So, South Korea. What is it known for? K-pop music, kimchi, Samsung, Hyundai, Korean bbq, Tae Kwon Do, and Gangnam Style! However, there is so much more to South Korea than that.
After spending six months there in 2020, I learned a lot about the food, culture, style, and what to do to have fun! So, let’s dig in.
The Korean Culture and Lifestyle
When and if you visit South Korea, you will find packed city streets with winding alleyways covered in crisscrossed powerlines. You will hear constant construction and voices calling out from vendors. The smoggy air is filled with smells that fluctuate between some of the most delicious food on the planet and some of the worst smells you can imagine. You will visit temples and fortresses, witnessing and experiencing history that dates back centuries. If you get out of town, you will relish beautiful beaches along the coast, and enjoy some of the best hiking in the world.
There are almost 52 million people living in South Korea, and it seems like almost all of them are out and about traveling on the KTX railway system, speeding by in a car, or zooming around on a scooter. If you don’t meet them there, you will find them hiking, strolling in the park, or buying or selling in the market. They are a busy and hard-working people with a lot of pride in their country and culture.
Although Christianity and Buddhism are very common, Confucianism has created a solid spiritual base which can be seen clearly within their society. Respecting elders is very important, and there is still a pretty solid hierarchy in place that is based on age, job status, and education level.
A more westernized way of life has been slowly taking hold in South Korea putting more emphasis on individualism. However, collectivism is still very dominant. For example, it was very easy for me to tell the age of someone simply based on how they wore their hair, the types of clothing and shoes they wore, or how they presented themselves in general.
What’s Popular? Music, Movies, Fashion, and Skin Care
The Korean entertainment industry is booming right now with the popularity of K-Pop bands like BTS and Korean movies and TV shows being watched across the globe.
K-Pop has been slowly rising in popularity because of bands like BTS collaborating with American artists, it can now be listened to regularly on the radio. Other popular K-Pop groups are EXO and Blackpink.
When it comes to Korean movies, I particularly love the Zombie Thriller, Train To Busan, but there are many popular Korean movies I would recommend such as Parasite, Call, Burning, and Tune In For Love. The K-Dramas like Sky Castle, She Was Pretty, The Uncanny Counter, Run On, and A Love So Beautiful are also popular and are a great way to see into Korean life a little more.
Korean fashion was something I really enjoyed while living there. In the winter, they wear large faux-fur hooded puffy jackets and clunky platform shoes. In the summer, it was normal to see short shorts with a big baggy top. Oversized clothes are very popular and they often wear clothing that has random English words printed on them (usually pretty funny). Nice blazers, mom jeans, and chunky shoes are a must.
As far as skincare goes, Korean products are hard to beat. They have it all! The K-Beauty market is booming with products like sheet masks, sleeping masks, lotions, and other face creams and serums. Face sculpting tools are also in demand as well as pimple patches to help with acne.
There is so much more to Korean food than Korean BBQ and Kimchi. Those are absolutely delicious, but they are just two on a long list of amazing dishes. I will try and narrow it down for you (a little).
Stews and Soup
Growing up, soup for me was something that you enjoyed in the winter. It is the best way to curl up and warm up on a cold winter night. However, one of my favorite foods in the world is now Korean soup! There are so many different kinds of Korean soups and stews that will fill your scenes with savoury goodness. And, I know it might be hard to believe, but one of them is made with hot dogs!
Soups are a staple of the Korean diet and are often shared communally with your own personal pot of rice. They range from hot to cold, from savoury to spicy to sweet, to simple broths, and often have a specific purpose such as the Hangover Soup!
My favorites were the spicy chicken or seafood soups, spicy tofu soup, and the famous Army Stew, Budae Jjigae.
I love food. If you know me, you will know just how much. So, going to Korea, I had to try as many new dishes as I could. There were a few I already know of like Bibimbap which is a hot bowl of rice topped with veggies, meat and a fried egg. I had already tried Bulgogi (the typical Korean bbq), and most people have had Mandoo (dumplings), either fried or steamed, but there was a lot I was yet to learn.
Samgyeopsal is an easy and delicious way to fill your belly. Sliced pork belly is grilled alongside onions, garlic and mushrooms and any other veggies you might enjoy and then wrapped up in a crispy piece of lettuce. Spoon in a little red bean paste to add some extra flavor. Yum!
Fried Korean Chicken will beat out KFC any day, and thats all I got to say about that.
Whether you are feeling chicken, beef or pork, there are many to dishes to choose from but let me tell you about my favorite.
There once was a girl who fell in love with Dak Galbi…
So, there I was, sitting at my first restaurant in Korea. There was a large black metal burner positioned in the middle of our table. They came and turned on the heat and let it warm before dumping a pile of cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions with sliced chicken thighs all marinated in some spicy red paste.
It already smelled good.
Then, they dumped in some rice cakes and stirred them all around. As it cooked, the aroma filled my senses with spicy, garlicky, savoury goodness. I was getting excited.
As we waited for the chicken to finish cooking, we snacked on pickled radishes and sipped our Somaek (mixed Soju and beer).
Next came the ramen. It is all swirled around with a large wooden spatula, cooked down a minute longer and then topped with cheese. Commence drooling now.
Dak Galbi is a spicy chicken stir fry. You can switch around ingredients, exchange the ramen for rice or top it all with the flavorful perilla leaves. I like to add more spice and garlic… It is easy to make it your own and suit your own tastes. No matter what, it is delicious.
Its hard to imagine a world without Dak Galbi… I lived that life once but never again!
Let these pictures speak for themselves. Raw, grilled, sautéed, or stewed, there are so many great ways you can cook seafood and Koreans have it down to a science. Every time we went toward the shore, I made my way to a variety of seafood restaurants to try as many new kinds of seafood as I could. My favourites include stir-fried dry squid and grilled shellfish.
Side dishes! In Korea, you have to have side dishes. Way beyond kimchi, there is spicy cucumbers, braised quail eggs, seasoned spinach, picked radish, seasoned soybean sprouts, and all kinds of fermented herbs. The list goes on, and you can find me eating them all!
Whether you want something quick and filling (gimbap), something light and salty (gim) or a little something to fix your sweet-tooth, Korean snacks have got your back.
The biggest drinkers in Asia, Koreans believe that drinking together is a great way to relax and bond together, but whether you want to enjoy a fun new alcoholic drink or try a new kind of tea, juice, or coffee – Korea has it covered. Here is a list of some of my favs:
- Soju! Distilled from a variety of sources (rice, wheat, barley, or potatoes), Soju is a clear unregulated alcoholic drink that is scarily easy to drink especially when mixed with juice.
- Makgeolli – made from rice and unfiltered, Makgeolli is a sweet, yet strong milky drink that is typically drunk from small metal bowls. It is Korea’s oldest alcoholic beverage.
- Somaek – Beer plus Soju!
- Vitamin C – I drank so many of these little glass-bottled vitamin c boosters. Sweet, citrusy, and refreshing.
- Energy drinks! Bacchus is an extremely popular South Korean energy drink. So much better than red bull!
- Chilsing Cider – basically a Korean Sprite – very popular and a typical mixer for other drinks.
- Teas and Coffees. There are just too many to count. Black tea, Ginger tea, Green tea, Flower tea, Plum, Citron, Barley — you name it. Also, Koreans love coffee! Dalgona Whipped Coffee is one of the most popular right now.
Environment + What To Do For Fun
Located in East Asia, South Korea is the lower portion of the Korean Peninsula and is surrounded by the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, the Korean Strait, and the Sea of Japan. There are several mountain ranges on both the mainlands and the islands. The highest mountain peek is called Hallasan and is located on the beautiful Jeju Island.
South Korea is made up of gorgeous farmlands with wheat, barley and rice fields, mountain ranges, forests, lakes, rivers, beach and large national parks. If you are an outdoorsy person like myself, you wont have a hard time enjoying yourself (even during Covid).
Beyond Seoul, Incheon and Busan, the other major cities are Daegu, Daejeon, Gwangui, Suwon, Ulsan, and Changwon. All boasting populations of over a million people.
While in Korea, I ate a lot, drank a lot, hiked a lot, and went exploring beaches and parks. I also went paragliding and rafting! Because of Covid, we mostly stayed away from the cities, but I did get the chance to visit several temples and fortresses which are an absolute must.
There truly is a ton to do and a lot of fun to be had.
Funnily enough, I grew up doing Tae Kwon Do and bowed to the South Korean flag at the beginning and end of each class. Despite that, I had never particularly imagined that I would ever journey there except for maybe a short visit. I am glad I did though! The food alone will have me going back!
It was an incredible experience where I not only got to hike the mountains and swim off the shores of the beaches, but I made lifelong friends and expanded my mindset in new and important ways.
More specifics coming soon!