With Me As Your Guide

How and where to eat your way around South Korea

Violet Kim, for CNNUpdated 14th August 2015
Editor's Note —
Seoul, Korea (CNN) — They say it takes a village to raise a child. But in South Korea, it takes the legacies of a region to create a legendary dish.
Ancient royal lunches, former fertilizers, dishes that look too pretty (or too hideous) to eat -- these regional South Korean delicacies have been local favorites for years.
Now, they offer visitors an alternative to mediocre franchise fare. Here's where to eat when you travel to South Korea:

1. Seolleongtang, Seoul

It's a good broth that can sell this well with such an unassuming appearance.
It's a good broth that can sell this well with such an unassuming appearance.
istock photo
Seoul has been incorporating regional dishes into its local menu for as long as it's been a center of culture and commerce in South Korea.
Case in point: Seoul may not have invented bibimbap, but it's crawling with bibimbap restaurants.
One undeniably local food is seolleongtang, a murky, off-white ox bone soup that's hearty and filling for all of its thin, almost-watery consistency.
Seolleongtang began as part of a spring ritual in the Joseon Dynasty to honor farming. Part of the ceremony involved slaughtering a cow as a sacrifice to Dangun (founder of Korea's first kingdom) and making it into a soup.
Upon observing the ceremony, King Seongjong ordered that the cow be cooked more efficiently, in order to feed the most people with the least amount of food. Thus seolleongtang was created to yield maximum flavor with the minimum of meat.
This satisfying soup might explain how Koreans have put up with Seoul's punishing winters in recent years -- when eaten with rice, the lack of actual meat in the soup isn't a problem.
With seolleongtang, it's all about the broth. The deep, full flavor comes from the ox bone, which is cooked in the soup for 10-odd hours. The pale white color comes from the ox bone marrow.
Try it at: Byeolcheonji Seolnongtang, 161-8 Donggyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul; +82 2 338 9966

2. Uijeongbu budaejjigae, Gyeonggi Province

korea food map Budaejjigae
Once a humble dish, buddaejjigae is now less about making the most out of leftovers, and more about excess.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Buddaejjigae, literally "army base stew," has its roots in the Korean War, when hungry chefs had to be creative with their limited resources.
They'd cook stews from U.S. Army base leftovers such as hot dog sausages, Spam and American cheese, adding Korean ingredients such as dropwort, ddeok, ramyeon noodles, kimchi and condiments like gochujang to create a spicy fusion sensation.
Buddaejjigae is sometimes referred to as "Johnson tang," tang being the Korean word for stew.
According to the book "About Korea's Representative Foods," it's named for U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who's said to have raved about the taste during a visit to South Korea. Buddaejjigade spread especially rapidly in Uijeongbu, which had a high concentration of U.S. Army bases.
Today there's a "buddaejjigae" street (Gyeonggi-do Uijeongbu-si Uijeongbu1-dong) in Uijeongbu with a high concentration of buddaejjigae restaurants.
Try it at:

3. Pocheon makgeolli, Gyeonggi Province

korea food map Makgeolli
Every region has its own recipe for makgeolli.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Pocheon's claim to fame is makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, slightly sour, mostly sweet and easily identified by its creamy, off-white color. Good makgeolli can be found around the country.
Every region has its own fermenting process.
Pocheon's makgeolli has Pocheon's equally famous mineral-rich water, which is what gives the makgeolli its characteristic flavor. According to "Makgeolli Tour," by Jeong Eun-suk, Pocheon's water is said to have affected the taste of kimchi in the villages as well.
Try it at: Idong Makgeolli, 120-8 Dopyeong-ri, Idong-myeon, Pocheon-si, Gyeonggi Province, +82 31 535 7150

4. Chuncheon dakgalbi and makguksu, Gangwon Province

Which gochujang-covered chunk is chicken? And which is cabbage? Doesn't matter, it's all dakgalbi now.
Which gochujang-covered chunk is chicken? And which is cabbage? Doesn't matter, it's all dakgalbi now.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Chuncheon, Gangwon-do is known for two things: dakgalbi and makguksu.
Dakgalbi started out as a dish of grilled chicken bits in an area where chicken was cheap. Today, dakgalbi is seasoned and deboned chicken stir-fried with sliced tteok, sweet potato, perilla leaves and cabbage.
Makguksu is buckwheat noodles in a chilled kimchi stock, often with additional flavors in the form of sugar, mustard, sesame oil or vinegar. The noodles are topped with whatever vegetables strike the chef's fancy.
These perfectly matched dishes form the yin and yang of a frugal and filling meal.
We say frugal because noodles were traditionally the sustenance of the poor, and because dakgalbi was historically the favorite of the poor -- at a mere ₩100 (10 cents) per serving in the 1970s, it was popular with soldiers and students, thus gaining the nickname "commoner's galbi" or "university student's galbi."
Dakgalbi is a recent invention, created in the 1960s. It's spicy, sweet and meaty, served hot on the same table it's cooked on.
Makguksu, on the other hand, has been around since the Koryeo Dynasty. It's spicy, savory and wheaty, served chilled.
The harmonious taste of these two dishes together is for the diner to decide -- the 20-odd dakgalbi restaurants in Chuncheon's "Dakgalbi Alley" continue to serve them together.
Try it at: Youmi Dakgalbi, 51-9 Joyang-dong, Chuncheon-si, Gangwon Province, +82 33 244 4455

5. Byeongcheon sundae, South Chungcheong Province

Unlike generic street sundae, the casing is real intestine, not fake translucent stuff.
Unlike generic street sundae, the casing is real intestine, not fake translucent stuff.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Sundae, at its most basic, is a type of blood pudding: pig or cow intestines stuffed with glass noodles, ground meat and vegetables. And congealed blood.
All steamed into coils of unassuming but tasty meaty goodness, ready to be sliced and served -- usually with other pork parts, like lung and heart, on the side.
Supposedly, Ghengis Khan's army embraced sundae as a portable and nutritious meal on the go.
In South Korea, the dish has spawned regional variations -- sundae stuffed into squid, sundae made exclusively with large intestine, sundae made with small intestine, sundae of multiple shades of cooked pork blood and finally Byeongcheon sundae, notable for its "especially black color," finely ground meat and soft, juicy consistency.
Try it at: Doejine Sundae, 166-16 Byeongcheon-ri, Byeongcheon-myeon, Dongnam-gu, Cheonan-si, South Chungcheong Province, +82 41 564 1077

6. Jeonju bibimbap, North Jeolla Province

korea food map Bibimbap
Bibimbap only looks pretty when it's served. The first thrust of the spoon and it's a big delicious mess.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
As one of South Korea's most well-known foods, this lunchtime favorite has modern fusion and inter-regional reincarnations.
You can get as flashy as you want -- vegetarian, with seafood -- with all these takes, but Jeonju bibimbap is by far the most famous.
Perhaps it has something to do with Jeonju's widely acknowledged reputation as both a neighborhood of nobles (yangban) and a leader of taste.
To the Korean noblemen, who were all about ceremony, bibimbap had to have looked pretty damn good on the table, its over 50 multicolored ingredients packed neatly in a bowl. The irony, of course, is that bibimbap tastes good only after the carefully arranged ingredients are mashed unceremoniously together.
Korea's star chef Edward Kwon traveled to Jeonju to learn to make the perfect bibimbap in CNN's Culinary Journeys. Watch the show here.
Try it at: Jongro Hoegwan, 60-1 Jeon-dong, Wansan-gu, Jeonju-si; +82 63 288 4578

7. Damyang daetongbap and ddeokgalbi, South Jeolla Province

korea food map Daetongbap
Daetongbap: Fragrant and healthy. And no one has to do the dishes.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Damyang is famous for its bamboo. It has a Bamboo Theme Park, Bamboo Festival, a large bamboo garden and bamboo museum.But for the wandering gourmand, Damyang's best bamboo innovation may be its bamboo rice, or daetongbap.
Damyang daetongbap is rice cooked into the fragrant segment of a bamboo stalk. It's often cooked with chestnuts, jujubes, pine nuts or other nuts, grains and berries.
While this is an agreeable mixture, a bamboo stalk, to some, might sound too slim to be capable of containing a full meal. But the hungry need not fear.
The bamboo segment comes from thick, fully formed bamboo more than 3 years old. Because much of the fragrance of the daetongbap comes from the natural bamboo oils of the bowl, the bamboo is only used once.
Good thing Damyang has plenty of it.
korea food map Ddeokgalbi
"Why don't we take this perfectly fine galbi, grind it up and put it back together?" Sounds like a dumb idea, till you try it.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Damyang's specialties don't end with scented rice. Damyang also has ddeokgalbi, ground galbi seasoned and shaped into a patty.
As futile as this action may seem (grinding, only to put back together), ddeokgalbi has several advantages over galbi: it's much softer, while retaining enough chewiness to feel like meat.
Eating it is less of a hassle. No gnawing on galbi bones.
Try it at: Deokinkwan, 408-5 Baekdong-ri, Damyang-eup, Damyang-gun, South Jeolla Province; +82 61 381 7881

8. Jeonbokjuk, Jeju Island

The gateway spoonful. Get past the hue and the goo and you just might discover your new favorite soup.
The gateway spoonful. Get past the hue and the goo and you just might discover your new favorite soup.
Jeonbokjuk is a rice-based porridge made with chewy abalone and sesame oil, and is one of the tributes that Jeju Island residents historically presented to the king. In addition to savory taste and comforting texture, jeonbokjuk also has merit as a health food.
It's said to be especially beneficial to the pregnant, the old and the sickly -- basically anyone eligible to take your seat in the subway.
Properly made, Jeju Island jeonbokjuk uses the innards, as well as the chewy yellow outer meat of the abalone, and is thus a tell-tale shade of pale, almost unappetizing green. But taste one spoonful and positive associations will take over.
Try it at:

9. Masan agujjim, South Gyeongsang Province

korea food map Agujjim
Agujjim looks like salad from the depths. And it is.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Before the blackmouth angler's, or the agu's, meteoric rise to main dish status at meals as the "meat of the sea," it was considered ugly and unfit to eat. Instead, it was used as fertilizer.
Now, agu is the main ingredient in agujjim, a dish of braised blackmouth angler on a bed of bean sprouts and minari (dropwort), saturated in a marinade of chilli pepper powder (gochugaru), soy sauce and garlic.
This glorious, fiery (in color and taste) seafood favorite is eaten all over South Korea.
Agujjim was born in in the 1950s in Masan, Gyeongsangnam-do, in a bar in Odong-dong, Masan, when a poor fisherman brought this lowly fish to the cook who ran the bar and asked her to cook it.
Initially, the cook rejected the fish for its extremely ugly appearance and chucked it away in her kitchen. But a month later, while desperately casting around for ingredients, the cook discovered the now dried-up agu and decided to braise it.
It was an instant hit.
The period of lonely dehydration that the abandoned agu had gone through in the kitchen had given the meat an incomparable chewiness.
Try it at:

10. Eonyang bulgogi, Ulsan

korea food map Bulgogi
Eonyang bulgogi skips the pan and goes straight to the fire.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Ulsan, South Korea's seventh-largest city, is an industrial center. It's more Manchester than London. More Detroit than Chicago.
And it's better known for its sprawling factories than its fine dining. Yet some of the nation's best bulgogi can be found there: Eonyang bulgogi.
Bulgogi, literally "fire meat," is thinly sliced beef grilled in a distinctive marinade of sugar and soy sauce, sometimes pear juice and usually onions.
It's everywhere -- from fancy franchises to pan-ready kits at local Lotte Marts. It sounds delicious and easy to make, and it's delicious and easy to make. But Ulsan's arguably superior Eonyang bulgogi requires more than a simple stir and fry.
Hailing from a district known for its many butcher shops, Eonyang bulgogi isn't just another regional take, it's a region-specific brand.
Noted for the freshness of the meat -- all meat is served within 24 hours of butchering, and comes only from cows who have calved fewer than three times -- Eonyang bulgogi is cooked in a specific way: with white coals, made by patting dirt over reddened coals preheated in a charcoal kiln.
The best part is that this meticulously prepared dish, somehow a product of oil-rig-ridden Ulsan rather than yang-ban-ridden Jeonju, really caught fire only after it was "discovered" in the 1960s by construction workers who were in Ulsan to build the highway.
Try it at: Eonyang Traditional Bulgogi, 167-6 Seobu-ri, Eonyang-eup, Ulju-gun, Ulsan-si; +82 52 262 0940

11. Yeongdeok daegejjim, North Gyeongsang Province

korea food map Daegejjim
Delicious quirk of nature.
courtesy Korea Tourism Organization
Daegae is the Korean word for "snow crab," a delectable crab with a thin shell and long legs -- legs which apparently resembled bamboo to Koreans of old, because the "dae" in daegae means "bamboo."
Yeongdeok Daegejjim isn't so much a dish -- after all, it's simply steamed snow crab -- as a lucky biological quirk.
Because of a variety of environmental factors, Yeongdeok happens to be prime crab breeding ground, and there's not much you can do to improve the taste of steamed crab meat, which is tender, juicy and fluffy. But food is food, and no less delicious because it's not slathered in a complicated sauce.
Today, Yeongdeok celebrates its snow crab with a festival. Highlights are exactly what might be expected from a festival celebrating delicious seafood: sampling delicious seafood.
Try it at: Any of the restaurants on Ganggu Harbor, such as Myeongga Daege, 408 Ganggu-ri, Ganggu-myeon, Yeongdeok-gun, North Gyeongsang Province; +82 54 734 5525
Got photos of your own Culinary Journeys to share? Tag them on Instagram with the hashtag #CNNFood for a chance to be featured on CNN. For inspiration, check out these recent submissions.