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Korean food for Non-Koreans

Hello everyone, I really need your help, specifically if you're not korean and do not eat Korean food regularly.

What Korean dishes have you enjoyed?
Obviously, korean shortrib bbq. but have you tried another type of korean bbq (pork, chicken etc) and did you like it. what about appetizers? side dishes? soup? stew?

I'm taking a group of non-Koreans to a Korean bbq restaurant and as some of them have never had Korean food before and are quite apprehensive about trying it, I want to make this as painless as possible. And since I am Korean and do not have the non-Korean, "traditional mainstream American" palette (i know no such thing exists but you know what i mean), I have no idea what would be "safe".


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  1. jap chae, pajun, bulgogi, soon dobu (if they like seafood and spicier food), and mandoo are things that have gone over well with those new to korean food in my experience.

    1. I suggest bibimbop to my less adventurous dining partners.

      1. I'm Korean, but from past experience introducing friends to Korean food, I think everyone likes the BBQ meats unless they don't eat/like meat. The more vegan type folks usually like bibimbop (although they should get the hot paste on the side). Pa-jun and man-doo are pretty user friendly too. mandoo gook is a safe semi-bland soup to try. i dunno about soondooboo, that takes more getting used to unless they like spicy/hearty stuff (which is pretty much the rest of Korean food anyway). Jap chae is ok too as a stirfry type thing for folks and it's sweet-tasting (although I don't like it much).

        You might also want to try one of the semi-Americanized places like Dok Suni or Woo Lae Oak Soho which is a softer intro.

        1. Also, many korean places, of course, also serve japanese dishes like teriyaki...more familiar to some pallets, altho maybe defeating the purpose of taking someone to a korean place in the first place...

          1. I took some friends and their 3 kids to Kum Gang San a couple of years ago. IIRC, we had bulgoki, spicy pork bbq, two kinds of mandoo (meat & veg), pa jun and maybe 1 or 2 other things I'm forgetting. The kids ranged in age from 10-16, and everything was a hit with everybody.

            I love soon dooboo, mae woon tang, yook gae jang, oh-jing-uh chigae and other incendiary stuff, but I wouldn't have tried it on them.


            I can't imagine anybody not liking bulgoki or pa jun.

            1. i agree with the general sentiment here: stick with barbecued meats, bibimbap, pajun, japchae, and fried mandoo (boiled dumplings don't seem to go over as well, for some reason).

              (on a side note regarding japchae:
              like jeanki, i've never liked the dish despite being korean, but fwiw every first-time korean diner i've ever eaten with has loved it. why this is, i'll never know; japchae is notoriously overpriced and almost never well-executed. as far as i'm concerned, it's a "trap" dish for novice korean diners--easy and cheap for the restaurant to make, and even easier to overcharge first-timers for what i consider a throwaway dish.)

              back to the food recs:
              if the restaurant has stuff like tang soo yook or tweegim (deep-fried items), i'm sure those would be well-received, too.

              other dishes that have been a hit in the past with first-time korean dining companions are japanese items like sushi, sashimi, and teriyaki, but as another poster pointed out, that sort of defeats the purpose of eating at a korean restaurant. besides, best to have those dishes at a good japanese restaurant--sushi in particular is notoriously bad at all the korean eateries i've ever been to.

              regarding the actual location for the dinner, i suppose your decision should be based on the degree of authenticity your guests are expecting. if they merely want to get a very basic sense of what korean food is like, but aren't demanding 100% authenticity while still expecting slick decor/service, then go to a place like woo lae oak or any of the other newfangled, trendy, modern korean joints downtown. if, on the other hand, it's all about immersing themselves in a new cuisine and not trying to be trendy, take them to k-town. kum gang san, won jo, and kang suh tend to be popular among non-koreans, but i think choong moo ro is the best on the block by default.

              8 Replies
              1. re: surly

                I always found japchae to be boring, perhaps because it was at every church function or picnic ever!!! But all of my new-to-korean food friends LOVE it. hahaha...

                I also find that people who can deal with spicy food often like ddukboki or maybe that's just my friends. :-)

                1. re: asm305


                  I am Jean Oh, with the Korea Herald, an English newspaper published in Seoul. We are doing a piece on Korean restaurants in New York highlighting certain changes in the menu, i.e. a new liking for certain spicy foods like ddukiboki.

                  Can we use your comment: "I also find that people who can deal with spicy food often like ddukboki..."

                  If so, please e-mail me your name (pseudonym is fine but real name is preferred), age (optional), position (optional) at: se_j_oh@hotmail.com



                2. re: surly

                  interesting point about jap chae. my friend's grandmother used to make if for us, but only every so often because it took a while, and it was incredibly delicious. the first time i had in a restaurant, i was so disappointed - just a rubbery mass of noodles with giant slices of onion and some beef. i still consider it to be one of my favorite dishes, but the gulf between home-cooked and restaurant-made seems enormous.

                  1. re: wleatherette

                    That is because it is a home dish. You can't really order it at a restaurant in Korea or at least none that I've ever been too. Sometimes it came as a side dish but not that often.

                  2. re: surly

                    Every kind of japchae I've had has been delicious! (outside of a restaurant setting) Especially my mom's :D But yeah, it's not made that often because its a bit time consuming to make, which is sad for my tummy =(

                    Is Woo Lae Oak really that trendy? I think I've been to the one in Seoul a few times and it's... not trendy, haha.

                    1. re: minhae

                      The older ones are more traditional, but the one in Soho and the new one in Tysons Corner Virginia are more fusion-style and geared towards westerners.

                      1. re: minhae

                        The original manhattan Woo Lae Oak was not at all trendy, but this one is in soho, so of course it would be...the first one burned down years ago, and I still miss it.

                        1. re: minhae

                          i think that's what jean and i have alluded to - japchae is never made well in a restaurant setting. i've never been a big fan of it, period, but i think we can all agree that the only way you can get a well-executed version is when it's homemade by a skilled chef. that said, even most of the homemade versions i've had have been ok at best; personally, i can only think of one instance in my life where i had a truly standout version of japchae, back in korea in the '80s, and even that wasn't enough to convert me to the dish long-term. it's just not my cup of tea, obviously.

                          in any event, it seems that japchae is always made really quickly and carelessly at korean restaurants, with a mix of generic ingredients tossed together and thrown on a plate. classic example of quantity over quality. that's why, along with the inflated price, i consider it a "throwaway dish" and thus to be avoided.

                          the others are right - woo lae oak in soho is extremely modern and fusion-style. definitely not traditional, and definitely aimed toward western folks with little or no knowledge of the cuisine. you can't compare it (or the awful northern virginia branch) in any way, shape, or form with the original in seoul, which is a classic "han shik jip".

                      2. Great advice in this thread. Pa jun and japchae are usually winners with Korean food newbies. I will say that bulgoki can be a bit too much meat for some people, so be sure to preview the dish for what it is, if you order it.


                        NYCnosh* http://nycnosh.com

                        1. I am an American, married to a Korean woman, so - although I've tried lots of different dishes, both in Korea and NYC, over the past 8 years - I can still remember what it was like getting my feet wet with this great cuisine.

                          Bibimbab, as one poster mentioned above, is reliable. It is either the first Korean dish I tried, or the first one I really liked - I can't remember. The ingredients are all familiar to non-Koreans, and you can control the level of heat, depending on how much sauce you add.

                          Kalbi, or Korean BBQ, is another good one. Who can't relate to cooking up your own little slabs of beef and wrapping them up in little beds of lettuce with rice et al? It's not only good food - it's a real group activity and ice breaker.

                          Jap-chae, the glassy noodle dish (forgive my spelling) was also an early favorite of mine. As was Duk Mandoo Guk, the dumpling soup with beef and egg.

                          Interestingly enough, the first amongst Korean staples that I actively disliked is the one that I think I have come to like the most now: Kimchi Jigae.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: Polecat

                            when your taste buds acclimate to kimchi jigae, you know you're an official Korean now!

                            1. re: jeanki

                              Yook Gae Jan, as well. I used to live in utter fear of this beef soup. Don't know how it happened, but I'm a big fan now. Taste buds...very strange things, no?

                            2. re: Polecat

                              On my first korean food excursion, I had bulgogi and kimchee jigae...it was love at first bite, that was 25 years ago and it's stil my favorite dish. I was on line at a korean takeout place last year and an old korean man was behind me...he was surpised when I put a bunch of kimchee on my plate...I told him I love kimchee...he said "that's why you're so beatiful!" I so loved that!!

                            3. Also, dont forget to share family style. My friends and
                              I share everything including the bibimbop to get everything in.

                              1. Pork bone soup (Gam Ja Tang) seems to be popular here in Toronto with non Koreans, especially at places that open late. I remember one of the local wags describing it as goulash on steriods.

                                1. Mandu, definitely. Maybe pin dae duk. My western friends also seem obsessed with all things kimchi...

                                  1. oooohh so many good recommendations!
                                    thank you so much!

                                    i'm taking them to Shilla on 32nd Street, and will be careful not to order glass noodles (i agree, it tastes so much better at home), and will probably order beef shortribs, spicy pork, and maybe pork belly. and hopefully, the restaurant will give us some free stuff, like hae-mul pajun or tang soo yook, as a "service" item.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: koreankorean

                                      Shilla's special kalbi is quite good. I tend to go with beer, but they also have a better-than-average wine list, if that's what your group prefers.

                                      1. re: koreankorean

                                        I just went to Shilla for lunch yesterday. It was my first time there. My standbys had always been Kung Gam Sang, Kang Suh, Won Jo & NY Kom Tang Soot Bul House. Shilla was quite good. I had the yellow croaker & soon dooboo combo lunch, and the side dishes were excellent.

                                      2. ...i highly recommend that you order some bibimbop stoneware for them if your not making them eat any japchae.

                                        1. i second the reco for dukboki as an appetizer. it's spicy, super- thick pasta noodles. really, really good. also, i agree with everything polecat wrote. rolling the bulgogi or kalbi in lettuce with rice and sauce is so good and such an ice-breaker. i also recommend any of the hot stone pots. i love to slam the rice down against the steaming pot so it gets crunchy. i am not korean but one of my non-korean friends spent a year or two in korean teaching english and introduced this food to me 10 yrs ago. YUM!!!!!!!!!!!! i'm curious to hear about your dinner.

                                          1. I am one of those people who eat fish and poultry but not beef or pork. I know there are lots of interesting Korean restaurants that I could try when visiting my folks in Fort Lee, NJ, or in NYC, but am a little unsure of what best to order, only having been to Korean restaurants a few times. Love kim chee, any kind of noodles, anything spicy. Any recommendations, suggestions greatly appreciated.

                                            1. Just wanted to resurrect and chime into this post, as I will be in the same situation this Friday. Luckily, half of us are Korean/familiar with Korean food, and the other half is willing to try. So I'm trying to pick a great place for BBQ and all-around food, particularly jigaes, and narrow down a list of dishes to order.

                                              So far, from the info in this thread and interrogation of my family, I think haemool pajun and ddukboki are good starters. We'll definitely order kalbi to bbq. The other dishes are up in the air, but I'm thinking dolsot bibimbap, soondoobu jigae, and yook hwe jang (or is it yook kye jang? I'm a terrible Korean). But no japchae - my family agreed it's something restaurants are careless about, and I never even liked it - always reminds me of crappy church lunches, as someone also mentioned above (haha!). Plus, it seems like such an outlier in Korean cuisine - maybe more like Chinese?

                                              Anyway, it sounds like Woo Chon is a top contender, as well as Kang Suh. But a lot of the threads were old. I like Kunjip, but quarters are just a little too cramped, and they're probably better at jigaes than at bbq.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: janethepain


                                                I am Jean Oh, with the Korea Herald, an English newspaper published in Seoul. We are doing a piece on Korean restaurants in New York highlighting certain changes in the menu, i.e. a new liking for certain spicy foods like ddukiboki.

                                                Can we use your comment: "I think haemool pajun and ddukboki are good starters."

                                                If so, please e-mail me your name (pseudonym is fine but real name is preferred), age (optional), position (optional) at: se_j_oh@hotmail.com