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Culture Etiquette Food Lost in translation Restaurants & Cafes Review

Don’t go to a Korean restaurant without reading this: Guide to Korean dining.

GUIDE TO KOREAN DINING : KOREAN DINING ETIQUETTE

Don’t lift your utensils before the eldest of the group does (during the Joseon Dynasty, gimisanggung 기미상궁, a food-tasting court lady, always tasted the royal table before serving the king to detect poison).

gimisanggung 기미상궁 in action!

RELATED: WHAT do Koreans eat? HANSIK – Traditional Korean cuisine. WHY do Korean restaurants give you free side dishes? WHAT did the Korean kings eat? Popular Korean dishes you must try!

Don’t leave the table before the eldest does.

Blowing your nose is rude, but burping is excused, but avoid loud and intentional burping in front of older people.

Who picks up the tab?

It’s usually the senior of the group who’d insist on picking up the tab,. While it’s a kind gesture to offer to pitch in, insisting too hard might make them “lose their face.”

How young Koreans split the bill nowadays

  • Taking turns
  • Dutch pay, or more commonly known as  en bbang 엔빵 (“1/n” = dividing the total amount by the number of people)
  • Mobile banking – account transfer

RELATED : What is KAKAOTALK 카카오톡 that everybody uses in Korea? Why do Koreans love “KKK”?

WHY DO KOREANS EAT OUT OF THE SAME POT?

One peculiarity found on the Korean dining table is people eating out of the same pot when sharing things like kimchi jjigae 김치찌개 (kimchi stew) or doenjang jjigae 된장찌개 (bean paste stew), using their own spoon rather than a communal ladle! The proponent of this practice says that it creates an emotional bond, but the naysayers try to avoid it at all cost and demand separate bowls for each, for hygienic reasons. As a matter of fact, Koreans have an extremely high infection rate of Helicobacter pylori disease, which can cause stomach cancer, and the food-sharing culture is suspected as the main culprit.

Then, where did it all begin? During the Joseon Dynasty and up until the Japanese Occupation period, Korea maintained the tradition where everybody dined on a separate mini table, known as doksang 독상 (“solo table”). It was in line with the yugyo philosophy where the strict distinction between the old and the young and the men and women were defined (they could, however, dine in the same place, though). But things changed during the Japanese Occupation. The Japanese Government-General of Korea encouraged the practice of eating together on the same table, known as gyeomsang 겸상 because Japan needed a lot of materials including the tableware, for their military fighting in World War II.

Traditional way of dining
Newspaper published in 1936 featuring a column that promotes the gyeomsang 겸상 (“dining together on the same table”) culture

As a result, Korean families adopted the practice of putting dishes together on the same table, sharing soups, casseroles, and side dishes with each other. It’s an artificial habit rather than a tradition that’s been forced upon the Korean people during the difficult times. With modernization and the abundance of products everywhere, the habit has become something that many people demand unlearned.

WHY DO ONLY KOREANS USE METAL CHOPSTICKS?

“Excuse me! Do all Asian (chopsticks) look the same to you?” Well, these pairs of thin long sticks that have been picking up the 5,000 years of Asian culinary history might look similar to one another, they are very different if you look closely. The Chinese version is made of bamboo and is the longest because it’s most suitable for picking up and not dropping the food from the sharing plate placed in the middle of the table. The tips are hexagonal because it is believed to attract wealth. Meanwhile, the Japanese chose wood as their main material, and the sticks are shortest in length with sharp tips, best for tearing apart and deboning fish. The Korean chopsticks are surely an object of scientific study because Koreans are the only people in the world that use metal chopsticks! Specifications wise, they are shorter than the Chinese chopsticks but longer than the Japanese ones, with rectangular tips.

As for the history, they are believed to have been used as early as the Three Kingdoms Period because they were found in the remains of the royal family of the Baekje 백제 Dynasty (18 BC – 660 AD). During the time, the royal families and the upper class used silver spoons and chopsticks to detect poison in their food.

Metal spoon and chopsticks excavated from the tomb of King Muryeong 무령왕 of Baekje 백제. The National Museum of Gongju

The commoners got vicarious satisfaction by using a similar version made with a cheaper metal. Compared to wood chopsticks, metal chopsticks have more pros than cons. They are more sanitary because germs and bacteria can’t live on them, and their extreme durability passes the test of time, as seen with the case of the royal remains of the ancient kingdom. The downside is that they are more difficult to use – they are a lot heavier and provide less grip compared to wood chopsticks, thus requiring more time to master. Some Koreans, when bragging about the sophisticated arts and crafts of their ancestors and the cutting-edge electric products made by their descendants, they jokingly give credit to the arduous hand-eye coordination training from using the metal chopsticks which gave them the dexterity required to perform such complex tasks.

YAPULLYA Polished Korean Stainless Steel Spoons and Chopsticks Set [Amazon]

WHY IS THERE A ROLL OF TOILET PAPER ON A RESTAURANT TABLE?

A little out of place? Don’t panic when you find a roll of toilet paper on the table. Despite the psychological association with the toilet, Korean people treat it as just another type of “tissue,” like Kleenex and paper napkins. Just try to contain your imagination and focus on the food.

WHY DO KOREANS USE SCISSORS AT RESTAURANTS?

In many casual Korean restaurants that serve BBQ and naengmyeon 냉면, it’s common for the servers to use scissors to cut meat and noodles for the sake of convenience. Rest assured, though, because they are exclusively used for food only. In fact, more “kitchen shears” are finding a spot in the kitchen around the globe as a versatile cooking tool, too.

WHAT’S THE BELL (CALL BUTTON) ON THE TABLE FOR?

Many restaurants in Korea have a pager affixed to the table commonly referred to as the “Call Button.” Simply ring the bell and a server will be at your service! But please be respectful and don’t abuse it.

WATER IS “SELF”?

It’s a funny Konglish expression you can find at no-frills Korean restaurants, which simply means “Water is self-service.”

THE SELF-SERVING RITUAL

Many of the no-frills Korean restaurants might not set up the utensils for you, no matter how long you wait. Don’t panic, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to serve you -they are letting you do the honors. Most of the time,  you will find a wooden case containing the utensils on the table. If you don’t see one, check under/alongside of the table and there should be a drawer. Just grab your favorite picks and set them up yourself. If you happen to sit next to the utensils box, flaunt your knowledge in Korean manners by setting up for your elders and others!

WHEN CALLING A SERVER

Mostly at Korean mom-and-pop restaurants, servers are ajumma (“middle aged woman”), but instead of calling them ajumma which doesn’t sound too friendly, people use the word imonim 이모님 which means “Ms. Auntie (imo = “aunt” nim = honorific suffix),” because it sounds more friendly and respectful. With some aegyo 애교, you might score some service (“complimentary / on the house”) food!

RELATED: Sajangnim 사장님 (Mr. Boss)? WHY do Korean people prefer addressing someone by their title and not their name? And learn the proper Korean appellations to avoid those socially awkward moments!

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