Korean food is pretty amazing—and yes, as a Korean-American I’m happily biased. People often ask me some form of this question: “I’m new to Korean food. What should I order?” Exploring cuisines that are new to you can be daunting, and getting a little intel ahead of time instead of pointing at a random item on the menu makes things a little easier.
Thankfully, there are plenty of universally beloved Korean staples, and any of the dishes in this list make for a great introduction to Korean food. They’re also comfort food for a lot of us, so not only will you get to try something cool and new to you, you’ll also be able to try some of the most nourishing and cherished dishes that Korean cooking has to offer. (Oh, and if you need some coaching on all the basics, like etiquette, banchan, and more, we have you covered.)
If you’ve never had any form of Korean fried chicken before, just stop what you’re doing and go find some, because dakgangjeong is a beautiful way to eat poultry. Not only is it coated in a sweet and sticky sauce, it’s one of the very few types of fried chicken that will stay crisp for hours on end, even while cold. If you want to know more about dakgangjeong, we’ve got an intro for you here.
Kimbap (sometimes spelled “gimbap”) is a stuffed rice roll filled with a combination of meats, egg, and pickled or fresh vegetables, then wrapped up in sheets of seaweed, known as gim. Don’t confuse this for sushi; though it may come in a similar shape to maki rolls, the soul of this dish is completely different. You can usually pick up premade versions of kimbap at a Korean grocery store (if it has an in-house kitchen), or sometimes order it at a restaurant.
There’s no dipping sauce—you eat it as-is. Kimbap makes for a terrific portable meal if you want to sit outside and have a miniature Korean picnic.
Soups and stews are mainstays of Korean cuisine. One standard dish is kimchi-jjigae, literally “kimchi stew.” Its base is stewed kimchi with supplementary ingredients like tofu, bits of meat, seafood, onions, and green onions. It is by default a somewhat spicy dish (just a fair warning before diving in). This is a hearty and warming meal that pairs perfectly with a bowl of white sticky rice.
Soondubu-jjigae is a spicy stew whose main attraction is silky, custardy tofu. It features a fiery red pepper broth and usually comes with seafood, pork or beef, and a raw egg that you stir into the broth yourself (the egg will subsequently cook in the hot liquid). An order of soondubu-jjigae comes served in an earthenware pot, boiling almost violently, so be careful to not burn your mouth. This is one of my comfort food favorites.
My favorite summer dish is mul-naengmyeon, a cold bowl of buckwheat noodles in a tart, slightly sweet beef broth. The noodles are springy and chewy, the garnishes are minimal, and it’s all about appreciating flavorful simplicity. I could go on for hours about it, but you can read more about mul-naengmyeon and its varieties here.
Jjajangmyeon is part of a trio of Chinese-Korean dishes that are considered some of the most comforting of them all. (The others? A flamin’ hot seafood stew called jjampong and a sweet-and-sour pork dish called tangsuyuk.) It consists of wheat noodles that are absolutely doused in a fermented black bean sauce and usually mixed with a combination of onions, carrots, potatoes, pork, and more. These noodles aren’t spicy whatsoever (as in, no red pepper), but rather rich, savory, and irresistible. While you should definitely seek out the genuine article at restaurants, you can also find a roughly equivalent instant ramen product, Chapagetti, at most Asian grocery stores.
Meat dishes are an intro to Korean food for many people, and for good reason: They are, hands down, some of the most delicious on Earth. For beginners, I highly suggest bulgogi, thinly shaved ribeye in a sweet soy marinade. It’s one of the most popular Korean dishes globally, and you can’t go wrong with a pile of delicious meat. Plus, if you’re feeling cheeky, you can make tacos with it.
Let’s shift gears to something sweet, shall we? Bingsu is a shaved ice dessert that can be topped with fruit, ice cream, condensed milk, rice cakes, red beans, and more (or less, depending on your preference). It’s a great summertime treat, and certainly a crowdpleaser. It’s also common for people to share a bowl of it to just chat and hang out. Doesn’t that sound nice? Read more about bingsu here.