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Are you curious about Korean food in South Korea? Nick Kembel ate his way through Busan and shares his Busan food favorites.
If anyone ever tries to tell you that Korean food is nothing but kimchi, please reply that he or she is wrong.
Take Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, for example. The city is a veritable food paradise.
15 Busan Food Favorites You Cannot Miss
For those who are wondering what to eat in Busan, I’ve compiled below 15 must-eat dishes and must-have food experiences, based on multiple trips I’ve made to the city in the last decade. Items #1-6 below are specific to Busan, while #7-15 are common throughout South Korea.
As the country’s largest port, Busan food is unsurprisingly seafood heavy. Busan street food is also the stuff of legends and features prominently on this list.
1. Seafood at Jagalchi Fish Market
If there is one food that defines the Busan way of life, it’s seafood. Sea creatures (including sea plants) dominate menus across the port city. Seafood is often served raw – sometimes so raw it’s still moving!
Be prepared to spot sea creatures you didn’t even know existed. The market sells a cornucopia of sea creatures including crab, octopus, abalone, multiple kinds of fish, multiple kinds of shellfish and clams, oysters, shrimp, sea urchin, sea cucumber, skate (a type of ray), rockfish, and even blowfish.
The epicenter of seafood in Busan is Jagalchi fish market, the largest seafood market in South Korea. If you’ve just arrived and don’t know where to eat in Busan, start here. This enormous, seven story complex, as well as the surrounding neighborhood, is devoted entirely to seafood.
To dine at Jagalchi fish market, make your selection on the first floor and then choose a restaurant on the second floor to prepare it for you. You can also just go directly to a restaurant and let them choose for you.
Keep in mind that one dish can go a long way in Korea, as Busan restaurants typically supplement it with numerous banchan (see #10 below). My Busan dish also came with haemul jeongol (spicy seafood hot pot). I only ordered one thing from the menu (sashimi), but the end result was an epic feast (see photo above).
Many people consider Milmyeon to be a representative dish of Busan. This dish consists of flour noodles in a flavorful meat-based broth, topped with cucumbers, egg, meat, and gochujang (Korea’s signature chili paste which is put on everything) for spicy food lovers.
Like naengmyeon, a similar but buckwheat noodle-based dish common elsewhere in Korea, milmyeon is usually served chilled (usually with icy chunks in the broth), making it particularly refreshing in the summer. It often comes with vinegar and hot mustard on the side, and you may receive a pair of scissors to cut up the long, chewy noodles.
3. Street Noodles on Gukje Market Food Street
A quintessential food experience in Busan is sitting on a tiny plastic stool on the street and digging into cheap, delicious milmyeon (see #2) or bibimdangmyeon (glass noodles), both of which are usually vegetarian, on this famous food street.
Korean ahjummas (elderly women) prepare and serve these noodles. Their stalls occupying the narrow lane are an iconic Busan sight and one of the most popular places to eat in Busan.
Plop down in a seat, point at what you want, and dig in. I recommend going for breakfast before the street gets too busy, but they’re there all morning and afternoon.
4. Ssiat Hotteok
Another defining Busan treat is ssiat hotteok, a Busan variety of hotteok, or sweet, round Korean pancakes, that are popular treats all over the country.
What sets ssiat hotteok apart is that they are stuffed with a mixture of seeds, nuts, brown sugar syrup, and cinnamon before (or sometimes after) being deep fried to perfection. The result is droolworthy – if you only try one sweet treat in Busan, make it this one.
While eomuk (fish cakes) are widely consumed across Korea, Busan is especially well known for them. Don’t let the term “fish cake” turn you off. These “cakes,” which come in various shapes, forms, and flavors, are addictive with just a tolerable hint of fishy flavor.
Like Japanese oden, sticks of eomuk are usually stewed in a salty broth (eomuk-guk). If you see a bunch of sticks protruding out of a vat of steaming liquid on the street (or in many metro stations) simply help yourself and grab one. The vendor will usually provide you with a cup of soup to wash it down as you stand there. Eomuk are a cheap and tasty snack on the go.
Visiting Busan’s most famous eomuk chain store, Samjin Eomuk, is a must. The store, founded in 1953, is Busan’s oldest fish cake producer.
You can also visit the Samjin Eomuk Main Store on Yeongdo Island (a 20-minute walk from Jagalchi Fish Market) to see people making eomuk through the store windows. When I visited, my favorites were paprika, chili, and cheese stuffed eomuk.
6. Dwaeji Gukbap
Yet another Busan specialty is dwaeji gukbap, a meaty, body-warming, miso-based soup. The dish is time consuming to prepare; it’s made by boiling pork bones for hours, then enhanced with miso and sesame oil. Restaurants specializing in the soup are located throughout the city.
7. Kimbap (Gimbap)
No trip to Korea would be complete without trying Kimbap, the country’s version of sushi rolls or maki. These seaweed wrapped rice rolls can be stuffed with anything from ham and cheese to vegetables and tofu.
Kimbap is the ultimate (and filling) convenience food; you can often buy a whole roll wrapped in foil or plastic to take away. It may be served warm, for breakfast, at picnics, as a side dish, and the list goes on.
Unlike Japanese sushi, Kimbap doesn’t usually come with soy sauce or wasabi, though it may be served with kimchi (what dish isn’t in Korea?) and/or bright yellow danmuji (pickled radish).
More of an eating experience than a single dish, a pojangmacha is a street food vendor who operates inside a tent. The word literally means “covered wagon.”
The purpose of a pojangmacha is to offer a bit of privacy while eating and drinking, as well as protection from elements such as rain or cold winter weather.
A pojangmacha can serve just about anything from dakkochi (chicken skewers) and dumplings to other Korean favorites. Customers may take items away or sit on benches while they feast on copious amounts of soju (see #14).
In Busan, the best place to find pojangmacha is beside the Lotte Department Store Main Store in Seomyeon, the city’s main bar and night clubbing district. Pojangmacha are immensely popular spots for a post-drinking snack.
Jokbal, or pig’s knuckle, is a beloved dish in Korea. The meat is usually braised in soy sauce, spices, garlic, ginger, and rice wine, before being deboned and served in slices.
In Busan, there is an entire street devoted to the savory protein, called Jokbal Golmuk in Bupyeongdong neighborhood, also a short walk from BIFF Square. There you can find some 20 shops specializing in it.
These shops add their own Busan touch to the dish as well, often serving it chilled with jellyfish and crabmeat, and garnished with vegetables and spicy mustard sauce.
Buchimgae refers to all Korean pancakes, of which ssiat hotteok (#3 above) is just one of many.
Besides sweet pancakes like hotteok, savory varieties of buchimgae include pajeon (fried scallion pancakes), kimchi-flavored pancakes, and bindae-tteok (mung bean pancakes), just to name a few.
11. Kimchi and other Banchan
If you go to Korea and don’t try kimchi, then you haven’t been to Korea. Kimchi is South Korea’s national dish, and it’s served as a side with just about every meal (including breakfast as I learned when teaching an English camp many years ago in South Korea).
While kimchi is the most well-known Korean food internationally, most meals in Korea are actually served with several banchan, or side dishes, and they are usually refillable. These include a huge variety of different types of fermented vegetables, as well as veggies, meat, tofu, or eggs that have been steamed, fried, marinated, and so on.
My personal favorite street food in South Korea, especially in winter, is tteokbokki. This dish consists of rice cakes (or, as I personally feel is more accurate, “short and fat rice noodles”) in a gochujang-heavy sauce.
The combination of sweet, salty, and spicy is the quintessential taste of Korea since most of the country’s instant noodles and potato chips have the same flavor.
Tteokbokki often comes with hard boiled egg or eomuk (see #4). A note to vegetarians: the dish may look meatless, but the sauce in tteokbokki usually contains fish.
13. Korean BBQ
Korean barbecue is another staple Korean food experience and is best enjoyed with a group of friends.
Korean BBQ, or East Asian BBQ in general, is a far different from the version cooked and served in Western nations. Diners typically sit at a grilled topped table in a restaurant, either on a patio or indoors, with huge vents to suck up the smoke, cooking all manner of meats, veggies, seafood, tofu, and more. All cooking is DIY.
What differentiates Korean BBQ from most Asian varieties is that diners often wrap the meats in lettuce, perhaps adding spicy sauce or kimchi, after cooking. The meal is served with the usual banchan.
14. Unique Drinks in Busan
While exploring Busan, you may notice that diners everywhere, at all times of day and night, usually have one (or many) small bottles of soju (shochu) on their tables. The spirit, usually made from distilled rice, wheat, barley or other starches like tapioca or sweet potatoes, contains an ABV around 25% and can come in a variety of fruit flavors.
For a totally different boozy drink, try makgeolli, a milky, sweet, sparkling rice wine. It may come bottled or served in a bowl at restaurants. Look for makgeolli in restaurant fridges in plastic soda-like bottles.
For non-alcoholic drinks, sikhye is a sweet rice beverage, often served as a dessert, and may contain rice, pine nuts, or other ingredients.
Of course, like many Asian countries, South Korea produces teas, especially green and yellow varieties. Traditional Korean teas are often infused with herbs, grains, flowers, fruits, and more.
15. Bingsu (Shaved Ice)
To conclude your eating experiences, don’t miss a heaping bowl of Korean bingsu, a shaved ice dessert.
Traditional varieties come topped with red beans, rice cakes, and nut shavings, while modern ones can include everything from chocolate and sweetened condensed milk to matcha and chocolate. Currently, fruit varieties are especially popular.
Hungry for more in South Korea? Check out an insider’s tips for the best places to eat in Seoul.
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About the Author
Nick Kembel is a published author and creator of the site Spiritual Travels which focuses on travel in East Asia and traveling with kids. He has been living in Taiwan since 2008. He has contributed to CNN, National Geographic Traveller Food, and numerous other publications.
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