Travel

These Must-Eat Korean Street Foods are the Heart of Seoul

These unforgettable bites are a culinary tour of Korean history.

Seoul's Gwangjang Market is one of Korea's best places to experience street food. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist
Seoul's Gwangjang Market is one of Korea's best places to experience street food. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

One of my most vivid memories is of my mom at a street-food cart in Seoul. Visiting her native Korea for the first time in 40 years, her eyes welled with emotion after taking a sip of eomuk guk—fish-cake soup—on a chilly fall day. Her tears moved me viscerally, giving me a deeper perspective into just how much she had given up to provide me and my family a life in America. It’s an image forever imprinted in my mind. 

That’s the power of Korean street food. In a culture constantly shifting and adapting to trends, the foods served from carts and in stalls are cultural touchstone firmly ingrained in the country’s cultural history and national identity. Nostalgia and comfort are cooked into each and every bite.  

In Seoul, street food is a mainstay in subway stations and terminals, small markets and newsstands, though the most well-known place to taste food is Gwangjang Market, one of the largest and oldest traditional markets in Seoul. Established in 1905, it’s home to endless rows of food stalls helmed by ajummas and ajuhssis, the middle-aged men and women wearing bright red smocks overseeing steaming steel pots of popular street foods.

Street food is everywhere, tempting you with its distinctive aromas and explosive flavors. Choosing what to eat can be daunting. These are the must-eat foods you seek out as you make your way around Seoul: the must-have flavors that will surely become vivid, lifelong memories.

Tteokbokk being cooked at a Korean market. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

Tteokbokki 떡볶이: Spicy Rice Cakes

If you only know one Korean street food, it’s likely this mildly spicy, stir-fried rice cake, also called ddukbokki, ddeokbokki, or dukboki.

Along with long cylindrical rice cakes known as garae-tteok, other ingredients in this dish include everything from eggs to fish cakes in a sauce made from gochujang. While the saucy gungmul tteokbokki or soup-based spicy rice cakes is the most well-known, gireeum tteokbokki or oil tteokbokki is also popular. There are also variations of this dish that are strictly soy-sauce based called ganjang tteokbokki for those that don’t enjoy spicy foods.

In Korea, you can find tteokbokki at most Korean markets, subway stations, pochangmachas (streetside restaurants), and bunsik restaurants, which are affordable and casual eateries serving snack-like food. For gireeum tteokbokki, check out Tongin Market near Gyeongbokgung.

Dak-kkochi 닭꼬치: Skewered Chicken

This chicken-and-scallion skewer is the perfect introduction to the joys of Korean street food. The chicken is marinated in a mirin, ginger, and garlic, then brushed with a sweet, sometimes spicy soy sauce.

The skewers—often made of sausages, eomuk, and even tteok galbi short rib—are everywhere in street stalls around the Hongdae area, but you can find an exemplary take at Sunae Chicken Skewers, including the classic soy-glazed chicken and scallion version and even some skewered rice cakes wrapped in bacon.

Hotteok 호떡: Sweet Korean Pancake

Few things are as satisfying as sinking your teeth into a freshly fried hotteok filled with molten browned sugar and pieces of nutty goodness. While often translated as a pancake, this Korean street food—also called hodduk, hoddeok, hoetteok—has more in common with donuts thanks to its sweet filling. 

Recent innovations have seen hotteok made sweet tea dough or savory fillings like glass noodles, but the old-school versions are simple: a yeast dough is filled with cinnamon, sugar, and peanuts, then pressed flat and fried.

Walking around Seoul, it’s clear that the number of hotteok street stalls have significantly decreased within the past 10 years, but my personal favorite typically has a line down the block. Located in Insadong, it’s called Teolbonae Hotteok, which roughly translates to Furry Hotteok. The dough is made from corn and glutinous rice, giving it a wonderfully chewy texture, and it’s loaded with gooey brown honeyed sugar, pumpkin seeds, and black sesame seeds.

Bindaetteok pancakes have been a Korean staple for decades. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

Bindaetteok 빈대떡: Mung Bean Pancake

Bindae directly translates as “bedbugs,” but don’t worry: Despite the name (derived from a bedbug infestation in Jeondong centuries ago), this delicacy is made from mung beans, bean sprouts, garlic, and scallions. Originally called binjatteo—derived from the Chinese flat pancakes known as bǐng—bindaetteok was a source of nourishment for the poor, distributed by the wealthy for centuries. 

There is one must-visit bindaetteok location in Seoul, and it’s inside of Gwangjang Market. Called Soonhee’s Bindaetteok, it is owned and operated by the 73-year old Gwisoon Chu, who to this day makes all of the batter for the bindaetteoks sold at the restaurant. Because of the immense success of this restaurant in Gwangjang Market, several copy-cat vendors began opening their own bindaetteok locations just within the past five years, but accept no substitutes.

When trying their bindaetteok, I immediately noticed how mildly seasoned the batter was —a rarity in Korean street foods. The crispy exterior and soft mung bean center had me going in for one bite after another, weaving in bites of soy vinegared raw onion and kimchi in between. Besides the food, the warm and welcoming demeanor of the staff, despite the hustle and bustle of the market, made me excited to return and share this gem with my friends.

Twigim 튀김: Battered and Deep-fried Food

Comparable to Japanese tempura, twigim includes a wide variety of deep-fried delights, including vegetables, kimbap (Korean seaweed rice rolls), eggs, seafood, and more.

“Twigim is about highlighting the ingredient,” says chef Yong Shin of New York restaurant Insa, which offers an array of umami-rich fried mushrooms in the style. 

Across Korea, the batter is made with a mix of flour, cornstarch, and eggs, and is a touch different from the Japanese-style tempura batter in that it’s a tiny bit thicker and less crispy, making it ideal for more robust ingredients such as sweet potatoes.

Like most Korean street foods, you can find twigim served alongside tteokboki, as the gochujang sauce makes for an excellent dipping sauce. While most street vendors around Hongdae and Sinchon will have some sort of twigim, the most famous place to get it is Sinpo Market in Incheon.

Soondae is a Korean blood sausage that comes in many forms. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

Soondae 순대: Korean Blood Sausage

A Korean cousin to black pudding and blutwurst, soondae is a sausage typically made from steamed or boiled cow or pig small intestines stuffed with rice, dangmyeon (glass noodles made from potato starch), minced meat, alliums, vegetables, and blood. But there are many variations. 

In the Gangwon-do province, a variation called ojingeo soondae involves pork and other fillings being stuffed into the body of a squid in lieu of pork or beef intestines. In Hamgyeong-do, myeongtae soondae and dongtae soondae use a pollack’s body as the casing for fish sausage.

When you order from a traditional Korean street vendor, you will likely be served this dish with slices of liver (gan) and a pinch of salt mixed with gochugaru or red pepper flakes. With your soondae, you will likely be offered a complimentary cup of fish-cake soup and a side of kimchi.

Hodu Gwaja 호두과자: Walnut Cookies

These walnut-shaped baked goods are filled with sweet red beans and occasionally chopped walnuts. The dough is made with pulverized walnuts and wheat flour.

It became widely popular in the ‘70s, sold in rail stations and snack carts on the trains. Even today, you can find these small sweet bites in subway stations or the occasional street cart. The popularity of this little cookie has even gone international and is available in several urban cities in America.

Besides the omnipresent hodu gwaja chain Cocohodo, the place to try the best hodu gwaja is in the town of Cheonan, where Gwigeum Jo and Boksun Sim created it. If you have a chance to make it down there, check out Gwangdeok Mountain Walnut Confectionery Store for an option that’s not too sweet and has half a walnut in each cookie.

Eomuk guk is one of Korea's most comforting dishes. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

Eomuk guk 어묵국: Fish Cake Soup

If you find a tteokbokki stand, chances are they’ll also be serving eomuk guk. The fish-cake soup is actually an essential ingredient in tteokbokki: it’s added when the liquid reduces too much, which causes it to be thick and pasty. 

Also known as odeng guk, eomuk guk is typically made with dashima (dried kelp), radish, garlic, and scallions with a dash of soy sauce and a handful of fish cakes skewered on a stick. Perfect for a chilly or cold day, this broth will warm you right up on the streets of Korea.

Records of this dish being consumed date as far back as the 1600s. Today, like tteokbokki, you can find it at most markets, pojangmachas, and bunshik restaurants. For an elevated version, seek it out at Japanese-style izakayas such as Guun in Mangwon.

San-nakji 산낙지”: Live Octopus

San-nakji might be difficult to swallow. Literally. It’s chopped, live baby octopus, and the tentacles continue to squirm even after being plated, often sticking on your chopsticks or in your mouth.

Vendors like to present this dish with as many wiggling tentacles as possible to showcase the freshness of the nakji, which most fans delight in. Because of the shock-value, it’s become a popular dish for tourists, too. 

To give focus to freshness, the firm, chewy san-nakji is usually only seasoned with a splash of sesame oil and sprinkle of sesame seeds. If you need more seasoning, it can also be consumed with ssamjang or a soybean red pepper paste.

San-nakji is available at many markets alongside other popular street foods, but if you’re looking for a specialty nakji restaurant, check out Jongno-jin Octopus, which offers an array of live-octopus dishes.

Bungeo-ppang 붕어빵 / Eenguh-ppang 잉어빵: Fish-shaped Pastry

This popular street pastry is traditionally filled with sweet red bean and cooked on a fish-shaped cast iron mold. The best way to eat it, like most street food, is right off the iron so it’s piping hot and crispy.

There are two versions of this fish bread in Korea. Bungeo-ppang is thicker and flatter, which completely conceals the filling. Meanwhile, eenguh-ppang—”carp bread”—is greasier, with a plumper and translucent belly giving a preview of the sweetness inside. 

Like many Korean foods, new and trendy bungeo-ppang variations have begun popping up, including variations filled with purple sweet potato at Purple Sweet Potato Bungeo-ppang; miniature versions from Cotton Bung-ah; and even elevated ones made with puff pastries at The Bungeo-ppang From France.

Perpetually busy Gwangjang Market is a window into daily life in Seoul. | Photo by Diane Sooyeon Kang for Thrillist

Dalgona 달고나: Honeycomb Toffee

Also known as ppopgi or bbopgi, dalgona was first created after the Korean War as an alternative to the sweets US Army officials shared with children. Because they couldn’t afford to purchase such luxurious confections, Koreans figured out that by melting sugar with water and adding a pinch of baking soda, which causes the sugar to become airy and light while maintaining a crunchy texture. They would then add a stick and a shape, such as a heart or star, so children could eat it like a lollipop. 

While it’s difficult to come by a dalgona vendor today, it is widely consumed in beverage form. Dalgona coffee became a huge trending item after actor Jung Il-woo shared his discovery on a Korean television program. The sweet flavor followed by a bitter aftertaste makes it a perfect accompaniment to coffee and tea. Now, you can find dalgona everywhere from ice cream flavors to Peppero sticks.

Dalgona coffee pretty is pretty much anywhere, but if you want to enjoy it in a beautiful space and trendy neighborhood, check our Cafe Tea Konkuk University.

Beondegi 번데기: Steamed Silkworm Pupae

Certainly not for the faint of heart, beondegi is made by steaming or boiling silkworm pupae, and is served in a disposable paper cup with a toothpick. The shrimp-like, musty aroma is distinct and strong enough that you’ll smell it from down the block if you’re ever in the vicinity of steaming beondegi pans.

This high-protein worm became popular during the Korean War due to its nutritional content and availability. Oftentimes enjoyed with a bottle of soju, this is a popular street food, especially amongst older Koreans, and is even sold in cans at grocery stores. Biting into its softened exoskeleton, you will notice a small burst of liquid being released into your mouth.

There are a ton of vendors at Namdaemun Market that sells beondegi in bulk for you to cook at home, or eat on site.

Supported by Korea Tourism Organization

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Next Flight Out for more travel coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Diane Sooyeon Kang is a contributor for Thrillist. 
Our Newsletter
By Signing Up, I Agree to the Terms and Privacy Policy.