I spent nearly half a year of my life on exchange in Seoul, South Korea, taking classes at Korea University. While it honestly may sound like a fake university, it’s a legitimate school, and one of the top three universities in Korea at that. In my four months there I had the opportunity to explore ancient palaces, learn intimate elements of a culture vastly different from my own and eat my way through an entire country. These are the foods I miss the most.
1. Convenience Store Kimbap
This was the easiest meal to pick up on a busy day while studying or running around to classes. I mourn the loss of being able to stop in any convenience store (but usually 7-Eleven) on my way to campus to pick up a burrito sized kimbap roll for $1. If I was feeling fancy, I could go a little further up the road and get a roll the size of my arm for $1.50.
2. Salmon Bowls
Since being home I haven’t found a place to get good salmon bowls and that’s a shame. I used to go out and get these at least once a week at a small Japanese restaurant off of the side gate of Korea University. When I first got to Korea I will admit I was hesitant to try raw salmon but that lasted a total of one visit before I was fully introduced to the beauty of salmon bowls.
3. Spicy Rice Cakes
There was a small stand down the street from the goshiwon I stayed in that had spicy rice cakes. I went my first night and immediately regretted it. I was not prepared for the spicy assault that happened to my mouth. Be warned, spicy rice cakes build in heat—you’ll start off thinking you’re fine until suddenly you’re not and you’re on fire.
4. Fish Cakes
This side dish in Korean restaurants in the U.S. are the equivalent of chicken wings in bars in Korea. I miss nights I spent with friends, slowing snacking on these fantastic little strips of fish. Although I’m still not sure why they’re called cakes or if they are even actually fish.
Yes, I can get juice here in America, but it’s not the same. In a country where fruit is either ridiculously expensive or just impossible to get, these juices made from fresh fruit directly in front of you feel like the elixir of life. This stand also happened to be on my route between my goshiwon and my university, so it was always ridiculously easy to stop and grab a cup.
6. Nutella Bagels
I’ve tried desperately to find good bagels back in Atlanta and have come up empty handed. Nothing will compare to the fantastic bagels I had while in Korea, which might surprise some people. There was a bagel place near the side gate of Korea University that had cream cheese flavors from Nutella to Jalapeño, and every single one of them was fantastic. I would even eat them for a quick meal sometimes. (If you can’t get to Korea but love bagels, your second best choice would be one of these bagel shops in New York City.)
7. Breakfast Bagels From Isaac
Breakfast bagels from Isaac were entirely different from the cream cheese bagels by the side gate. These were beautiful buttered stacks of egg, bacon, and cheese on warmed bagels prepared in front of you. They were probably horrible for me but the they tasted so good that I just didn’t care.
8. Pizza With Corn
At first the presence of corn on literally every pizza you can buy was unnerving. You could order the most basic cheese pizza at a restaurant, and it would still have corn on it. You could think you were corn-free and that you had avoided it, but it would still be hiding under the toppings somehow. After I finally accepted my fate of corn-filled pizza, I actually grew to love it. Now it’s just another thing that I miss about ordering pizza in the U.S. But what you can’t find you can make yourself.
Most people treated bingsu as a special treat that they got on rare occasions or celebration nights, but we treated it as a regular dessert. At first we would split a few different flavored bowls between a group (my favorite was the chocolate one) but eventually we found a place that we referred to as the “personal bingsu place” but later learned that the sizes at the new shop were still for sharing.
10. Korean Fried Chicken
Yes, there is fried chicken in America but, no, it’s not the same. Not all of my Korean fried chicken dining experiences were the best. There was the one on which I swear they sprinkled dried cheese packs from Easy Mac cups on top, but for the most part everything else was fantastic. You could get the spiciest fried chicken you’ve ever imagined, and you can get weird fusion flavors like alfredo fried chicken. There’s also the greatness that is chicken and beer nights, which actually has a Korean name. I had a professor that once invited the entire class out for chicken and beer night. American fried chicken is different, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good places to find it in United States.
I’m sad to admit that I didn’t actually try bulgogi until the end of my semester in Korea. That was an awful mistake because it is fantastic. I ate bulgogi-flavored things in Korea often, usually at McDonalds or in kimbap, but going to a restaurant that specialized in bulgogi led me to a massive appreciation for the tasty dish.
12. Ice Cream Waffle Sandwiches
I gained 20 pounds while in Korea. I’m pretty sure half of them are from eating ice cream waffle sandwiches nearly daily. They were only $1 and came in pretty much every flavor you could imagine. Even when it got cold and I had to wear gloves to keep my fingers from falling off, I would still get ice cream waffle sandwiches because true love doesn’t stop for weather. If you can’t find a place to make them for you, it’s definitely a treat worth assembling for yourself.
13. Egg Tarts
I’m pretty sure this street food snack was about 50% of my diet in Korea. They tasted like cornbread but different—which I realize is an awful way to describe something. I once took a subway at 9 pm just to get egg tarts (so you can accurately gauge my love for their goodness). They’re not the only delicious Korean street food, however.