Common snacks found on the streets and in convenience stores include shrimp-flavored chips, pea-flavored puffs, shredded dried squid, squid-flavored potato chips, fried kelp sprinkled with sugar, acorn jelly, rice wrapped in seaweed, and pea-flavored corn chips. You can buy gum that tastes like coffee and promises wake you up. Outdoor stalls serve sweet bean cakes, Korean ravioli, cinnamon pancakes, skewered barbecued chicken, deep fried squash, tteokbokki, fish-shaped cakes, hot cakes with red bean paste inside and dried squid.

Most towns and cities have supermarkets, convenience stores and Mom-and-Pop corner stores where you can buy soft drinks, beer, chocolate, ramyon (noodles) and snacks such as squid crackers and bean paste cakes. Korea also has good bakeries, chicken restaurants and outdoor markets. There are many supermarkets and corner stores. Large supermarkets with a good selection of Western food can sometimes be found in the basement level of major department stores.

According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”:“For snacks at home, Korean students like to eat fruit, either fresh or dried, and sometimes little cakes made from sugar, honey, dried fruit, and rice flour. They are much less sweet tasting than the cookies and cakes made in the United States. The popular kimchi is always in the kitchen and easy to eat as a snack. [Source: “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]

The world largest consumers of ice cream (pints per capita in 1997) are: 1) the United States (42.9); 2) Australia (39); 3) Sweden (33.3); 4) Canada (19.3); 5) Italy (19.1); 6) Netherlands (18.6); 7) Israel (17.9); 8) Britain (17.2); 9) France (14.5); 10) Germany (12.4); 11) Japan (10.5); 12) South Korea (9.6); 13) Taiwan (7,7); 14) Argentina (7.6); 15) Poland (4.7); 16) South Africa (4.6); 17) Russia (4.5); 18) Mexico (2.9); 19) Brazil (2.4). [Source: Euromonitor]

The hammered cake—which can be further divided into cakes made of sticky rice, little glutinous millet and big glutinous millet—is the most famous among more than fifty kinds of cakes of Koreans in China. To make hammered cakes: 1) steam sticky rice. 2) Then pound with a mallet repeatedly until the rice comes a sticky dough. 3) Shape the dough into balls and dip them into cake powder (usually made from soya beans, mung bean, sesame or perilla seeds) or white sugar or honey. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

Favorite Snacks in Korea

Bunsik, literally meaning "food made from flour," is a term used to refer to reasonably priced Korean dishes. The most adored bunsik includes Gimbap, Tteok-bokki and Eomuk Many street vendors can be found near Sinchon, Edae, Hongdae, and near many other university areas, as well as in the popular shopping districts of Myeong-dong and Gangnam.

Buchimgae and Jeon refer to many pancake-like dishes in Korean cuisine. Meats, seafoods, vegetables and eggs are mixed with flour batter and then pan-fried with oil. Depending on the ingredients of choice, the pancakes are called differently. Examples include Pa-jeon made of spring onion, Kimchi-jeon made of kimchi and Bindae-tteok made of ground beans. All go well with makgeolli (Korean rice wine).

Sundae is a traditional sausage made of the lining of pig intestines stuffed with a mixture of bean curd, vegetables and potato noodles. It is usually dipped in seasoned salts and in some regions, it is served with ssamjang, a mixed paste of gochu-jang and dwen-jang (fermented soybean paste). Sundae can be also made with squid or mixed with glutinous rice.

Eomuk is usually referred to as odaeng. Odaeng is a kind of fish cake, made of ground fish. This fish cake is skewered and boiled in water along with radish and green onions. This popular dish is especially loved during the cold winter months. Some variants also contain sausage, cheese or rice cakes.

Twigim is the general term for deep fried food covered with a flour batter. Squid, dumplings, potatoes, shrimp and assorted vegetables are the usually main ingredients. They taste even better dipped in soy sauce or Tteok-bokki sauce.

Hotteok are chewy pancakes, usually stuffed with various combinations of sugar and walnuts or pine nuts. The recipe can be made adventurous by adding vegetables or cheese to the batter. The dough can come in a unique green color by adding green tea powder.

Kkochi refers to cooking skewers of meat. The most common kkochi is Dak-kkochi, meaning chicken skewers. Small pieces of chicken and vegetables are skewered, coated in sauce, and then grilled. Sausages, fish cakes and tteok-galbi (grilled short rib patties) are also often skewered, adding fun to choosing your own favorite kkochi.

Jwipo is a type of dried fish dipped in a sauce. At street carts, jwipo and dried squid are usually roasted over a bed of pebbles. When grilled, jwipo’s sweetand savory tastes become even more flavorful.

Bungeo-ppang gets its name from its fish-like shape, which is especially popular in winter. This sweet snack is molded in the shape of a carp, which is called bungeo in Korean. The pancake batter-like shell is filled with red-bean paste, cream, cheese or sweetened beans and then baked. Gukhwa-ppang is shaped like a flower and is slightly smaller than that of the similar tasting bungeo-ppang. Gyeran-ppang is also made of a pancake batter-like shell, but is filled with an egg during the cooking process instead of a red bean filling.

Hoppang is one of the most popular warm snacks in winter. It is a pre-cooked ball of rice flour with various fillings, such as red bean paste, vegetables or pizza ingredients. Hoppang is usually steamed to keep it warm and is sold on the streets and at convenient stores.

Tteok-bokki and Gimbap

Tteok-bokki, along with gimbap and odaeng(skewered fish cake), is one of the most common foods sold by street vendors.Rice powder is steamed and made into a long cylinder-shaped rice cake called garae-tteok. This rice cake is cut into finger size pieces and cooked in a spicy yet sweet red pepper sauce called gochu-jang. Fish cakes and vegetables can be added depending on personal tastes. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Originally, tteok-bokki was not a spicy dish. In the royal courts of Joseon, it was prepared by simmering beef, carrots, onions, pyogo (shitake mushroom), and other ingredients together with rice cakes in soy sauce. The colorful ingredients were made it visually appealing as well as nutritional. It is believed that tteok-bokki seasoned with spicy gochu-jang paste first appeared in the 1950s and became widely popular later during the 1970s.

Gimbap (Kimbap) is made by spreading white rice on a sheet of gim (dried laver), layering it with spinach, pickled radish, carrots, egg, and beef, and then rolling it up like sushi. It was in the 1960s and 70s that the gimbap we know today - rolled up into a cylindrical form - became popular. This rice-roll was the default picnic lunch for annual spring and autumn school outings. Many Koreans fondly remember eating the end pieces of the rolls while their mothers prepared gimbap on the morning of school field trips.

Gimbap: Steamed rice is either simply seasoned with salt or with baehapcho, a mixed seasoning of vinegar, sugar and salt. The rice is then placed on a sheet of dried laver. Strips of eggs, eomuk (fish cake), carrot, seasoned spinach and pickled radish are then placed in the middle to be rolled together into a cylinder shape. The roll is then cut into bite-sized pieces. The taste can be quite versatile, depending on the ingredients. Gimbap is a perfect meal option for when you’re on the go!

Tofu, Mandu (Dumplings) and Panjeon (Korean Pancakes)

Sundubu-jjigae is a style of tofu popular in Korea. Sundubu starts out being made in the same manner as ordinary tofu, first boiling soymilk then coagulating it by adding brine. But it leaves out the later steps of draining and pressing the lumpy bean curds, giving it an easy-to-digest silky, light texture. In Chodang Maeul, a village famous for its sundubu, clean water from the East Sea is used as brine for thickening. It started when Chodang Heoyeop, a magistrate of Gangneung region during the mid-sixteenth century of Joseon Dynasty, discovered that the water from a spring in the front yard of his office tasted so fresh that he made tofu from the spring water and used sea water instead of brine. The name Chodang was then adopted from Heoyeop’s pen name. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Mandu are dumplings made with thin wheat flour wrappers stuffed with fillings then steamed, or boiled in jangguk (soy sauce soup). It is a specialty of the northern area of Korea. Mandu is made by placing a filling of ground meat and vegetables onto a round, thinly rolled wrapper and sealing the edges. They were initially prepared for ancestral rites or banquets and enjoyed as a special dish for cold winter days. When discussing the origin of Korean dumplings, a famous folk song called “Ssanghwajeom” (dumpling shop) from the Goryeo Dynasty is frequently mentioned. The song describes how a group of Uighurs arrived and opened up dumpling shops, and also how the people of the day greatly enjoyed the dish. Some people refer to the song and joke that a Mongol who opened a dumpling shop in 1279 may have been the first foreign investor to live in Korea.

Pajeon (green onion pancake) is a mixture of wheat flour batter and scallions shallow-fried on a griddle. It goes wonderfully well with chilled dongdongju (floating rice wine). Recently, restaurants specializing in pajeon have proliferated with the revived popularity of makgeolli (Korean rice wine). For some reason, people associate rain with pajeon. Some say it’s because the sound of raindrops hitting the ground or a window sill reminds people of the sizzle of spattering oil as the pajeon is fried. And, this theory may not be as far-fetched as you might think. According to an experiment conducted by a sound engineering lab, the two sounds have almost identical vibrations and frequencies.

Sweet Potato Vendors Do Good Business in the Winter

Min Seong-jae wrote in JoongAng Daily: “Park Seol-bin, 26, a street vendor who bakes and sells sweet potatoes on a street in Susaek, western Seoul, says the colder the weather is, the more baked sweet potatoes he sells.... Lovers of the treat say that baked sweet spuds right from the oven are hot enough to relieve the winter cold. [Source: Min Seong-jae, JoongAng Daily, January 15, 2003]

“The sweet potatoes are baked in a unique way. You may have wondered about those dark metal drums on bicycle-drawn carts on some Korean streets. They are sweet potato ovens. Yummy sweet potatoes are baked over firewood inside the drum. "It takes about five minutes to bake one sweet potato," Mr. Park says. "It should be spotted dark yellow." He sticks a toothpick into one of the sweet potatoes to check it for doneness. Sweet potato bakers use the drums because they are cheap, convenient to use and do the job well.

“Mr. Park said his business cost him just 250,000 won (US$210) to set up. He now sells about 120,000 won worth of baked sweet potatoes daily and nets about 50,000 won. It's a lucrative business even though he has to stand up through the cold nights, Mr. Park's friend opines. However lucrative the business, and however delicious the baked sweet potatoes, there are fewer and fewer of those old metal drums on the streets of Seoul. They are said to have been used since the Korean War. "When I was young, there were thousands of those metal drums on the streets," says a woman in her 50s. "But I think there are many fewer now, because people seem to prefer to eat more instant and packaged foods." Still, baked sweet potatoes continue to be a favorite winter-time snack, especially for young boys and girls. "My children like this," says a father stopping by on his way home. "This is for my children who wait for me."

Luxury-Hygienic Street Food in South Korea

Lee Joo-hee wrote in the Korea Herald: The more luxurious version of Korea's street food is School Food, Blooming Roll. School Food, named with the inspiration to bring back the taste of street food enjoyed around local school zones, first opened as a delivery shop in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, in 2002. The store was an immediate hit as the neighborhood was filled with those living alone as well as among employees at beauty shops and other entertainment services. [Source: Lee Joo-hee, Korea Herald, March 30, 2010]

“By taking a trendy turn of the humble menus such as bite-sized rolls, ddeokbokgi, gimbab, jjolmyeon (noodles in spicy and sour sauce) and others, the store fast spread into other parts of Seoul and even opened sit-in restaurants in such areas as Cheongdam-dong. Interiors are also hip with wooden floors and raw cement walls with neon signs. It is also planning businesses in Japan and the United States.

“What School Food concentrates most on is the quality and sanitary of the food, according to Lee Jung-eun, general manager of School Food’s administration team. "We really put a lot of focus on sanitation as it is becoming more problematic for mushrooming food delivery businesses as people cannot see the cooking process," Lee said.

“School Food operates from a semi-open kitchen and begins cooking only when the order is registered, despite the longer period it takes for the food to reach the customers’ home. School Food continues to offer a 24-hour delivery service, depending on the region. In order to systemize the control of sanitation in delivery stores, each district is also preparing various measures now.

“In March this year, Korea Food and Drug Administration found 1,002 businesses of the nationwide food delivery stores to be unhygienic such as by failing to sterilize tableware. Seoul has begun from this year urging all restaurants to specify the place of origin of ingredients. Calls are now rising that it should also apply to food being delivered to customers’ houses. "Unless we actually go to the restaurant to check the origin of the ingredients, there is no way for us to figure out where the food we are eating came from if we deliver. The system should be extended to delivery food as well to allow customers a rightful choice of what to eat," professor Choi Seong-wook of Nonghyup Gurye Education Center said in a recent column to a newspaper.

"Garbage" Dumpling Scandal Raises Food Safety Concerns

In 2004, AFP reported: “The South Korean government announced a food safety crackdown after a watchdog agency found food processing firms had used rotten ingredients in a popular dish. The move came after the Korea Food and Drug Administration (KFDA) said at least 19 firms had produced what newspapers called "garbage" dumplings by using imported radish from China that was unfit for human consumption. [Source: AFP, June 10 2004]

Dumplings, prepared by stuffing seasoned minced meat and vegetables inside a flour-based "skin," are popular in South Korea, China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia. "The companies were found to have used harmful radish for their dumpling products," said KFDA chief Shim Chang-Koo. "Tigher regulations are needed to punish food-related crimes," he added.

“The dumpling scandal triggered a public outcry. Civic groups have demanded tighter food quality control and harsh punishment for violators. The government and the ruling Uri Party agreed to push for a revision of South Korea's food hygiene law to strengthen the punishment of manufacturers of unsafe foods.

“Japan's health ministry stopped processing dumpling imports from South Korea, effectively banning their entry into Japan. Japan imported 864 tons of frozen dumplings from South Korea last year. This year so far, Japan has imported 437 tons of frozen South Korean dumplings, according to the ministry. "We are waiting for South Korea to officially tell us about the situation and which companies are involved in the scandal," said an official with the health ministry. "Once we know which firms are involved, we can take the next step" of banning dumpling from certain firms and of recalling the ones that already were shipped to stores.

Food Company Head Commits Suicide over "Garbage" Dumplings

A few days after the “Garbage Dumplings” scandal broke head of a food company, accused of selling dumplings made with rotten ingredients, jumped to his death. Associated Press reported: “Police have yet to find the body of the man — identified in media reports only by his family name, Shin — the head of Vision Food, a dumpling company based in South Jeolla Province. But officers found his identification card and a recently written will, and a witness saw a man matching his description jumping from a bridge in Seoul's Han River on Sunday, a police official said on customary condition of anonymity. [Source: AP, June 15, 2004]

“South Korea's Food and Drug Administration announced that at least 12 companies had been using rotten radishes in their frozen dumplings from 2003 until February 2004 and ordered the dumplings pulled off the shelves. The government has so far confiscated 20 tonnes of what the local press dubbed "garbage dumplings'' while food makers retrieved and destroyed at least 50 tonnes.

“In his will, Shin said that he faced economic difficulties with creditors following the dumpling scandal. He wrote that his company's dumplings were harmless. So far, there have been no reports of illness from the dumplings. Still, department stores have told local media that dumpling sales have dropped by up to 90 percent after the announcement.

“According to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy, South Korea exports US$5 million worth of dumplings annually. The U.S. imported US$2.6 million worth, followed by Japan with US$880,000, Australia with US$640,000, Hong Kong at US$370,000 and Germany with US$350,000. It was unclear how many "garbage dumplings'' have been distributed at home or abroad.”

Desserts and Sweets in Korea

Fruits such as melons, Asian-style pears, persimmons and apples are often eaten as dessert when they are in season. Korean generally peal the fruit no matter what it is and often eat it with little forks. During the summer Koreans enjoy shaved ice flavored with sweet syrups, condensed milk, green tea and topped with sweet azuki beans. A lot of desserts are made with sweet bean paste and jello-like jellies. Sweet bean paste is served as a toping on ice cream and foundin side a wide variety of sweet buns and popsicles. Kid are fond of eating frozen fruit jellies.

Korean-style restaurants generally don’t offer desserts, although Western-style restaurants do. Most Korean buy sweets and cakes at the plentiful bakeries, cake shops and sweet shops and take them home. The desserts sold at bakeries are good but sometimes expensive. Common desserts sold at bakeries include chocolate pastries, strawberry cakes. Korean sweet shops sell a variety of concoctions that Westerners are unfamiliar with. Desserts served at coffee shops include things like shaved ice with apricot sauce or shaved ice and sweet red been topping. These days Western-style cakes and sweets are more common.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Pastries and sweets are part of their diet but they tend to be consumed in bakeries and tearooms and not generally after ordinary meals. Instead, there is something that is intended to cleanse the palate at the end of the meal. One typical "after-meal" is sungyung, a broth made from water boiled in the bottom of the rice pot. Another is a selection of whatever fruit is in season, often together with tea. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Traditional hangwa (Korean cookies) come many varieties depending on the ingredients or recipes such as yumilgwa, gangjeong, sanja, dasik, jeonggwa, suksilgwa , gwapyeon, yeotgangjeong and yeot. Tteok (Rice cake) is a dish made by steaming, frying, or boiling rice powder or other grain powder after it has been sprinkled with water. It is served at ceremonies and holidays without fail. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Sales of Macadamia Nuts After of Korean Air Nut Rage

Devin DeCiantis and Ivan Lansberg wrote in The Atlantic: In December 2014, “in an episode since immortalized as “Nut Rage,” a Korean Air executive brutally berated an unsuspecting flight attendant for daring to serve macadamia nuts from the bag instead of a porcelain dish during pre-flight snack in the first-class cabin. According to witnesses, the executive “snarled like a ‘wild beast’” and struck him with a tablet computer before ordering the pilots to return to the gate at JFK Airport in New York so he could be forcibly deplaned. The fallout continued months later. Just this week, the flight attendant sued the company and the offending executive, Cho (“Heather”) Hyun-ah, who is already serving a yearlong prison term over the incident. [Source: Devin DeCiantis and Ivan Lansberg, The Atlantic, March 13, 2015]

Youkyung Lee of Associated Press wrote: “Nut rage imploded the career of a Korean Air Lines executive and embarrassed her family and country. Now South Korean retailers are experiencing the unexpected upside: a boom in sales of macadamias. The flavorful macadamia nut was unfamiliar to many South Koreans until Cho Hyun-ah was served them in a bag, instead of on a plate. She resigned from executive roles including head of cabin service last week amid a storm of criticism about the tantrum that forced the flight to return to the gate. But macadamias are now a household name in South Korea and with curiosity about their taste piqued, sales are booming. [Source: Youkyung Lee, Associated Press, December 16, 2014]

“Auction, a South Korean unit of eBay and South Korea’s second-largest e-commerce website, said that sales of macadamias surged nearly 12-fold during the previous five days without any promotions. It said macadamias previously made up 5 percent of its nut sales but were now accounting for almost half. South Korea’s largest online shopping retailer, Gmarket, also owned by eBay, said Macadamia nut sales jumped 20 times during the six days to Sunday compared with the previous week. The website of e-commerce firm Coupang showed Mauna Loa macadamia nuts had sold out, with about 100 users asking on the comments section for the product to be quickly restocked. One Coupang user asked if Mauna Loa macadamia nuts are the same brand that delayed the Korean Air flight. Another person who identified themselves as a seller replied that they probably are because orders have shot up. One user parodied Cho’s behavior on the plane, leaving a comment that asked the seller to ship the macadamia nuts on plate, or get out.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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