One of my favorite aspects of living in Seoul is definitely the food. I’ve treated myself to a number of delicious meals both native to Korea in addition to their unique takes on Western cuisine. I came to the country knowing only a few particular dishes, ones that my grandmother would make for me back in Pennsylvania. During my culinary expeditions I have had the opportunity to explore many new tastes and gained insight into what Koreans enjoy in a day to day diet. Going hand in hand with eating culture, are the cultural norms for etiquette and manners. In this blog post I will highlight some of my favorite dishes as well as some of the expected ways of conducting oneself when in South Korea.
Going out for food is often a very communal and bonding experience in Korea. I have had instances of friends, clubs, and even classes meeting after an event in order to grab some delicious food and drinks together. Food is often times served in the “family style” wherein a large quantity of certain dishes are ordered for the entire table to share. One of the most quintessential examples of Korean cuisine is Korean barbecue. The typical way this is conducted is that each table has a central gas/charcoal grill on which patrons cook the meat themselves. The meat varies greatly with some of the most popular kinds being: pork belly (samgyeopsal), thinly sliced marinated steak (bulgogi) and beef short-ribs (galbi). Customers then help themselves to lettuce leaves, garlic, chili paste (gochujang) and soy beans. Then you wrap the meat up in the lettuce adding whatever sides you please and eating it with your hands. The act of cooking the meat yourself in a group adds a fun social dynamic to eating and it is typical to drink soju (the classic Korean liquor) together.
South Korea also has a distinct take on fried chicken, this is probably my favorite specialty here. In particular there is a dish where a restaurant will bring out a pan filled with fried chicken, cheese and corn. They then place this on a gas burner which melts the cheese and customers mix the marinated chicken, corn and cheese together for a delicious treat. Fried chicken is commonly paired with beer and it is a common food to get on weekends. Nearly all dinners are served with side dishes called banchan. They are more than just appetizers and are an essential part of the meal; common examples of banchan include: kimchi (fermented cabbage), tofu, seasoned soybeans, and spicy cucumber salad. There are many more distinct Korean dishes but I want to continue my post into a discussion on some of the formalities that one should observe while dining in Korea.
Firstly, when a table is brought a drink it is deemed to polite to pour another person’s cup for them. Once doing so, the person should then fill up your cup for you. It is necessary to do this with both hands, both when you are receiving a drink or pouring for another person. I really like this aspect as it demonstrates respect. Additionally, if you are ever to participate in a family meal, it is necessary that everyone wait for the oldest member of the family to begin eating first. Lastly, it is considered very impolite to waste food, even more so than western culture. In fact, in some buffet style restaurants you are charged extra for not finishing all the food you are provided. This is also something I noticed during my stay at a Buddhist temple, where the monks directed us to always wipe our plates with a piece of kimchi to pick up any remaining grains of rice and show respect by completely finishing our meal. I have greatly enjoyed the dining culture in Korea and have also found it relatively easy to adopt its standards for etiquette. Thanks for reading and in my next post I will detail my trip to Busan, the second largest city in South Korea!