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What Should I Order in a Korean Restaurant?

Korean Restaurant Menu Items Explained

Are you in a Korean restaurant right now? Do you need help in deciding what to order? While reading the menu, especially if your group doesn’t include a Korean-speaking person, you might be wondering what all those dishes are. This page will explain some of the core menu items common to most Korean restaurants in the United States and possibly worldwide.

In some Korean restaurants, the restaurant staff seating your group may ask whether you will order grilled meat (Bulgogi, Galbi, etc.) or not. Asking such a question even before guests are seated may seem odd, but there is a reason. Most Korean restaurants have two types of tables — with or without grilling equipment. Guests who are going to order grilled meat need the equipment. Other guests may want to stay away from the smoke generated from the neighboring tables’ grilling activities.

The English spellings of Korean dish names may vary somewhat from restaurant to restaurant. For example, “Soondubu” may be spelled “Sundooboo”, etc.

The descriptions given here are only for the dishes that have the exact name, apart from spelling variations, as shown here (which are standard names); if there is another word preceding the name shown here, it could be a different dish, and the mild / hot characterization may change depending on the added ingredients.


Bulgogi

(불고기 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

Bulgogi, also known as "Korean barbecue", is grilled beef. It is perhaps the best known and most popular among Korean dishes. In most restaurants, grilling is done right at your table. When you order Bulgogi ("Korean BBQ"), the restaurant staff will bring out a large tray of paper-thin beef slices marinated in a soy sauce-based mix. They will start the fire and transfer an initial portion of the marinated meat over to the grilling pan and then leave. In most restaurants, guests are expected to flip the meat themselves and move the next portion of the beef from the tray to the grilling pan. The staff will occasionally come back to tend to the fire. You will also get a bowl of steamed rice and lots of side dishes, including several types of Namul and often a bowl of Jjigae (these terms are explained in our Korean Food Intro page). Among the large number of side dishes that come with this "Korean BBQ", you will notice a pile of “Sang-choo” (상추 speak ) lettuce (thin-leafed lettuce having red color near the edge). The “Sang-choo” lettuce is like the tortilla you get when you order fajita in a Mexican restaurant – it’s a wrap. It’s up to you whether you will use it or not. If you want to use the wrap, take a leaf of the lettuce and place a spoonful of steamed rice on it; then place a piece of the cooked Bulgogi meat and a bit of the brown/red sauce (called “Ssam-jang”: 쌈장 speak ), which you will find on the table in a tiny bowl; wrap it up and consume it in 1-2 bites. Alternatively, you can just eat the lettuce after dipping it in the “Ssam-jang” sauce, without wrapping any rice or beef with it. The “Ssam-jang” sauce has soybean paste, red pepper paste (which makes it hot), minced garlic, etc.

Galbi

(갈비 speak ) also known as Galbi Gu-ee (갈비 구이 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

The full name of this beef rib barbecue is “Galbi Gu-ee”, but it is often abbreviated as “Galbi”, which means "ribs". The second word, "Gu-ee", means something that is grilled. Compared with Bulgogi sauce, the sauce used for Galbi is often (if not always) sweeter. Galbi meat is greasier than Bulgogi with its characteristic fat, which blends well with the sweet, soy sauce-based marination mix. This gives a velvety texture and taste, which you don’t expect from Bulgogi. The way Galbi is served and the side dishes you will get are similar to what is described in the Bulgogi section (above).

Galbi Jjim

(갈비찜 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

This dish is beef ribs cooked by braising, rather than by grilling. If France has Beef Bourguignon (beef braised with red Burgundy wine), Korea has Galbi Jjim, beef ribs braised in a soy sauce-based mix (with no wine added). The sauce includes soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, etc. Also added to this dish are Korean radish, carrots, onion, mushrooms and often chestnuts, pine nuts and dates. Galbi Jjim is served in a large bowl, along with a bowl of steamed rice and side dishes.


Bibimbap

(비빔밥 speak )

Hot and Spicy

Italian Risotto has its counterpart in Korean cuisine – Bibimbap. But Bibimbap is hot and spicy, with a heavy emphasis in vegetables. If you order Bibimbap, you will get a huge bowl containing one serving of steamed rice. Placed on top of the rice are many types of cooked vegetables, including soybean sprouts, spinach, Gosari (고사리: a type of fern, brown in color), Korean radish as well as beef; these are arranged in a circular way; and at the center you will see an egg, sunny side up. Along with this big bowl, you will also get a red sauce in a tiny bowl (or sometimes in a squeeze bottle). It is called Cho-Gochujang (초고추장 speak ); it contains red pepper paste, vinegar, sugar, etc. Before starting, you should put a small amount of the red sauce to the main bowl and then mix everything well. When you order Bibimbap, you will also get a small number of side dishes and sometimes a small bowl of soup.

Galbi Tang

(갈비탕 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

Galbi Tang is a large bowl of beef broth containing beef ribs. The broth is made with Korean radish, green onion, garlic, etc. Since it does not have red pepper at all, the taste is mild. It is possibly a medieval Korean dish well preserved to this day. If you are not particularly keen on spicy food, this dish is one thing you can consider ordering in a Korean restaurant. Galbi Tang comes with a bowl of steamed rice and side dishes. The warm broth of this mild soup complements the flavor of steamed rice very well and allows you to better appreciate the taste of the various side dishes.

Yukgaejang

(육개장 speak )

Hot and Spicy

If you order Yukgaejang, you will get a large bowl of hot and spicy beef broth containing shredded beef. Also added in the soup are bean sprouts, Gosari (고사리: a type of fern, brown in color), green onion, Dangmyeon (당면: starch noodle), onion, garlic, etc. This dish is very hot because it is spiced up with a lot of red pepper flakes. Yukgaejang is served along with a bowl of steamed rice and side dishes.

Naengmyeon

(냉면 speak )

1. Naengmyeon:

Mild

Served Cold

2. Bibim Naengmyeon:

Hot and Spicy

Served Cold

The word “Naengmyeon” means “cold noodle”. Broadly speaking, there are two different types of Naengmyeon. One type has noodle in a cold beef broth prepared with various ingredients, which often include pear juice. The taste is mild, because there is no red pepper in it. It also has Korean mustard, which may be already in the soup or provided separately, which you can add to your taste. If the menu says simply “Naengmyeon” (냉면 speak ) , it is almost certainly this “broth” type. The second type is a noodle dish spiced up with vinegary red pepper paste, which makes it very hot, and comes with very little liquid. This type of Naengmyeon is typically listed in the menu as “Bibim Naengmyeon” (비빔냉면 speak ). Both types are served ice cold. Naengmyeon noodles are dark gray in color, because buckwheat flour is the key ingredient (regular wheat flour and/or potato starch are also included). When you order either type of Naengmyeon, you will get it in a large bowl along with a small number of side dishes (but no steamed rice). Some people order Naengmyeon after completing a course of Bulgogi ("Korean BBQ") or Galbi.

Maeun Tang

(매운탕 speak )

Hot and Spicy

This is a hot and spicy stew, and that's exactly what the Korean name means. Maeun Tang is almost always made with a type of fish. The name of the fish is put before the word “Maeun Tang” as a qualifier. For example, Maeun Tang made with cod is called “Daegu Maeun Tang” (대구매운탕 speak ), which is probably the most popular choice for this dish ("Daegu" means cod in Korean). If you like Bouillabaisse, the famous Provençal fish stew, you may want to try Maeun Tang, as they are in fact quite similar (except that Maeun Tang is made very hot with red pepper paste / flakes and uses only one type of fish). Maeun Tang is served in a large bowl, along with a bowl of steamed rice and side dishes.

Tteokguk

(떡국 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

Tteokguk is a large bowl of soup with sliced rice cakes called "Tteok"(). The soup is typically beef broth with green onion, soy sauce and garlic, etc. Also added to the bowl are thin strips of fried egg as well as flakes of roasted seaweed (“Gim”). This is an obligatory dish all Korean families eat as breakfast on the morning of the traditional New Year’s Day. According to the ancient Korean folklore, you become older by one year, not on your birthday, but on the New Year’s Day. And if you skip Tteokguk, you don’t get older that year! This is a mild soup, with no red pepper in it, probably because the recipe was already established many, many centuries ago (the red pepper has been around in Korea only for a few centuries). If you order Tteokguk, you will get it in a large bowl, along with side dishes (but no steamed rice).

Mandu Guk

(만두국 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

Mandu means "dumpling" in Korean. Mandu Guk is a mild soup with a number of dumplings in the broth. The meat in the dumplings is typically pork (or it could be beef, depending on the restaurant). The soup is beef broth with green onion, soy sauce, garlic and egg, etc. If you order Mandu Guk, you will get it in a large bowl, along with side dishes (but no steamed rice).

Tteok Mandu Guk

(떡만두국 speak )

Mild (no red pepper)

This is a combination of Tteokguk and Mandu Guk, as you might have guessed from the name. It is a mild soup that has both sliced rice cakes (Tteok) and dumplings (Mandu) in it. Some people find it more interesting than the rice cake-only or dumplings-only version. The meat in the dumplings is typically pork (or it could be beef, depending on the restaurant). If you order Tteok Mandu Guk, you will get it in a large bowl, along with side dishes (but no steamed rice).

Soondubu Jjigae

(순두부 찌개 speak )

Hot and Spicy

This hot and spicy tofu stew is often called simply “Soondubu”, which is the name for the type of tofu used in it. The tofu in Soondubu Jjigae is extremely soft, semi-liquid in consistency, which is a special attraction of this dish. The stew is very hot, because of the large amount of red pepper flakes in it. Some restaurants offer “milder” versions, but those are still quite hot. Soondubu Jjigae comes in several varieties: it can have seafood, beef or pork. If you haven’t tried this dish yet, a seafood version (especially one with clams) is highly recommended. If you order Soondubu Jjigae, you will get it in a thick, Korean earthenware bowl along with steamed rice and side dishes. You need to be careful - the bowl is burning hot, and the stew is still boiling in it. Wait at least for a few minutes and try your first spoonful carefully.