What is Korean spa food? Soondubu and noodles served at Jjimjilbangs

Bulgolgi, rice cakes and hot soups are typical dishes served at Korean spas. | Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Bulgolgi, rice cakes and hot soups are typical dishes served at Korean spas. | Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

My friends and I have a monthly ritual where we meet at our local Korean spa, hang out in saunas and hot tubs for hours, and shed dead skin like a snake thanks to a massage therapist (if you’ve read Crying in H-Mart, you know). However, the day isn’t over until we sit down for a rejuvenating session. Korean meal.

Unlike their Western counterparts, most Korean spas offer some kind of restaurant or coffee for spa lovers to savor between hammam sessions, baths or treatments. This is because the majority of spas in Korea are open 24 hours a day and many choose to spend hours at the spa, at least according to Sophia Kim, the COO of Spa King in Chantilly, Virginia. If you spend more than four to eight hours sweating and lounging around, you’re bound to be hungry.

“After sweating, getting in the water, and taking a shower, there’s just something about a good, nourishing home-cooked meal,” says Cat Bak, who runs a Los Angeles-based business. Spa Hugues with his mother.

Bak isn’t kidding when she says it’s homemade. His mother, Yoonhee Bak, is the person in the kitchen who prepares Korean classics like japchae, or Korean glass noodles, and bowls of bubbling tofu soup, soondubu.

“If there’s someone she notices has been here for a while, she’ll say, ‘Aren’t you hungry? Come on, let me get you some soup,'” Bak laughs.

This style of home hospitality works: the mother-daughter duo has loyal customers, and nearly everyone who visits the spa dines there too. “Sometimes people come just for the food,” Bak adds. “They don’t necessarily care about the spa.”

Bak estimates that 90% of Hugo Spa customers are vegetarians. So she and her mother adjusted the menu to include vegetarian bibimbap, rice cakes and Dumplings. The soup broth is also vegetarian.

To So Jo Spa Club in New Jersey, which offers eight floors of saunas and lounges, the restaurant menu is also intended to be adapted to its clientele. “While we’re definitely Korean-inspired, I like to think of ourselves more as a melting pot than a strictly Korean spa,” says Esther Cha, senior marketing manager for the spa. “We are constantly evolving and adapting to reflect our customers. People who come to SoJo come from so many different backgrounds, and so our menu tries to bridge that distance.

That’s not to say SoJo doesn’t have Korean food, though. There are bulgolgi marinated in soy and garlic, rice cakes served with bok choy and assorted mushrooms, and fried meatballs. But there is also a variety of pizza, a kale Caesar salad and Cha’s favorite cheeseburgers. The space also includes an infinity lounge that serves hot chocolatepastries, avocado toast, yogurt and scrambled eggs, all with a view of the New York skyline.

korean spa cuisine
Vegetarian bibimbap is served at the Hugh Spa. | Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Virginia’s King Spa also serves a mix of traditional Korean and Western dishes. There’s chicken fillets and corn dogs, as well as Korean-style ramyun and cold noodles known as naemyung, a perfect way to cool down after spending time in hot jacuzzis.

The top-selling dish is KFC, or Korean Fried Chicken, Kim says. “This item is not [usually] offered at Korean spas, but the owner learned how to make them from one of the famous KFC franchises and decided to put it on the menu. It is not a traditional Korean dish, but rather a modern take on American fried chicken with sauces made from Korean soy sauce.

For the traditionalists, King Spa also offers baked dishes eggs, a classic Korean spa snack. “Eggs are cooked in our famous Bul Han Jung Mak Dome, which is heated to over 800 degrees daily,” Kim explains.

In Korean culture, many people go to spas for post-natal care. For these guests, the King Spa serves miyuk guk, or seaweed soup, which is often served on birthdays and after childbirth due to its high iron and mineral content and soothing flavors.

For many Korean spa owners and operators in the United States, food is integral to the experiences they provide and the communities they serve.

“There was no doubt that we had to have a restaurant in our spa,” says Bak. “Going to the spa with your family is a bonding experience, and so is food. So everyone can gather at the jjimjilbang, or bathhouse, and bond.

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Kat Thompson is senior food and drink writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

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