What Is Korean Spa Food? Soondubu and Noodles Served at Jjimjilbangs

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

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

My friends and I have a monthly ritual where we meet up at our local Korean spa, hang out in the 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). The day is not complete, however, until we’ve sat down to a rejuvenating Korean meal.

Unlike their Western counterparts, most Korean spas offer some sort of restaurant or cafe for spa goers to savor between steam room sessions, baths, or treatments. It’s due to the fact that the majority of spas in Korea are open for 24 hours a day, and many choose to devote hours at the spa—at least according to Sophia Kim, the chief operating officer of King Spa in Chantilly, Virginia. If you spend upwards of four to eight hours sweating and lounging, you’re bound to get hungry.

“After sweating it out, being in the water, and showering, there’s just something about having a nice, nourishing home-cooked meal,” says Cat Bak, who runs Los Angeles–based Hugh Spa with her mother.

Bak is not joking when she says home-cooked. Her mom, Yoonhee Bak, is the person in the kitchen whipping up Korean classics like japchae, or Korean glass noodles, and bowls of bubbling tofu soup, soondubu.

“If there’s somebody she notices has been here for a while, she’ll be like, ‘Aren’t you hungry? Come come, let me give you some soup,’” Bak laughs.

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

Bak estimates that 90% of Hugo Spa’s clients are vegetarian, and so she and her mother adjusted the menu to include vegetarian bibimbap, rice cakes, and dumplings. The soup broth is also vegetarian.

At SoJo Spa Club in New Jersey, which offers eight floors of saunas and lounges, the restaurant’s menu also aims to suit its clientele. “Although we’re definitely Korean-inspired, I like to think of ourselves as more of a melting pot than strictly a Korean spa,” says Esther Cha, the senior marketing manager for the spa. “We’re constantly evolving and adapting to be a reflection of our clients. The people that come to SoJo come from so many different backgrounds, and so our menu tries to traverse that distance.”

That’s not to say that SoJo doesn’t have any Korean food, however. There’s soy and garlic-marinated bulgolgi, rice cakes served with bok choy and an assortment of mushrooms, and fried dumplings. But, there’s also a variety of pizzas, a kale Caesar salad, and Cha’s favorite, cheeseburgers. The space also encompasses an infinity lounge that serves hot chocolate, pastries, avocado toast, yogurt, and egg scrambles, all overlooking the New York City skyline.

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

Virginia’s King Spa also serves a mix of traditional Korean fare and Western dishes. There are chicken tenders and corn dogs, plus Korean-style ramyun and the cold noodles known as naemyung, a perfect way to cool off after spending time in hot Jacuzzis.

The best-selling dish is KFC, or Korean fried chicken, says Kim. “This item isn’t [usually] offered in 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’s not a traditional Korean dish but more of a modern twist to American fried chicken with Korean soy sauce-based sauces.”

For traditionalists, King Spa also offers oven-baked eggs, a classic snack at Korean spas. “The eggs are baked in our famous Bul Han Jung Mak Dome, which is heated to over 800 degrees daily,” Kim says.

In Korean culture, many people go to spas for post-natal care. For those guests, King Spa servesmiyuk guk, or seaweed soup, which is often served at birthdays and after giving birth due to its high iron and mineral content and soothing flavors.

For many who own and operate Korean spas in the United States, food is integral to the experiences they provide and communities they serve.

“There was no question that we had to have a restaurant at our spa,” Bak says. “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 a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.

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