What Are the Best Choices at Korean Restaurants?

By Nancy Snyder, MS, RD

Q: What are the Best Choices at Korean Restaurants?

A: Korean cuisine can be a smart choice when dining out because many restaurants have maintained the tradition of preparing dishes with minimal fat while delivering taste through fresh ingredients and herbs.
Typical Korean dishes are comprised of a protein—seafood, beef, chicken or soy—that has been marinated and grilled, barbecued, or stir-fried lightly with sesame oil. Accompanying this is often rice or noodles, steamed or pickled vegetables (known as kimchi), and seasonings of garlic, ginger, or fresh herbs and spices.

While this may sound like all the components for a healthy dish, the calories and fat can add up fast depending on preparation method, portion size, and amount of sauce. Use the following recommendations as a guide for a guilt-free dish:

  • Watch your portions. Korean food is traditionally served family style and accompanied by banchan, or side dishes (such as soup and various other items). Check with your server to see what is included with your entrée; if one dish contains multiple servings, avoid overeating by sharing with a friend or saving half for leftovers.
  • Start with soup. Broth-based soups are a great, low-calorie appetizer to help fill you up and decrease calories eaten later in the meal. Choose broth-based soups and stews over mandu, or dumplings. Be aware that these soups can be high in sodium, so if this is a concern, share with your dining companion or limit yourself to just one cup.
  • Preparation is key. When skimming the menu, look for entrées that are steamed, roasted or broiled. Stir-fried dishes are also ideal, as a minimal amount of oil is used in cooking. Avoid tempura dishes and anything else that has been battered or deep-fried. Not sure how the dish is prepared? Just ask your server, and you’ll be sure to slash off any hidden and unwanted fat and calories.
  • Go light on the starch. Many Asian dishes are accompanied by noodles (guksu) or rice (bap). When possible, opt for steamed, brown rice.  This is a delicious way to get a serving of whole grains complete with fiber, protein and vital nutrients. If this option isn’t available, be sure to watch your portions, enjoying smaller servings of white rice or noodles. 
  • Fill up on vegetables, instead. Your dish doesn’t contain them? Ask for them! Vegetables used most often in Korean dishes—broccoli, carrots, mushroom, snap peas, and bok choy—deliver flavor, texture, and a wide variety of nutrients to the cuisine.
  • Ask for sauce on the side. This simple request gives you control over how much or how little of the often higher calorie, high sugar sauces (including BBQ) you might add.  This is also a good strategy for those watching their sodium intake.