, it’s something little kids used to like. Yet I also see middle aged men sitting outside of convenience stores with a few bottles of soju, paper cups, and an open can of baby moths.
They are hard to try, though, because the smell would make your nose run to your butt for relief.
I have tried them once, and I would try them again, under the right inebriated circumstances. Brant says their texture is “mealy,” which is true. The flavor, to me, is salty. It’s sort of like overboiled shrimp.
I have also tried roasted cricket. Now these, my friends, you should try. They’re smoky, nutty, salty. They’re kinda like potato chips. They just need a dip.
I have a video of eating both on Seorak Mountain. The clip is at the end.
There are many more foods in Korea that will wake up your senses and challenge your world view of cuisine. I have noticed, like with all great delicacies, that I didn’t like some things at first just to become addicted to them later–kimchi, doenjang jjigae, bibimbap.Food is the only art to stimulate all five senses, not only the taste and smell, but the rich colors, the crunch, the texture. This is why food not only helps you understand cultures. It helps you understand yourself. What you eat is who you are.And I guess my friends and I are people who like to play with our food.