Proper etiquette varies from country to country and even the aspects of life you think are the same from place to play may be startlingly different. Such is true with Korean dining etiquette.
There are a few things you should and should not do to ensure you present the best manners possible without offending your hosts.
Dining in Groups in Korea
Korean culture hinges on good food. Most Koreans do not eat alone but prefer to dine in large groups, either with friends and family or coworkers. The first thing to remember is to always have respect for your elders. If you are going to have a meal with someone older than you, wait until he is seated before you sit. You should not begin eating until he begins to eat and you should not leave the table until he is finished, either.
In Western countries it is traditional for large groups dining together, if eating out, to split the bill evenly. In Korea it is traditional for the oldest member of the group to pay the bill. The younger members usually show their respect and gratitude by paying for coffee or dessert at a later point in the evening.
Proper Eating Etiquette
When it’s actually time to chow down you will need to observe a few simple customs. The first is the order of the food you eat. It is traditional to first taste your soup and then move on to your rice and other side dishes.
Do not be shocked to see your food served in one large, communal dish. It is not uncommon for everyone to eat directly out of this dish. If you are uncomfortable you can place some food onto your smaller, individual plate.
Make sure you clean your spoon completely as it is offensive to leave traces of food on your spoon. When you are finished eating you should place both your food and chopsticks in their original positions. Never, ever leave your chopsticks sticking straight up out of a bowl of rice. This is considered rude and in many Asian countries is tradition reserved for funerals.
Drinking in Korea
Most restaurants in Korea will include water and green tea with your meals. If you are drinking alcohol, which is an important aspect of business, you will receive a separate glass. In most Asian countries it is traditional to wait until someone else has filled your glass before you drink – never filling your own. If you see that your neighbor’s glass is empty you should refill it for him.
A Note about Chopsticks
In most Asian countries you will find that chopsticks are made from wood. In Korea, however, you will usually receive stainless steel chopsticks decorated at the grip end. If you are uncomfortable eating with chopsticks it is perfectly acceptable to ask for traditional flatware.
Identifying Korean Foods
The names of some Korean foods can be quite confusing, especially if you are largely unfamiliar with the Korean language. The following are a few words you should familiarize yourself with as doing so will help you to identify a few common Korean foods.
- Altang (Spicy roe soup)
- Galbitang (Beef rib soup)
- Gamja buchim (Potato pancake)
- Guksu jeongol (Noodle casserole)
- Hobakjuk (Pumpkin porridge)
- Kimchi jjigae (Kimchi Stew)
- Modeum hoe (Assorted raw fish)
- Nakji jeongol (Small octopus soup)
- Sundubu (Soft tofu)
- Yukgaejang (Spicy beef soup)
Incredible Korean Dishes
Now that you know a bit about dining etiquette and how to identify a few foods you should prepare yourself for the myriad of amazing Korean dishes you’ll have the opportunity to try on your trip.
Kimchi is a very popular and healthy dish made from cabbage that has been soaked in salt water. It is then seasoned with a plethora of spices before being allowed to ferment. While cabbage kimchi is the most common you will also find cucumber, green onion, and radish kimchi on many menus.
Bulgogi is a delicious grilled beef dish. Also sometimes made with pork, the meat is thinly sliced and then left to marinate in a sauce made of pear juice, soy sauce, minced garlic, and a number of other ingredients. After marinating, the meat is grilled.
Samgyetang is not your average chicken soup. A very young chicken will be cleaned out and, still whole, stuffed with a number of spices and ingredients. The entire chicken is then boiled in an effort to make the broth. The cook will later add some sweet rice, garlic, jujube, ginseng, chestnut, and whatever other ingredients he deems necessary.
It is most important, above anything else, for you to enjoy your time in Korea. You may or may not remember everything there is to know about Korean dining etiquette but your Korean hosts will not expect you to, either. They’ll simply be glad you made an effort. Not sure where to dine? Ask the concierge at your South Korean hotel to direct you to a traditional restaurant in the area!