The Dos and Don’ts, Dining Etiquette and Table Manners in South Korea
South Koreans practise some quite interesting dining etiquette. If you often have to dine with Koreans for business or leisure, it is worthwhile to know some of them to avoid embarrassing scenes or committing offending behaviour.
UPON ARRIVAL AT RESTAURANT
Upon arrival at dinner table, it is best to wait till you are told where to sit. Korean follows some rules regarding who should sit where. Avoid committing an ignorant mistake by helping yourself to an empty seat beside a pretty lady.
The seat farthest away from the entrance door is considered the best spot. Therefore it is best to reserve it for the important customers, bosses or elderly.
DINING WITH LOCALS
When visiting Korea, it is a good experience to dine with the locals to get a dive into their dining culture. Although many restaurants have portions of their menu translated into English, the English section is usually only a small sections of what they have to offer, so not knowing Korean is a major disadvantage. Moreover, unless it is a steak house catered for foreigners, most people working in the restaurant cannot speak English well enough to assist you. Hence, it will be an advantage when you have locals dining with you to order the special dishes, especially if you have special diet or preferences. They can also explain the content and making of dishes, and if necessary on how to consume the dish.
Koreans are very respectful of the elders. It is considered a respectful act for the younger generation to wait for the eldest person or the senior manager to eat first. Avoid helping yourself with your food as soon as it arrives on the table, no matter how hungry you may be. Wait for the elders to hold their spoon before you take yours, and keep pace with them.
When sitting, sit with your body in an upright, straight position. Do not hunch your back.
Korean often say no when being offer food to eat, even when he wishes to take more of the food. After the first helping, their etiquette expects the first offer of the second helping to be refused. The Koreans will then insist that you take the second helping, it is then considered alright to accept it. Of course, you can politely decline when you are full.
Start the meal by tasting the soup, follow by trying the rice or other dishes. Please use the spoon for rice and liquid foods, such as stews or soups. Use the chopsticks for other foods.
Avoid holding the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand during the meal. Rice and soup bowl should always be on the table.
Avoid poking around the rice or side dishes with the spoon or chopsticks.
If you dislike certain food in the dish, you don’t have to try them. However, do not pick out what you don't like or remove the seasonings.
Avoid having traces of food sticking onto the spoon or chopsticks while eating.
During the meal, inedible parts such as bones should be quietly discarded by wrapping them in a tissue paper before placing it on the table so that others won't see them. Do not put the discarded food without wrapping on the table or floor.
If you have to cough or sneeze while having a meal, face to the other direction where there are no people facing you, away from the person sitting in front of you or beside you. Cover your mouth with your hand or napkin before you cough or sneeze.
Side dishes are presented for each section of the table. Eat the rice and side dishes from only one side of the table belonging to your section; do not cross to other side of the table for more servings. If you need more side dishes, you can ask for free refill.
It is considered impolite to use your hands to pick up the foods and put into your mouth. Always use the chopsticks and spoon.
Do not reach across the table for distant food. Please ask a nearby person to pass it to you.
When chewing food, chew silently with your mouth closed and do not make any noise while chewing.
Do not read a book, newspaper or watch TV while eating.
Avoid leaving the table while eating unless you really need to go to the washroom.
TYPICAL FOOD ARRANGEMENT IN TRADITIONAL KOREAN RESTAURANT
A traditional Korean restaurant can be very organized and systematic in their food serving and arrangement. The side dishes can go for a few to more than ten dishes.
Hot and watery foods are normally placed on the right side of the table while cold and dry foods are placed on the left side.
The rice bowl is placed on the left side of the table, and soup bowl is placed on the right, with other bowls placed in the centre.
The spoon is placed to the right of the rice bowl or cabbage dish. Chop sticks are placed behind the spoon.
Kimchi dishes are placed in the back row, stew dishes on the right, sauces in the middle of the front row, meat dishes on the right side, and vegetables on the left side.
Food is normally served for the group unless it is rice or soup dish. If you are not sure whether the good is for individual or group, please do ask your Korean friend. You will be given an individual dish with some sliced cabbage and sauce in it, it is common practice to pick the main food (like barbequed meat) using chopsticks from the common dish to your individual dish. Sauces also come in individual small dish for each guest. There are many types of sauces served such as soy sauce, vinegar sauce, sweet and sour sauce and/or hot pepper soybean paste.
While eating, try to keep pace with others by eating not too fast or too slow. If you are having a meal with the elderly, bosses or important customers, wait for them to put the spoon and chopsticks on the table at the end of the meal before you do the same. Your spoon and chopsticks should be placed on the same spot where they were initially placed. Fold the used napkins if they come in big size, and place it on the table.
AT THE END OF THE MEAL
To conclude the meal, Koreans like to consume sungnyung, a traditional Korean beverage made from boiled scorched rice. The common practice is to pour sungnyung into the rice bowl and drink. If you do not like the taste, you can drink some and leave it aside.
When using a toothpick, cover your mouth with one hand and discard the toothpick when you are done, and place it under a napkin so that it is invisible to others.
At the end of the meal, when the seniors or customers are getting up, you should get up together.
Proper conduct when using the chopsticks is very important if you would like to present a good image to the Koreans.
It is consider a rude behaviour to point with your chopsticks when you are talking or trying to point at something or somebody. So, remember to put down your chopsticks if you would like to talk with your hand motions.
Do not leave your chopsticks sticking out of the rice bowl. This is a taboo, as they practise this in a funeral ritual.
Always use chopsticks when picking up the food. Avoid using your bare hands however more convenient that will be. It is alright to ask for a fork if you are struggling with the metal and flat shaped chopsticks.
Avoid making noises with spoon or chopsticks like hitting the rice bowl or other food containers. This is considered as rude behaviour.
Avoid leaving anything on your plate. You can indicate that you are full by keeping your chopsticks resting on the table.
Using Chopsticks in Korea
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