Food seen on K-Series or K-Pop stars’ social media has intrigued the world about the rich culture of the Land of the Morning Calm. Just as intriguing, of course, is the proper etiquette ingrained in Korean culture for every occasion, especially meals.
You could be enjoying kimchi at a neighbourhood Korean restaurant or munching on fresh sannakji at a hanguk sigdang (한국식당) in Gwangjang Market. Or you could be simply having icy bingsoo at a dinner party with a Korean friend over Blackpink's latest music video. These dining etiquette and cultural food tips to eating like a proper Korean, courtesy of MICHELIN Guide's editors, can help you fully immerse yourself and enjoy the experience. Especially if you’re planning a trip to Korea. We got you.
Sharing is caring
While restaurants in the West now offer a “sharing” or “family-style” concept, Asian countries, especially Thailand and Korea, have long been sharing entrees and side dishes. Even Western restaurants there are no exception. In Korea, various plates are served to the centre of the table, so anyone can have a taste of each dish if they want. The perks of this? Whether you crave a saucy tagliatelle bolognese or your friend’s juicy, medium-rare steak, you’re in for the win.
Toasting for every occasion
You may have shared an awkward, heartfelt toast or even a beyond-tipsy speech or both combined at a wedding or other celebrations. Every get-together can be celebratory to Koreans. One minor difference is that at feasts among friends and family or colleagues in Korea, the youngest member of the group is usually expected to make a short speech. And it’s not a typical “cheers” that most people around the world do. Though originally intended for wishing wellness and great health, nowadays there should be more fun and witty phrases. But no sweat, there are Korean books specifically published with collections of short speeches for toasting that may come in handy...
Cutlery on top of a napkin
Though cutlery and chopsticks are perfectly well placed in a container at casual Korean restaurants, don’t be puzzled should you see Koreans take them out to put on a piece of tissue paper on the table once seated at a table. Why? Handiness is the key when it comes to eating and simply...why not?
In many Asian countries, it is an unspoken understanding that it is polite to serve or take care of elders first as a sign of respect. Korea is no different. When having a meal with people of various ages, it is known for Koreans to let the senior member at the table dine first, then the rest can start. For instance, grandchildren are taught to let their grandmother start eating before they and the rest of the family.
Step aside, soju
You may enjoy the popular soju once in a while and feel a tiny bit closer to being Korean. But somaek is the drink to try because some believe that this cocktail makes the beer even sweeter and cooler. This K-ocktail is named after its combination of a small (70 ml) cup of soju and a large (200 ml) cup of beer-maekju (aka beer). The coolest way to drink it? The Koreans originated their own beer bomb by pouring a cup of soju into a glass almost full of icy cold beer, or even bubbling things up with a spoon or chopstick. Et voilà.
Koreans’ love for grilled meat is no secret. Moving up from old-school grilling, foodies now enjoy their favourite cuts of beef, pork, or chicken on iron plates or mini charcoal grills served right in front of you. The barbeque table is now tailor-made so that carnivores can grill their meats in comfort while overhead exhaust fan hoods are hard at work.
Iced Americano all day!
Americans may have their rosé all day, Thais may enjoy Thai milk tea all day, but Koreans opt for iced Americanos. The popular caffeinated drink is an essential to daily life for Koreans. The next time you touch down in South Korea, don’t be startled to see iced Americanos landing on café tables after a meal, even in the winter.
While many international diners are happy eating out in fancy dining halls, Koreans prefer private rooms. Be it a top-secret meeting or celebrating grandma’s 100th birthday, a separate or private room is a must. That is why even fine dining restaurants in Korea accommodate groups of all sizes with small to large private rooms.
Side dishes are free of charge
When ordering a stir-fried spicy pork in South Korea, banchan, aka side dishes such as braised bean sprouts, sautéed tofu, fish cake stir-fry, kimchi, and various pickled vegetables, are also served. Should you want more, don’t be shy to ask for extra. And they are free of charge!
Fried rice saves the world
So you have some Korean leftovers and plan a night in, crushing on Song Kang on a streaming service? Don’t fret. Do as the Koreans do. It is common in South Korea to whip up wok skills and turn leftover goodies into delicacies with a special secret -- rice. Either samgyeopsal (pork belly barbeque), gamjatang (pork ribs stew) or jjukkumi gui (spicy baby octopus), even tteokbokki (spicy rice cake) can be a great contender as a condiment for a killer home-cooked fried rice. Try adding your delish K-leftovers and its seasonings along with rice, sesame oil, and shredded nori. Toss in a hot pan and let the magic happen. Ten points to Koreans for not wasting food waste while saving the planet at the same time.
Hero image and cutlery on napkin image: © Shutterstock, Julia Lee
Written by Julia Lee in Seoul, and Pruepat Songtieng in Bangkok.