EATING CUSTOMS IN KOREA
Traditionally, Korean food is served all at one time, not in courses. A typical Korean meal consists of rice, seven side dishes known as panchon, and a main course, often a soup that is eaten collectively from a single pot with a spoon. Koreans use their chopsticks for side dishes and eat their rice with a spoon. There is no set order of when to eat what, people eat according to their personal preference.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Koreans do not use knives and forks, though they use spoons for mixing and stirring things as well as for eating soup. The main utensil is a pair of chopsticks for the rice and side dishes. The lack of a knife is not usually a problem since the cooking process involves cutting things into bits that can easily be managed with chopsticks. One of the few things that is eaten with the fingers is a lettuce-leaf rollup of rice, kochujang pepper paste, and samples from the side dishes, that is popped into the mouth. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
Koreans generally don't use napkins. At restaurants, there is often a roll of toilet paper that serves in place of napkins. At least this was the case when I lived in South Korea in the 1990s. Sometimes Koreans don't drink anything with a meal; sometimes water or boricha (drink made with barley or burnt rice) is served.
According to the Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World: “There is little difference in what Koreans eat for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Breakfast, the biggest meal of the day, may include a cold soup, such as oi naeng guk (oh-ee nayng good; cucumber soup), steamed peppers, and saeng son jon (fish patties). Meals are considered an important event in the day to Koreans and much time is spent in its preparation. At mealtime, the dishes of food are placed in the middle of the table and individual bowls of rice are set in front of each person. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Koreans consider it somewhat rude to eat in front of non-eating people, or to eat while walking down the streets. The latter custom dates back to a time when eating in public was considered mean to people who didn't have enough to eat.
Socializing During a Meal in Korea
Traditionally, Koreans believed it was impolite to talk to much while eating. A good meal, it was believed, could be spoiled by conversation. When three generations shared the same house, the grandparents ate separately. A common greeting in Korea has been to ask someone if they have eaten yet, which reflects how important mealtime is.
Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “Social life—that is, interaction with those who are not related but are associates in the "public" sphere—is more typically a male prerogative, and it takes place away from the house. Though the household head may have a sarangbang visitors' room at home in which to receive and entertain friends, he normally prefers to go out to a restaurant, coffee shop, or tearoom to meet his friends and associates. So much interaction goes on in restaurants, in fact, that even the smallest Korean village has an establishment where one can order food and get together outside the home” [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]
According to the Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World: ““Meals are considered an important event in the day. In fact, Koreans find eating so important they want to concentrate all of their attention on it, and consider it impolite to talk while eating. They avoid conversation until the end of the meal. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Many of the customs have been altered by modernization and Westernization. Many Koreans sit at Western-style chairs, eat off dining tables and converse freely during meal. It is also common to see people eating while they are walking.
Table Manners, Slurping, and Finger Licking in Korea
Koreans consider it uncouth to lick your fingers or blow your nose, especially when eating. If you use a toothpick cover your mouth while you do it. Also remember that an empty rice bowl if often a sign that you have finished eating.
Blowing your nose in public in considered highly offensive in Korea. If you have the sniffles or are stuffed up, it is best to excuse yourself and blow your nose in a rest room. Yawning loudly and chewing gun in public are also considered rude. It is considered bad manners in Korea to lift rice bowls, like Chinese often do, to eat, or smoke in front of the elderly.
Koreans often make loud slurping noises when eating noodles. Making noise is not considered impolite, rather, it is considered a compliment and an expression of enjoying the food. In some situations, a particularly loud slurp means you've finished eating. Some restaurants fill up quickly during lunchtime, and there is huge cacophony of slurping while people eating, and after ten or fifteen minutes everyone gets up and leaves, and the restaurant is almost empty.
Koreans have traditionally not started eating until the eldest person at the table pick up his chopsticks or spoon. No one is excused from the table until the eldest person has finished eating. When offering a plate, dish, glass or bottle to someone who is older than you, you show respect by using two hands to present the object. Since ancient times, Korean placed importance on the custom of respecting elders. For example, young boys and girls are expected to address their elders respectfully; smoking and drinking are not allowed in front of elders unless you have to drink. When drinking, one should never drink with one's back towards the elders; when dining, rice and dishes should first be served first to seniors. When guests come, tables and banquets should be arranged separately for elder guests. Delicacies should be put in front of the elders. Juniors should not take their delicacies before the seniors move their chopsticks. When a young person encounters a senior person, whether they are acquainted or not, the younger person is expected to offer a respectful greeting. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, kepu.net.cn ~]
Korean Table Setting
A properly set Korean tables has the bowl of rice on the right side, with the soup, spoon and chopsticks respectively to the left. According to proper Korean etiquette a spoon should never be put down on the table until eating is finished. Before that time the spoon should either be set inside on leaned against the edge of the rice bowl or soup bowl.
According to the “Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World”: “The Korean table setting is much different than the table setting used in the United States. The tables, finished with shiny red or black lacquer, are only 10 inches high. Diners are seated on cushions placed on the floor around the table. Beautiful patterns in mother-of-pearl decorate the tables. When the table is not being used, it is hung on the wall like a picture.” [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Foods and Recipes of the World, The Gale Group, Inc., 2002]
Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “With a few exceptions, all components of the meal are on the table at one time. A set of a spoon and metal chop-sticks is used while eating. Rice, soup, and other liquids are eaten with the former, side dishes with the latter. Soup and rice are served in individual bowls, but side dishes are often shared by more than one diner. Nowadays, bowls are usually made of stoneware, steel, or plastic, but for special occasions white porcelain tableware is used. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
“ In the past, the upper classes dined from brass bowls in the winter and porcelain ones during the hot summer months. A silver set of chopsticks and a spoon was considered most elegant. Less affluent sections of the population generally dined from earthenware, using wooden chopsticks and spoons. According to Korean etiquette, it is considered inelegant to lift bowls from the table. They stay on the table during the entire meal, unlike in the rest of East Asia, where it is customary to lift bowls up to the mouth while eating.”
Chopsticks, Spoons, Knives, Scissors and Rice
Rice is served in a metal bowl and often eaten in with a spoon. By contrast Chinese and Japanese usually eat it in a porcelain bowls with chopsticks). Koreans are the only East Asians who regularly use spoons to eat rice. There are a couple of theories behind this custom. One is that Koreans like to eat soups form a communal pot and spoons are much better than chopstick for this method of eating. Koreans also like to mix rice into their soups, and it almost impossible to eat soupy rice with chopsticks.
Koreans like to use metal chopsticks, which are far more slippery than conventional wooden ones. Chopsticks can be placed on the table but a spoon can't. The oldest chopsticks yet found in Korea were unearthed from A.D. 6th century royal tombs. Small children use small chopsticks. As they grow bigger, they use bigger chopsticks.
Don't pick up the bowl and scoop up the rice with chopsticks Chinese-style and don't scoop a crater out of the middle of the rice. The rice should be eaten neatly, moving downward and inward from the edges of the bowl. Never stick your chopsticks or spoon straight up in a bowl. This is a sign of death reserved for funeral services. Holding a spoon to far down the handle is considered dirty and impolite because the fingers might touch the rice. Holding the spoon too far up the handle foretells a marriage fare away from home.
Scissors are widely used in food preparation. Knives are used only in the kitchen. They are not used as eating utensils because most Korean food is soft or cut into bite size pieces. For some restaurant dishes such as cold noodles or pulgulgi, a waitress will come to the table and cut the food with scissors. Scissors are also used in cutting kimchi cabbage and meat. It’s a cool custom as you don’t necessarily need a cutting board and clean up the mess associated with that. You can cut meat and other item directly over a bowl or cooking pot or pan.
Students carry lunch boxes to school that are different from those used in the students. They are little tin boxes with several compartments built into them for chopsticks, rice, dried fish, and other foods.
Eating at Someone’s Home
Meals prepared in traditional Korean style are served on portable tables brought in fully set up from the kitchen. People sit on the floor and don't start eating until the eldest person at the table pick up his chopsticks or spoon. No one is excused from the table until the eldest person has finished eating. When offering a plate, dish, glass or bottle to someone who is older than you, you show respect by using two hands to present the object.
Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”: “Most Korean households use Western-style tables with chairs on a daily basis (the table is usually placed in the kitchen), but share meals at a low table with short legs, seated on cushions laid on the floor, when guests are entertained. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
“The most traditional dining setting is a small table designed for one or two persons. In upper-class households, there was no common dining room and such tables were laid in the kitchen and carried out to different parts of the house, where family members dined, divided according to age, gender, and position. Such dining arrangements reflected the hierarchical ideology of premodern Korea. The shared dining table with short legs became popular in the early decades of the twentieth century and by the 1960s spread all over the country, widely replacing the ubiquitous individual table. This transition was followed by the diffusion of Western-style table and chairs in the 1980s. Yet, even today, traditional tables designed for one are still used in some restaurants, student apartments, and average Korean households.”
Restaurant in Korea
The majority of restaurants in Korea have two dining areas: one with Western-style tables and chairs, and one with an elevated floor where customers seated on cushions dine at low tables. Some have only tables and chairs. South Korea has many restaurants, in part because people have so little room in their homes and go out when they entertain and socialize. Another reason is the restaurants are small so there are a lot of them. Some restaurants have menus written English but most don't. If that is the case you can point to what other people are eating.
South Korea has lots of good cheap restaurants. Restaurants in Korea generally fall into four categories: Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Western (sometimes pizza or hamburger places, sometimes places that specialize in Korean versions of chicken fried steak). Many Korean eat lunch at the numerous snack bars or noodle restaurants found everywhere in South Korea.
Many restaurants in South Korea are specialty restaurants that serve one kind of cuisine or even one dish. In large cities, restaurants that sell similar kinds of foods are often group together. There are many restaurants that specialize in pulgogi or stews. Here, diners cook their own food in front of them in their own pot, collective pot or open fire at their table and pick out what they want to eat with chopsticks.
Restaurant Customs in Korea
Splitting the bill in Korea is considered crude and barbaric, and it is viewed as an honor to be the one who pays. According to Korean custom the person that extends an invitation is the person who pays. If a couple of friends meet by chance on the street and decide to go to restaurants the two will vie with each other to decide who pays. The "loser" who doesn't pay often suggests going to another place and then paying the bill there. It is considered tacky for the host to pay in front of his guests, so usually what the host does is excuses himself under the pretext of going to the bathroom and pays the bill privately.
Tipping is not practiced in Korea. Koreans sometimes appear rude to service personal at restaurants, hotels and stores — shouting and ordering people around. This kind of behavior is considered acceptable.
Bars and restaurants filled with cigarette smoke. At crowded, busy restaurants, sharing tables with strangers is common. Restaurants generally serve water or tea for free. Sometimes no napkins are available. There are toilet paper rolls on the table instead.
Introducing Brunch to South Korea
Reporting from Seoul, Su Hyun Lee wrote in the New York Times: “When she returned to Seoul in 2000 after 10 years in New York City, Park Su-ji introduced her fellow South Koreans to an exotic way to socialize over food: brunch. “I really missed brunch but didn’t find any brunch restaurants,” Ms. Park said. So in the spring of 2005 she opened Suji’s, which serves toasted bagels and blueberry pancakes, among other brunch staples, in a setting that features black-and-white photographs of the Chrysler Building and Union Square in New York. [Source: Su Hyun Lee, New York Times, November 2, 2007]
“Ms. Park said that she had thought her restaurant would primarily attract Western expatriates. But two years later, scores of restaurants in Seoul offer or even specialize in brunch — and they are filled with South Koreans. Restaurant owners and local newspapers say there may be as many as 200 such restaurants. “I think it’s healthier to relax like this over home-cooked-style food in the late mornings,” said Mr. Suh, who works at Credit Suisse in Seoul.
His colleague Choi Hey-rung, 30, gave another reason for preferring brunch. “I don’t want to cook,” she said. “So on Sundays, I bring my family, including my parents-in-law, to brunch a little after noon.” On a recent Sunday, Han Kye-soon, 29, was catching up with three other single women at a corner table at Suji’s. “I feel like a New Yorker or a Parisian, like the characters of ‘Sex and the City,’” said Ms. Han, a pottery designer.
“What makes the brunch fashion somewhat surprising is that Koreans tend to be reluctant to try non-Korean foods. Even when traveling abroad, they gravitate toward kimchi (fermented vegetables) and bibimpap (rice with vegetables and chili paste). Eating steak and potatoes with knives and forks can be considered an act of sophistication. Brunch is popular even though some Koreans do not really like the food served at the meal: eggs and bacon, pancakes and toast are all a marked contrast to the usual Korean breakfast of rice, soup and vegetables. The portions are huge by Korean standards. And brunch can be expensive, typically around 25,000 won, or US$27.50.
“Now, on weekends female friends, male buddies, couples, parents with toddlers and three-generation families all line up outside crowded brunch restaurants like Suji’s, Butterfinger Pancakes, Tell Me About It, Flying Pan Blue, Stove and All Day Brunch. Some restaurants are so packed that reservations must be made days in advance. Once inside, if they can get inside, people spend two to three hours chatting away.
“Will the brunch boom last? Clearly it has not taken with some people here. On a recent Sunday, Jegal Min-jung, 22, and her parents were sitting at a table in the middle of Suji’s. Fashionably world-weary patrons occupied seats by the wide-open windows, while young couples perched on high bar stools. Ms. Jegal, who had heard about Suji’s from a friend, had wanted to experience brunch with her parents. Her mother, Kang Deok-hee, had agreed: “It sounded like it would be less greasy than other Western food, like steak with gravy.” Wishing to sample a variety of dishes from the English-language-only menu, the family ordered eggs sunny side up with toast and sausages; blueberry pancakes; and egg salad with fried potatoes and a toasted bagel. But the time it was taking for all that food to show up tested the father’s patience. After steaming silently for some time, the father, Jegal Yoon, shouted to the waiter to serve the food more speedily. “Bring each dish when it’s ready,” he said. “I’m busy and need to leave as soon as possible.” His wife made a face, then smiled. She explained, “My husband has to go to work after this.”
Drinking Customs and Etiquette in Korea
Drinking etiquette is important in Korea. Koreans usually don't start drinking until someone offers the toast "gumbi" — (dry glass). The Chinese and Japanese use the same word for their toasts. The word originated in Japan. Sometimes during holidays drinks are offered to deceased ancestors. The oldest person is usually served first or pours the glass first. It is not considered proper to pour the first glass unless you're the oldest person in the group or if you have the highest ranking social or work position. Also, it is polite to refrain from drinking until someone has poured your drink for you. Foreigners are generally considered guests and aren’t expected to do anything first so just go with flow and do what other people are doing, and if your unsure make eye contact with someone before you do something to make sure its okay. When drinking in front of an elder, it is polite to turn your head to the side when taking a shot or a sip instead of facing that person directly. As a foreigner if you feel this is awkward, you may just bow your head down slightly in respect. [Source: Inkas Admin, International Korean Adoptee Service Inc, August 14, 2013]
When drinking, one should not drink from the bottle or fill his or her own glass. The polite thing to do is fill someone else's glass using two hands and they in turn will fill yours. In some situations, it is rude to turn down a drink that is being offered to you. To avoid drinking to much keep you glass full. To avoid being rude accept a drink the first time it is offered to you by a particular individual. The second time he offers it is acceptable to politely say no.
When a person gives an alcoholic drink to an older person adults, he or she has to respectfully offer it with two hands. When receiving drinks from an older person again use two hands. Sometimes these rules apply to anyone. In Korea, whenever you receive something, whether it's a gift or a drink, it is considered polite to use two hands. So when someone is pouring you a drink, you should hold out your glass or shot with both hands. This goes for when you pour someone else a drink as well. You may hold the bottle with both hands when pouring, or you may hold the bottle with one hand and use the other hand to support that arm by folding it and placing that hand on the pouring arm's inner elbow. Fill empty cups immediately. In many cultures it is considered rude to not refill a person's glass before it is empty but in Korea you should wait until it is completely empty.
Korean women are not obliged to pour anyone's drink and in fact are discouraged from doing so. It is said that if a woman does this, it reflects poorly on her character as it is a reminder of the days when only women used to serve men in bars. In formal setting this rule may hold sway. Among friends rules are more relaxed and it is considered an acceptable practice.
Most Koreans eat food, known as anju while drinking. It usually consists of dried squid, French fries, sliced fruit, sweet and sour pork, or various kinds of seafood. Make sure to carefully place forks around the plate while eating anju. The traditional hangover soup consumed after a night of heavy drinking is called haejangguk .
Katarzyna J. Cwiertka wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, “Alcohol is never drunk in Korea without elaborate snacking. Practically all side dishes can be served for this purpose and are called anju at such occasions. Anju can be small like French hors d'oeuvres or Spanish tapas but are not always small. Stews and large savory pancakes (chon), including vegetables, meat, and seafood, are typical snacks to accompany drinking. [Source: Katarzyna J. Cwiertka, “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture”, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.
Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2021