Korean food is an experience to behold. They play on a range of tastes with unusual flavor combinations.
Truly, Koreans have a love affair with food, and it shows through their traditional dishes and BBQ.
But is Korean food spicy? Korean cuisine is synonymous with hot, flaming spice since they use the hottest peppers along with chili paste and pepper flakes. But, there is also an entire section of the cuisine that is not spicy at all.
So, yes, it is spicy, but not all of it.
Korean Spicy Dishes
The following items detail some of the more popular spicy dishes you can find in South Korea.
Some of them have just a touch of heat, while others may quite literally burn your mouth off. Regardless, all of them are delicious.
Almost all these comprise some version of red chili paste, pepper flakes, actual hot peppers, or a combination of them.
Buldak: For an experience in extreme Korean spiciness, Buldak will not disappoint. Translating to “fire chicken,” it comes with rice cakes or an egg casserole. But that hardly takes care of the deep down burn.
Dakbal: Otherwise known as Korean Chicken Feet, these are literally chicken feet complete with talons and skin. This is one of the spiciest dishes available in Korean cuisine since the main seasonings are sesame and red chili paste.
Donkkaseu: This is a spicy pork cutlet dunked in dark red chili sauce. Some restaurants in Seoul offer “Donkatsu of Death,” which is as spicy as the name implies.
Galbi Jjim: These are braised short ribs featured in Korean BBQ. There are elements of savory and sweet but the spicy is an undertone that builds with each bite. After a few chomps, noses run and eyes water.
Jjambbong: For a ridiculous experience, this seafood noodle soup uses four different chili peppers from India, China, Korea, and Vietnam. One spoonful will set your tongue alight. In fact, some characterize it as “satanic.”
Maeunjokbal: Also called “Spicy Jokbal,” these are pigs’ feet or pork slices. After steaming, they slather in a very spicy sauce. The cook then garnishes it with sesame seeds and scallions for texture.
Ramyun/Ramyeon: Most people understand that ramen (called ramyun or ramyeon in Korea) is a very spicy soup. However, not all of it is spicy, but Koreans do prefer it with a kick.
Tteokkbokki: As one of the most desired street foods in Korea, this is essentially fish cakes and rice cakes drenched in a spicy and sweet sauce. Boiled eggs garnish the dish, and it comes with kimchi.
Non-Spicy Dishes in Korea
While the dishes above are crazy spicy, there are many others that have no spice at all. The ones mentioned below are just some that will not burn your mouth off or send the top of your head to the moon.
Bulgogi: This is the signature dish in Korean BBQ that often comprises a sweet soy sauce marinade, ginger, sugar, and sesame oil. It’s typically beef, but it can also be pork.
Japchae: Often referred to as “glass noodles,” these are stir-fried sweet potato noodles in sesame oil with a sugary soy sauce seasoning. These can be vegetarian or come with beef strips.
Jjajangmyun: Dark black bean paste, thick noodles, diced vegetables, and chopped pork comprise this non-spicy dish. Actually, it’s the ultimate fusion food that blends the best of Korean cuisine with that of Chinese.
Kimbap: Many people compare this to sushi, but it’s not quite the same thing. You can find a host of ingredients wrapped and rolled in rice and seaweed. They can include things like fish cakes, kimchi, veggies, or tuna along with carrots, egg, pickled radish, spam, or cucumbers.
Naengmyeon: Cold but delicious and thin buckwheat noodles topped with meat, vegetables and eggs make up this soup. It comes served in a broth with a vinegar base and is excellent on super hot summer days.
Pajeon: This is what most people call a “Korean pancake.” These are, however, savory and comprise egg, flour (wheat and/or rice), and many scallions. There are several different kinds such as kimchi, beef, shellfish, and pork.
Seolleongtang: Essentially, this ox bone stew simmers for 14 hours at the very least. This is excellent winter comfort food: rich, hearty, and packed full of flavor without any spice at all. However, some Koreans will add chili paste to their bowl for a bit of a kick.
The History Behind Korean Spicy Food
Korea has a long, rich history that’s integral to the foods and dishes served today. Much of their cuisine takes heavy influence and affectation from social, religious, and political changes.
They started as agricultural and semi-nomadic people, using nature and the environment to guide their dietary choices.
Therefore, they rely mostly on rice, vegetables, and seafood along with meat and a host of specialized spices.
These include things like garlic, pepper flakes, soy sauce, sesame oil and napa cabbage.
However, Korean cuisine focuses a lot on things like fermented foods such as red chili paste, kimchi, and bean paste.
Spicy Food Started in the 17th Century
However, Koreans developed a taste for the spicier side of things around the turn of the 17th century, toward the end the Joseon Period.
Food changed in major ways due to influence from surrounding places like China and Japan as well as an introduction to the West.
It began by adding typical table pepper in huge amounts, which transformed into importing and growing hot peppers from places like Mexico and India.
Today, there’s a whole host of dishes that feature the hot, burning sensation connected to Korean cuisine.
So, while there are many dishes in Korea that are quite spicy, there are several others that are not.
Whether you’re adventurous with food or like to stay on the safe side of things, there’s something in Korean cuisine to suit everyone’s preferences.