Understanding the Korean Restaurant Culture
Diving into the food scene in Korea is an adventure that comes with its unique flair. It’s a kaleidoscopic journey through new flavors, unique settings, and distinctly Korean eating etiquettes. To fully experience the restaurant culture in Korea, remember, it’s all about the excitement of trying new things.
A signature aspect of the Korean dining scene is the emphasis on shared dishes, often placed in the center of the table. So, on your culinary explorations, you will come across many restaurants that emphasize the family-style dining tradition. Expect multiple side dishes or banchan to complement your main dish – an integral part of the Korean dining experience.
Ready for some action at the table? A lot of Korean cuisine involves grilling right at your table, especially if you order meat-centric dishes or barbeque. But not to worry if you’re inexperienced with grilling, the restaurant staff are often very helpful and can guide you through.
Entering a restaurant
Korean restaurants sometimes have a mock-up of the menu in the front of the restaurant or a menu board, but more often than not, the name of the menu is written on a sign or in the window, or a picture of the menu is drawn – especially if it has cute pigs, cows, chickens, etc. Most restaurants on the ground floor have windows that allow you to see what other people in the restaurant are eating.
Typically, when you walk into a small or casual restaurant, customers can choose their own seats. However, if the restaurant is large and spacious, the staff will show you to your seat, and if there are a lot of customers waiting, they will often put your name on a waiting list, and in Korea, there are many wait management systems that will notify you via text or smartphone notification.
While the vast majority of restaurants in Korea have tables with chairs, you may find yourself sitting on the floor and using low tables in smaller, older, and more traditional restaurants in your neighborhood. If you want to experience a Korean tradition, it’s worth giving it a try, though it will be a bit of a pain.
Smoking is legally prohibited inside all restaurants. You can smoke in bars that are legally classified as “유흥주점(yuheungjujeom)”. However, in general, just because they sell alcohol doesn’t make them a “유흥주점(yuheungjujeom)”.
Table settings and menus
When you go to a typical restaurant and sit down, the waiter will bring water or tea to your seat, otherwise there will be a small water dispenser in the restaurant and you will have to get your own water. You’ll also be provided with a wet towel, which is used to dry your hands before eating. Cutlery, such as spoons and chopsticks, are stored on the table or in a cutlery bin located in a drawer under the table. Cutlery is usually metal, but wooden chopsticks are sometimes provided, especially in Japanese or Chinese restaurants.
Many restaurants provide a menu with pictures or an English menu, but sometimes the menu is only posted on the wall or a Korean menu is provided. And in Korea, many restaurants have electronic menus at the table, so you can view the menu and place your order directly. And in large franchise restaurants like McDonald’s, you can order and pay on a large electronic menu. And depending on the restaurant’s menu, you may have to order a minimum of two servings, because the food is served together in one pot.
And don’t be surprised if you get something other than what you ordered. In Korea, there’s a culture of banchan, and no matter what you order, it will be on the table by default. And if you don’t have enough banchan, you can add more for free.
Cooking at the table
In Korea, some dishes are cooked at the table. Staff may simply cook or grill meat, or they may use a portable burner or table-mounted stove to simmer soup dishes. And, in Korea, kitchen scissors are used for cooking and cutting ingredients. Don’t be surprised if your server uses scissors while cooking.
Ordering and paying
Once you’re seated, a waiter will come by after a while to take your order. If the waiter doesn’t come by, you can raise your hand towards the waiter and say “Yeogiyo” or “Jeogiyo”, which means here or there. It’s not rude at all and is the norm. The most unique part of the Korean ordering system is the order bell. It’s usually located at the edge of the table and when you ring it, a waiter will come to your table. You can press it to place an order or if you need something. This is usually found in larger restaurants or restaurants with a lot of customers.
You place your order and the waiter leaves the bill on the table. When you’re done eating, you take the bill and go to the cash register near the entrance to pay. In Korea, almost all restaurants accept credit cards. As mentioned above, you can even order and pay from an electronic menu board.
Note: International credit cards may sometimes fail, make sure you have a backup plan.
Fascinatingly, Korea is at the forefront of tech-savvy payment solutions, where mobile payment apps like KakaoPay, Naver Pay, and Samsung Pay dominate the scene. It’s not unusual for restaurants to have QR codes displayed at their counters for a quick, contactless payment. But unfortunately, Apple Pay is not yet popularized.
There is no tipping culture in Korea, so if you leave money on the table, the customer may think you’ve lost it and follow you out. A simple “thank you” or “kamsa-hamnida” on the way out will suffice.
Essential Korean Phrases for Dining Out
So, equipped with knowledge on how to find the best Korean restaurants and understanding their dining culture, you might think you’re ready for your culinary adventure. Allow us to further prepare you by providing essential Korean phrases you can use in restaurants. Knowing a few key words or sentences wouldn’t just earn you some smiles and nods of approval, but it can make your gastronomical journey a bit smoother too.
Note: Pronunciations are approximations and may not perfectly represent Korean sounds. This is not the official Korean notation, but the way I find it easier and more accurate.
Firstly, here are some phrases to get you inside a restaurant and settled:
- Restaurant: 식당(shikdang)
- Do you have seats/availability?: 자리 있나요? (jari itnayo?)
- Meals: 밥 (bap)
Calling the waiter in Korean
Use the Bell
Most Korean restaurants are equipped with a bell at each table. Press this button, and voila, your waiter will come to assist you. It’s as simple as that. No hand waving, no needless wait. It’s all about convenience!
Saying “여기요” (yogiyo)
When you’re in a small, traditional Korean restaurant that might not have a bell, you can use an oral cue. Simply say, “여기요” (yeogiyo). It means – “Here, please.”
Saying “저기요” (jogiyo)
When your server is a little further away, say, “저기요” (jogiyo). It’s the equivalent of shouting “Excuse me” across, but in a cultured way. It’s equivalent to saying, “There, please.”
Whenever you need anything from the restaurant staff, whether to order more food, water or the bill, use these cues to get their attention. This is a fast, convenient way to navigate the dining experience in Korea. Now that’s handled, let’s get you ordering!
Mastering Essential Phrases for Ordering in Korean Restaurants
- I will order now : 주문할게요 (jumun-halkeyo.)
- I’d like to order _____: _____ 주세요 ( _____ juseyo.)
- Please give me this (while pointing at the menu): 이거 주세요 (igo juseyo.)
- Can I have the menu, please?: 메뉴판 좀 주세요 (menyu-pahn jom juseyo.)
- Could you please give me some water?: 물 좀 주세요? (mul jom juseyo.)
- Can you recommend something?: 추천해주세요? (chuchon hejuseyo.)
- please make it mild: 안맵게 해주세요(ahn-mepke hejuseyo.)
Paying in a restaurant
If you want to pay after the meal, you can take the bill from the table to the cashier. If you don’t have a bill, just walk up to the cashier and point to the table you were seated at.
- Check, please: 계산할게요. (gesan halkeyo.)
Pro tip: Some restaurants provide a buzzer to call the staff or you might see locals raising their hands slightly and calling “여기요 (yeogiyo),” which means “over here.” Don’t hesitate to join in!
Being polite and friendly always comes in handy anywhere around the world. So, remember these phrases:
- 감사합니다 (kamsa hapnida): Thank you
- 잘 먹었습니다. (jal mogosoyo): That was delicious
Dealing with Language Barriers: Tips for Non-Korean Speakers
Pronunciation can be tough, but don’t be worried about making mistakes. Koreans appreciate the effort and find it endearing when foreigners try to speak their language. Can’t recall the correct phrase at the right moment? Waving your hand slightly to get attention usually works in most situations, but remember to do this politely.
Now that you have some handy phrases up your sleeve, let’s talk about gestures! Body language can sometimes communicate more effectively than words, especially when there’s a language barrier. Core gestures include:
- Nodding: A respectful way to say ‘yes’ or show understanding.
- Hand gestures: Pointing at menu items can be an easy way to order, especially if you’re struggling with pronunciation.
- The Bill Gesture: Making a rectangle with your fingers is a common way to ask for the bill if the server doesn’t understand the words.
Got some confidence now, right? So, on your next trip to Korea, dive in, speak some Korean, use these helpful gestures, and savour the amazing cuisine. From kimchi to bibimbap, your Korean dining experience will be unforgettable, enriched by the authenticity of true Korean flavours and hospitality. Bon appetit or shall we say, 잘 먹겠습니다(jal mokgetsumnida)!
Arming yourself with these familiar buzzwords should set you on the right track as you venture on your food trail in Korea. Remember, just like cooking, the key ingredient here is confidence. Happy eating!
Surviving the Chillies: Korean Food and Your Spice Tolerance
If you’re not familiar with Korean cuisine, you’re in for a spicy surprise. Many Korean dishes pack quite a punch in terms of heat. From the fiery tteokbokki to the tongue-tingling kimchi jjigae, there’s no escaping the beloved gochugaru (Korean chili powder) in most Korean meals. But don’t worry, you can still enjoy your meal without breaking a sweat.
- Express your preference: When ordering, it’s often possible to request a milder version of the dish. The phrase ‘ahn-mapge hejuseyo‘ means ‘please make it mild’.
- Go for non-spicy options: Not all Korean dishes are spicy. Foods like japchae, samgyeopsal, or bulgogi are generally safe choices for those not keen on spice.
- Drink milk, not water: If you’ve inadvertently bitten off more spice than you can handle, reach for some milk. Dairy can provide relief when the heat gets too intense. Water, on the other hand, can actually spread the capsaicin (the compound that makes chillies hot) around your mouth and intensify the burning sensation.
Korean Dining Tips for Vegetarians
Embarking on a culinary journey in Korea doesn’t mean throwing your diet out the window. With the right knowledge and a little creativity, dealing with dietary restrictions in Korean restaurants can be a breeze. Here’s how:
Know Your Options
First off, let’s recognize that Korean cuisine is largely based on rice, vegetables, and meats. However, don’t be daunted if you are vegetarian or have certain dietary restrictions. There are many vegetarian options available. Just remember to clearly specify your preferences when ordering.
Learn the Key Phrases
Brush up on your Korean to ensure you’re ordering exactly what fits your dietary needs. Phrases such as “I am vegetarian” (cheshik-juija eyo) or “I cannot eat meat” (Jonun gogi mot mokoyo.) become invaluable in these scenarios.
If you want to ask for the vegetarian menu, you can say 채식 메뉴 있나요?(cheshik menyu itnayo?)
Understand the Menu
Many Korean dishes are traditionally cooked with meat-based broths or other animal products. Therefore, it’s a good idea to understand what the menu offers before diving straight into the ordering process. Research popular dishes beforehand and look out for key ingredients in your food.
Avoid Hidden Traps
Watch out for unexpected ingredients in dishes that are typically fermented with shrimp or fish sauce, such as kimchi. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the staff about the ingredients used in the dish you’re interested in.
Explore Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants
There are some vegetarian and vegan restaurants in major Korean cities. From plant-based barbecue joints to vegan buffets, you’re sure to find something that excites your taste buds while aligning with your dietary preferences. Do a quick online search or ask around to find these gems.
To sum it all up, dining out in Korea while adhering to a strict diet or restrictions is entirely possible. It just takes a little knowledge, communication, and the will to explore.