Korea is more than just BBQ, KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) and other mouthwatering dishes that you’re sure to have salivated over in Korea’s best dramas and movies. There is a rich history of food in Korea and incredible traditional dishes are very popular with locals and tourists alike. However, there are some foods that stand above the rest in terms of strangeness.
Don’t get me wrong, these strange Korean foods aren’t (necessarily) bad, they’re just unusual, different, and maybe squeam-inducing. I’m not sure if that’s a word, but I’m sure you get the idea.
These strange Korean foods are probably not what you’re used to at home – for good or bad. I mean, who puts a slice of kiwi in a sandwich or corn on pizza?! Of course, it’s worse than that, there’s also ‘dead body soup’ and ‘penis fish’ to contend with. If you have the stomach for it, then please read on to find out my top 10 strange Korean foods.
Should you try them? Sure, why not? I always say that I have to eat everything at least once, just to see how it tastes. Of course, there are some things I won’t eat (see number 10!), but the rest I can stomach for the sake of a unique memory.
Read on and see if you’d be brave enough to sample these 10 strange Korean foods.
The 10 Strange Korean Foods
Now for the top 10 strange foods in Korea. I hope you can make it all the way to the end!
If you get a bit squeamish, I wouldn’t recommend looking at the pictures… but it might be a bit hard to avoid this first one.
If you know any other strange Korean foods, please feel free to leave me a comment at the end and I’ll add it to the list.
1: Beondegi (번데기) – Roasted Silkworm Larvae
The ingredients for beongdegi are simple – just a big bowl of silkworm larvae roasted in an old metal pot. This is a cheap snack and a popular Korean street food enjoyed by many.
What makes this so strange (beside it being a bug) is the strong, pungent smell it gives off. It floats through the air to attack you whenever you’re near. I tend to cross the road when I start to smell it.
This was one of the first of the strange Korean foods that I ordered when I arrived in Korea. I managed to eat about 4 of them before giving up. It’s certainly an acquired taste!
On the plus side, beondegi is said to be healthy with lots of high quality, low-fat protein. Worth it? You can find beondegi at festivals, national parks, and near major tourist sites.
2: Hongeo-Hoe (홍어회) – Raw Fermented Skate – The Stinkiest Of All Strange Korean Foods
Another one of Korea’s strangest foods that I was introduced to early on in my time here is hongeo-hoe. This isn’t so much a dish as it is a challenge. I’m not sure why anyone would make this dish, but they have, so I’ve had to try it.
The skate is an unusual fish that doesn’t urinate, instead it passes the uric acid through its skin. Consequently, when you ferment the skate, the smell ends up like ammonia – which is extremely stinky!
Seriously, you’ll need to hold your nose when you eat this dish. Grab a bit of kimchi and some boiled pork and pop it all into your mouth at the same time. The smell is a lot worse than the taste, not that either are really pleasant.
Check out this video of people eating hongeo-hoe in Korea.
3: Cheonggukjang Jjigae (청국장찌개) – “Dead Body Soup”
Firstly, there are no actual dead bodies in cheonggukjang jjigae! The name originates from the smell (yet again, Korea!) of the key ingredient in this dish – cheonggukjang.
Cheonggukjang is a stinky soybean paste that gives this dish its meaty taste. When you add this paste to the soup, the smell really blows up and things start to get stinky.
Some Korean students were cooking this dish in Germany and the neighbours started to smell something strange. Thinking there was a dead body inside (that’s how bad it is), they called the police. The smell lingers for a long time, too, which really doesn’t help.
Fortunately, no one was actually cooked up, but you’ll understand why they might have thought that if you give this strange Korean food a go.
4: Gaebul (개불) – Live Spoon Worms (Penis Fish)
This fish looks weird even before its been prepared to eat and I’m sure you can guess where the nickname ‘penis fish‘ comes from.
This makes into onto the list of strange Korean foods for a different reason, however. That’s because of the way the dish is served – raw and squirming.
I can only describe gaebul as ‘fleshy pasta that’s wriggling around on your plate’. You’ll understand if you watch this video.
Raw fish is common in many countries, but it’s not normally so energetic and still moving around like this! Give me some sashimi any day.
Try it once, take a video, and see if you’re brave enough for this truly weird Korean food.
5: Dakbal (닭발) – Spicy Chicken Feet
Koreans seem to love this simple dish of chicken feet covered in spicy sauce, and yet hate it at the same time. At least, that’s how it looks as tears fall down their cheeks and they look like they’re in pain, and yet also smiling.
I’ve tried dakbal a few times, and it is one of the spiciest Korean foods I’ve had. I was only able to eat a small amount. I admit, I’m not that strong when it comes to feasting on fiery foods, but I know it’s not just me.
This dish is enjoyed by many and is a social dish, something you’d share with a few mates with a couple of glasses of beer. Drink some milk to take away the burning sensation afterwards before going out for the rest of the night. If you can.
The idea of eating chicken feet may seem strange to some, but you don’t even notice it after a few bites. They don’t taste of much, hence the excessive levels of spicy sauce. It’s a bit like eating really spicy, meaty gummy bears.
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6: Bokjili (복지리) Deadly Blowfish Soup
You may be familiar with fugu, Japan’s famous dish made from a deadly blowfish that can kill if it isn’t prepared properly. It’s very expensive and requires a license and years of training before a chef can serve it.
Fortunately(?), Korea is more relaxed about a fish full of highly poisonous neurotoxins. It’s a lot more widely available and doesn’t have the same restrictions it does in Japan.
The most common way that these blowfish are prepared is in bokjili. You’ll find lots of blowfish meat, vegetables, herbs, and spices in this hearty soup.
Bokjili is a cheap seafood dish that you’ll find served in coastal regions. It’s a lot cheaper than fugu, too. The taste isn’t that strong , but the meat is cloud-like – incredibly soft and almost fluffy. Give it a go, if you don’t mind the risk.
7: Sundae (순대) – Blood Sausage
One of the oldest traditional dishes in Korea, sundae might make people squeamish at first but shouldn’t be missed. Sundae is kind of a cross between haggis and black pudding. It is also really delicious and a wonderful, cheap snack.
It traditionally contains pig or cow’s intestines mixed in with blood, rice, vegetables, and noodles. This mixture is then steamed and served sliced up, ready to eat. I guess it’s the blood that puts some people off, even though it’s eaten in many different countries around the world.
You should eat sundae by dipping it into a bowl of salt or other seasoning. It goes well with cold beer, too. Popular with Korean youths, you can find this cheap snack for sale at many traditional markets in Korea.
8: Sannakji (산낙지) – Raw Octopus Tentacles – The Creepiest Of All Strange Korean Foods
This is certainly one of those dishes you have to take a video of before eating it so you can show all your friends. Sannakji, or raw octopus tentacles, are exactly that.
A chef will grab a live octopus from the aquarium outside the restaurant and hack off all of its tentacles. Then they will delicately lay them out on a plate and serve them to you, still wriggling around and trying to get free. This is the part you want to video, right before munching on them.
Be brave, grab a tentacle, dip it in soy sauce, and then chew. Chew the tentacle well. It is still alive and that means its suckers will still try to grip on to anything it can, including your throat! They’ll stubbornly stick to the plate, too, so you really need to fight them.
Once you’ve finished with the tentacles, you can enjoy the rest of the body in a seasoned soup, complete with ink to leave your mouth black.
Feeling put off by now? It’s a unique experience and if you’re in Busan, then I’d recommend giving it a go, just to say you did. Or maybe you want to reenact the famous scene from Old Boy, in which case, go ahead and grab the whole octopus.
9: Fruit Sandwiches (과일 샌드위치)
Originally from Japan, this next weird Korean food gets on the list because it’s just wrong to me. Being British, a sandwich should be a certain way, and I just can’t imagine putting fruit between two slices of bread. Madness!
However, in Korea you can find a medley of assorted fruits stuffed inside of an honest sandwich, where they don’t belong. You can find orange, kiwi, strawberries, and lots more that simply shouldn’t be there, including the cream filling.
The cream cements the fruit into place, but also gets all over your fingers while you’re trying to eat it. The whole thing becomes more of a dessert than a humble lunchtime snack, making me think it should come with a spoon.
Lots of people seem to enjoy these sandwich-desserts, and the convenience stores all stock them. Perhaps you’ll enjoy them more than I do. I just find them strange and wish I could find a decent cheese, ham, and pickle sandwich somewhere.
10: Boshintang (보신탕) – Dog Meat Soup
Korea has had a bad reputation internationally due to the final item on this list of strange Korean foods – boshintang. This is definitely the most controversial Korean food on the list, and one that is, fortunately, not commonly found in Korea these days.
Some people believe that boshintang will give you ‘stamina’, just the way a rhino’s horn will, apparently. Most of the customers are older Korean mean who want some magical gift of life that they believe comes from eating our furry friends.
Fortunately, most Koreans disagree, and there is a lot of effort to rescue dogs instead of sending them off to become someone’s dinner. Technically still legal in Korea, laws will hopefully be passed in the future to ban the sale of dog meat.
In case you’re wondering, the texture is apparently similar to goat. I’ve never tried it and definitely don’t plan to. However, if you really want to try it, and you don’t have any objections to eating dog meat (as many millions of people in the world still do), then you can find these places in rural Korea.
Honourable Mention – Korean Pizza
I’m going to include Korean pizza on this list of strange Korean foods because of all the unusual toppings you can find here. Sure, there are cultural differences, and tastes vary in each region, but some things you’ll find on a pizza in Korea just don’t make sense.
For example, corn (on most pizzas – why?), potato wedges, broccoli, mayonnaise (in large quantities), pickles, whipped cream, pasta, squid legs, and lots of fruit.
It’s not just the toppings you’ll find, it’s the quantity, too. There are often too many toppings that the whole things ends up a complicated mess.
I once ate a squid ink pizza (in the dough), which had lettuce, grapefruit, cherry tomatoes, grated cheese, ham, salad dressing, olives, nuts, kiwi, lumps of cheese, croutons, and orange segments. Possibly more. It was like a 3 course meal.
Of course, there are plenty of great pizzas in Korea, such as bulgogi pizza with flame grilled beef, or the steak and shrimp ones that are delicious. You need to be careful working your way through the landmine of options to find the good ones though.
And don’t get me started on the pickles…
Some Extra Strange Korean Foods From Readers
Since I wrote this article, I’ve had lots of comments about other strange foods in Korea that people were shocked to see when they visited Korea. I want to add these to the list of strange foods in Korea so that those adventurous souls can seek them out.
A: Malgogi (말고기) – Horsemeat
First off, I’ll happily admit that I’ve enjoyed the raw form of this dish many times when I was living in Japan, where it is known as basashi. Malgogi is horse meat. You can eat it in many different ways, including raw, BBQ’d, or served like sushi. The most common way is raw. It’s a delicacy, so you won’t find it in many places, but it is still popular on the island.
I know a lot of people will probably feel a bit squeamish about eating horses (my sister, especially). However, many countries around the world eat horse. People on Jeju Island have been eating horse for over 700 years, since the times of the Mongolian invasion on the island.
Horse meat has lots of health benefits and has only 1/3 the amount of fat that beef does. The fat is unsaturated and dissolves quickly in the human body. It’s also high in protein and rich in other nutrients, including omega-3 and linolenic acid. This makes it highly recommended for children and pregnant women. Some less authentic health beliefs are that it makes men stronger as horses are strong animals. As Jeju people say ‘Beef is not enough for a meal but horse meat is.’
If you’d like to know more about eating horse on Jeju Island, check out this article.
Some Less Strange Korean Foods
There are many other wonderful and delicious Korean foods out there that I’d really recommend. Read up about some of the less strange Korean foods out there in these two other posts about Korean food:
Where To Find These Strange Korean Foods
Some of these strange Korean foods will be very common, and you’ll be able to find them throughout Korea. Dakbal (닭발) is popular in Korea and you’ll find several places selling it in downtown areas and around bars (goes well with beer), as is sundae (순대).
Fruit sandwiches can be found in most convenience stores, which are literally on every street corner in Korea. However, some of them are a little unusual and will be harder to find.
For example, you rarely see boshintang (보신탕) in the city, it’s typically served out in the countryside. Actually, the number of places serving this dish are dropping as it is not popular with younger Koreans and has a bad reputation internationally.
Other dishes, such as beondegi (번데기), are served at festivals and around popular tourist attractions, including Gyeongbokgung Palace.
Seafood meals are most commonly found at, you guessed it, the seaside. Busan is a great place to check out these strange Korean foods.
Are These Strange Korean Foods Actually Disgusting?
Well, that all depends on your personal taste.
They’re strange, sure, but not all of them are that bad. Some I will never eat again and even try to avoid getting near due to the smell (looking at you, beondegi!), but others can be very tasty and their popularity in Korea shows this.
For instance, I eat sundae all the time. It’s a great traditional Korean food that is especially good during winter. It’s filling and warms your belly nicely.
I’m a big fan of Korean food, but can’t say that I like everything. I grew up on a very English diet but have tried to eat as much as I can from around the world as I travel.
Some things I just don’t like, and I expect Koreans travelling to England would probably have the same opinion of British food. Not sure why people wouldn’t want to eat jellied eels or stargazy pie, but each to their own.
So when you travel to Korea, I hope you’ll be brave and try out some of these unique Korean dishes. Sure, some you can find in other countries, but you have the chance to try them here in Korea, and to sample them with the obligatory side dish of kimchi, too.
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