Planning a trip to Korea? Get ready to embark on a culinary journey! Korean dining experiences are rich with traditions that provide unique insights into the nation’s culture. This article acts as your guide to navigating key aspects of Korean dining etiquette, from understanding seating arrangements to handling the ‘head seat’, decoding Korean table settings, appreciating the no-tipping culture, and learning the art of Korean drinking etiquette. Our goal is to prepare you to dine like a local and enjoy an authentic Korean meal. Let’s get started!
General Korean Dining Etiquette
Dining etiquette in Korea is not that different from the general etiquette in other countries abroad. Just a few decades ago, it was customary to refrain from talking during meals, but nowadays it has become quite liberal. You don’t need to follow any specific dining etiquette, just enough to enjoy your meal and not inconvenience other diners, especially if you are traveling and eating in a restaurant. Nevertheless, here are some basic things to remind you.
Most restaurants provide packaged wipes. We recommend simply wiping your hands.
It’s best to avoid blowing your nose or burping while eating. Of course, in some countries abroad, it’s more polite to blow your nose than to sniffle, but this is not the case in Korea. Of course, excessive sniffliling is not good, but neither is blowing your nose loudly. It’s better to blow your nose quietly or in the restroom.
In Korea, cutlery such as spoons, chopsticks, and plates are often metal, so be careful not to clink against each other during a meal and make loud noises. In addition to your rice and soup, you should not place your spoon or chopsticks on shared foods such as side dishes or stews. In Korea, food is often shared by placing it in the center of the table, and it’s customary to place your own plate in front of you and take a portion. If you don’t have your own plate, you can ask for a “Apjobsi(앞접시/a plate to share food)” from the waiter. And if you’re not comfortable using chopsticks, ask for a fork – some restaurants may have them. It’s not rude to use a fork at all.
For noodle dishes, it’s better to eat without making a sound. Recently, due to the bad influence “Mukbang” and Korean TV shows, it seems like it’s normal in Korea to make noise when eating noodle dishes, but it’s not actually Korean etiquette. It’s partly exaggerated because it’s a TV show, and partly because there’s a little less teaching of such etiquette than there used to be.
It’s not polite to eat with your bowl in your hand. This is where we differ from other Asian countries. Korea has been using metal utensils for a long time, so it’s polite to eat with your utensils on the table, but it doesn’t really matter if you’re eating with intimate people.
Dining with Koreans
If you’re dining with Koreans, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind that are different than if you’re traveling or dining alone. Here are some of the most common ones.
In Korea, there is a pre-meal greeting like “itadakimasu” in Japan, which is a way of saying “Jal mokgetsumnida.(잘먹겠습니다/I gratefully receive.)” to the other person, especially if someone is cooking or buying food for you.
It is recommended to be more polite when dining with an elderly person, although there is no specific age difference, the greater the age difference and the less close you are, the more polite you should be.
- Let the elderly person start the meal before you eat.
- If an older person joins you and sits down, stand up to greet them.
- Eat at the other person’s pace. Don’t go too fast or too slow.
- Eat with your bowl on the table, not in your hand.
- Avoid fumbling with your chopsticks too much with the food you are sharing.
Proper Seating Arrangements
When dining in Korea, one of the first things you’ll notice is the importance placed on seating arrangements. This isn’t a casual selection, but a practice deeply rooted in respect and hierarchy. Each seat holds a certain status which conveys a subtle yet vital indication of respect toward each participant.
Usually, the eldest or the highest-ranking individual in the group gets to choose their seat first. Typically, this person sits at the head of the table or the spot farthest from the door. It’s a nod to their position, age, or status. Following suit, the others then carefully take their spots depending on their respective ranks, which can be age or job-related.
Handling the ‘Head Seat’ Situation
In Korean dining etiquette, you may find yourself in a situation where you are treated as the guest of honor. In such cases, you would be expected to take up the ‘head seat’. It can feel overwhelming initially, but remember, it’s a sign of tremendous respect and honor. Thus, accept graciously, acknowledging your hosts’ courtesy.
Drinking Etiquette in Korea
You’ve dived into the world of Korean dining etiquette and navigated successfully the intricacies of mealtime customs, but what about drinks? A considerable part of Korean dining culture also involves certain rules and conduct related to alcohol.
In Korea, drinking is not just for leisure, but it plays a vital role in their socialization process. It’s often a platform for developing business relationships, bonding with friends, and sometimes, even a respectful gesture towards the elders. Despite the jovial atmosphere, there are a few basic protocols you need to adhere to.
Sharing and Pouring Drinks
Serving others is an important part of Korean drinking etiquette. When drinking, Koreans like to pour alcohol into each other’s glasses rather than pouring their own. It is especially customary for younger people to pour alcohol for others. On the other hand, when someone else tries to pour you a drink, you should hold out your glass with both hands to show your respect and willingness to receive it.
It is polite to pour a drink when the other person’s glass is empty. Attempting to pour a drink when the other person hasn’t emptied their glass may feel like you’re offering them a drink. In Korea, if someone tries to pour you a drink, you drink the rest of the alcohol in your glass and accept the drink.
It’s not uncommon to see Koreans turning their heads slightly to the side when taking a sip of alcohol in the presence of older people. This is because, traditionally, it’s considered impolite to drink alcohol directly facing a senior. It’s a subtle act of respect that, although may not be strictly observed in the modern day, is certainly recognized and appreciated. If you were to exhibit such behavior, the elderly person would tell you that you don’t have to be so polite, and they would feel good about your polite behavior.
Keeping Pace with The Group
In Korean drinking culture, everyone in the group typically tries to keep the same pace. It’s considered a communal activity, and you are expected to drink when others drink. However, Koreans are also very understanding about different drinking capacities, so if you are not a big drinker, don’t worry – politely declining or drinking at your own pace won’t cause offense.
Top Tip: Always keep in mind that these etiquettes are not about stifling the enjoyment of your drink, but rather about showing respect and consideration towards your Korean friends and acquaintances. So toast your glass, say ‘Konbe (건배 / cheers), and enjoy the night!
Decoding the Korean Table: An Overview
Sitting down to a Korean meal can feel like navigating a maze with a multitude of side dishes called banchan. Let’s guide you through a Korean table setting for a convenient and engaging dining experience.
Key Side Dishes
A Korean meal usually features a main dish of soup or stew, accompanied by various banchan, such as kimchi, seasonal veggies, and grilled fish. Just remember to place your chosen banchan on your plate instead of eating directly from the communal dishes.
Your Personal Bowls
Each diner gets a soup bowl and a rice bowl, which are the heart of every Korean meal. Even amid a bountiful spread of banchan, these bowls take center stage.
Expect to use a spoon and metal chopsticks for your meal. The spoon is for rice and soup, while chopsticks serve for side dishes and larger pieces. Note: Chopsticks should never be left upright in the rice bowl because it’s a taboo that recalls a funeral rite.
Navigating the No-Tipping Culture in Korea
In Korea, the practice of tipping after a meal or service is almost non-existent. Whether you’re dining at a high-end restaurant or your local food stall, tipping isn’t a part of the dining culture. This can be a radically different experience if you’re used to Western dining etiquette, but remember—when in Korea, do as the Koreans do!
There’s a simple logic behind this cultural practice. Restaurants and establishments tend to pay their staff a living wage, so the team doesn’t rely on tips to supplement their income. Korean businesses pride themselves on providing top-notch services without expecting a gratuity. What matters to them is you enjoying your meal and leaving the establishment satisfied.
Welcome to Tip-Free Dining
However, if you truly enjoyed the service, or feel the urge to tip based on your own cultural habits, there’s no rule that outright forbids tipping. It’s just that if you leave some change or notes on the table, the staff is likely to follow you out to return it, thinking you’ve left it behind by accident. It’s not an insult or a statement about your generosity—it’s simply their way of being thorough and considerate.
A Note on Extra Charges
While tipping is an alien concept, you might find sometimes a service charge (VAT of 10%) added to your bill, especially in more upscale restaurants. This isn’t a tip, but a charge imposed by establishments to ensure the best possible service. Rest assured, this is not a hidden fee but will be clearly marked on your bill. In Korea, all prices displayed include 10% value-added tax.
To sum it up, when dining out in Korea, don’t worry about leaving a tip. Enjoy your meal, pay what’s on the bill, and that’s it! If you found the dining service to your liking, a word of praise or a thank you is more than enough to express your appreciation.