I am very excited because in this post, I am going to talk about food in my favorite city of all, Seoul! Yeay! In this post, I’ll talk about all the cheap but delicious food that can make you feel full for 5,000 won or less.
This is not a “where you should eat” post, unless I say so, because I don’t want to make any claim that a certain restaurant is the best in a particular dish or something to that effect. I’ll just share what I think you should eat when you are in Seoul so that you can also fully immerse yourself in Korean culture and not just thrive on convenience store food the whole time.
When I travel, there are days when I splurge on food but there are also times when I don’t, especially when I am still feeling bloated from eating a lot the previous day, or that I am saving up for a major gastronomic experience later in my itinerary. But if there’s one rule that I personally follow, it is that I don’t deprive myself when it comes to food. I don’t push my travel plans if I don’t have the budget to feed myself good food. Conversely, I don’t travel if I know that my budget will only allow me to eat convenience store food during my whole stay, or that I would skip snacks or coffee time because I will go over a certain budget. In short, when I travel, making food decisions is something that I take seriously.
And with that, let’s move on!
Dosirak is a packed meal that consists of rice and side dishes, and sometimes meat. The photo above was taken at Dosirak Cafe in Tongin Market. There, you need to pay 5,000 won in exchange for 10 coins that you can use to purchase food from participating stalls in Tongin Market. For 5,000 won, I was able to get a cup of rice, some sweet & spicy chicken, some pork dish that tastes like afritada, japchae, an egg roll, and a cup of fresh fruits (not in photo because I got it after my meal when I found out that I still had 2 coins left). That’s a lot of food even for my big appetite. I ended up asking for the lunch tray cover to take it home. So for one day, I was able to spend only 5,000 won for lunch and dinner.
But you don’t need to go to Tongin Market in Seochon to buy a dosirak. Convenience stores abound in Seoul and that’s where you can buy a dosirak for 3,500-5,000won depending on what you choose. An eel dosirak is more expensive than a fried chicken dosirak. Again, the serving is too big for me. You can share this with a friend or if you must, save it for another meal time. When sharing, if you feel like the meat and side dishes are too much but you need more rice, then just add a cup of rice that you can also buy and reheat at the convenience store. It just costs around 1,200-1,500won. You can already have a 5,000-6,500won meal for two!
Lotteria is like the McDonald’s of Korea or our very own Jollibee. They specialize in American burgers. They do have special burgers like Shrimp Burger, Bulgogi Burger, or the Boneless Chicken Burger. But for only 4,700won you can already get a filling Teri Burger Set that comes with a drink and side dish.
Gimbap/Kimbap is rice rolled with other ingredients in dried seaweed. A typical roll will include eggs and vegetables. I have tried tuna and bulgogi gimbaps and they’re absolutely delicious. At Myeongdong MOM House, gimbap is one of the staples for breakfast. It’s served almost every morning while I was there and I’m really thankful for it because other than being very filling, it is also something that I can grab and eat while in transit. You can order gimbap in restaurants or snack houses but the cheapest I found can be bought from convenience stores. For about 2,000won or maybe less, you can already bag a roll of gimbap. I bought two rolls in the morning of my Nami Island tour last October 2017 and I ate one in the bus and then I had the other one as snack while walking around the island. It’s easy on the wallet and is easy to carry. Gimbap is a definite must-eat.
I remember the very first time I learned about bibimbap. It was while watching Full House which starred Rain and Song Hye Kyo way back in 2004-2005. That’s the drama that started my love affair with Korea. In that drama, Han Ji Eun (played by Song Hye Kyo) grabbed leftover food from the refrigerator, put them all together in a bowl, added some spicy sauce, and mixed them all up into something that made my mouth water. I got very curious about what it is and when I first tried bibimbap myself, I realized that it tasted exactly as I have imagined it. As I’m writing this, Youn’s Kitchen Season 2 is on TVN and they’re serving bulgogi bibimbap. Seriously, every time I watch that show, I start to crave. Bibimbap comes from the word “bibim” which means “mix” and “bap” which means “rice.” So bibimbap is essentially rice mixed with vegetables and meat or tofu and then topped with egg. You can mix it with soy sauce or the spicy gochujang sauce. In Seoul, you can find bibimbap for as low as 3,500-5,000won.
One of my favorite breakfast food in Seoul is definitely Isaac Toast. There are many branches in all over Seoul but the one I frequently go to is the Myeongdong branch. What sets Korean toasts apart from the other toasts is the addition of vegetables and something sweet which can be sugar, honey, or jam. It’s actually the marriage of sweet and salty flavors that makes it really yummy. My favorite is Bacon Best which costs only 2,900 won.
NOODLES (RAMYEON / KALGUKSU / JJAJJANGMYEON)
You can eat ramyeon practically in all convenience stores around Seoul. You can even go to a local mart to buy them and then prepare them back at your guesthouse/hotel. You may also find cheap but authentic and delicious Korean ramyeon in small eateries like Ramyeon Jjumbang near Gyeongbokgung. There, you can find ramyeon for 3,000-5,000 won.
Another noodle dish that you can eat for less is jjajangmyeon or the black bean noodle dish that you can frequently see as being ordered for delivery in most K-dramas. It’s made of hand-pulled noodles, black soybean sauce (jjajang), some pork or seafood at times, and vegetables. It used to be served on special events or occasions only but it’s now served in almost all Chinese-Korean restaurants. The average cost of jjajangmyeon is about 4,500-5,000 won.
There’s another noodle dish that can fill you up and really make you feel warm especially during a cold night. It’s kalguksu, a soupy noodle dish with flavorful broth and vegetables. In the touristy area of Myeongdong is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant popularly known as Myeongdong Kyoja. I was able to try their kalguksu and mandu last October 2017 and instantly fell in love with the pair. I am not into Japanese ramen which makes me feel dizzy after eating. I am more into soupy noodle dishes like kalguksu. It’s light yet filling and gives a really nice finish after eating. A bowl, if I remember correctly, costs 8,000 won but it’s good for double or even triple sharing. So per person, it still is a dish that will make you pay less than 5,000 won.
TTEOKBOKKI / FISHCAKES (ODENG/EOMUK)
Tteokbokki is a snack food in Korea. It is spicy and is made of thick rice noodles. It’s very chewy and in all honesty, I am not a fan of it. I have tried tteokbokki as a stand-alone snack, or in a cup chicken dish, and even on pasta with lots of mozzarella on top. Some of my friends like it, but for me, I find it to be too chewy to become a personal favorite. (It’s actually the same as my same reaction to naengmyeon, a cold dish with very chewy noodles.) By itself, tteokbokki would probably cost you some 2,000-3,000 won. If served in a cup with sweet and spicy chicken, it would cost you around 5,000 won. That is one complete meal already.
You can also get full from eating fishcakes (eomuk/odeng). The fishcakes, which are similar to the fish balls in the Philippines, are processed seafood mixed with starch, vegetables, and seasoning. But unlike how fish balls are served here, fishcakes in Korea are often cooked in broth. You can find them mostly from street vendors. You can ask for a cup of broth so that you can soak your fishcakes into it, and also sip the broth to keep you warm. I enjoy holding the cup because of the warmth it gives to my hands and definitely, I love sipping the broth because it makes me feel warm inside. A stick will cost around 1,500-3,000won depending on where you are. I experienced that fishcakes in Busan are cheaper than those in Myeongdong, for instance. Maybe it’s because I’ve tried eating fishcakes so many times already that my batting average in picking a stick with my preferred texture is pretty high. A fishcake that looks like the thing is breaking up/falling apart when you pick up the stick means that it has been soaked for a very long time. Also, a fishcake that looks brown on the edges or in some parts means that it wasn’t cooked evenly or that it may actually have been cooked twice. I get fishcakes that are neither of the two and they’re those that look plump and juicy.
Tucked in the University area of Sinchon is Cochon Tonkatsu. It’s not entirely a Korean dish but Koreans love deep-fried pork cutlets. One of the most filling dishes you can eat is the pork cutlet set which comes with rice, miso soup, and some shredded cabbage. And the best thing is, the whole set costs only 3,000 won!
Koreans love pizza. Ever since Pizza Hut arrived in Korea in the 80s, the pizza scene has evolved and has grown diverse by heaps and bounds. There are many Korean pizza chains and restaurants that offer Neapolitan style pizzas, and there are also casual spots that offer New York style pizzas. Flavor-wise, the pizza scene has been “Koreanized” in that you can also find fusion flavors like bulgogi pizza for instance. Now there is a small pizzeria in Itaewon called Maddux Pizza that sells humongous New York style pizza by the slice. They have a variety of toppings from the simple cheese and pepperoni, to the popular spinach and artichoke pizza. What’s good is that you can get a slice for as low as 4,200 won. There is very limited seating at the store, like maybe just 15-20 seats. But because it is pizza, you can just take it out and enjoy it al fresco. And there you go, another meal for less than 5,000 won.
Pomato is restaurant chain specializing in affordable Korean dishes. Despite being affordable, their food selection is wide, and their food, delicious. They have many locations, mostly near subway stations. It is easy to understand their menu because they’re written in four languages, English included. The best part is that Pomato is open 24/7. The price of food varies from 2,000 won to as much as 7,500 won. For example, you can get gimbap for 2,000-2,500won, or noodles from 3,000-4,000won, or bibimbap and other rice meals for 5,000 won.
And that’s it. My list of food that will make you feel full for 5,000 won or less in Seoul.
But wait… How come street food is not on the list?
I purposely did not include street food because while they can be relatively cheap, some street food are not necessarily filling. Or some may be filling but not necessarily cheap. To tell you in all honesty, Myeongdong street food ain’t really cheap. Steaks, lobster tails, and giant scallops cost more than 8,000-10,000 won per serving. They’re still cheaper than if you have them in restaurants but since they’re street food and they’re above 5,000 won, I didn’t include them. Gyeranbbang or bungeoppang may cost 5,000 won or less but you’d still want to eat more to say that you had a filling meal, right?
I love street food and I can totally have a complete meal just eating street food. In fact, in all my previous travels to Seoul, there is always that one night dedicated for a street food dinner. However, based on experience, I needed to spend more than 5,000 won to complete a meal and that’s the reason why street food is not in this list.
Then what about those tents or covered wagons that you find in the streets? They’re popular in K-dramas. Don’t they sell cheap food? They do. That’s where you can buy tteokbokki or fishcakes. But the fact that they don’t look fancy doesn’t necessarily mean that eating there is budget-friendly. I had an experience eating in a pojangmacha and paid 80,000 won for 4 sticks of fishcakes, 1 spicy noodle soup, 1 squid, and 2 bottles of soju. And that’s the first and last time I have eaten in a street food tent.
Just like here in the Philippines, there are expensive spots but there’s also a lot of cheap options in Seoul. In fact, their cheap options are much better because they frequently have each food group in a meal: carbs, protein, fats, and vegetables in one dish/set. I hope that when you go to Seoul on a budget, you would not only think of eating convenience store or street food to save on money. Just go out there, explore, and don’t worry about your food budget in Seoul. As I told you, you can get a meal for 5,000 won or less and feel full enough to let you have the energy until your next meal.