Let me say this from the very beginning: in my humble opinion, Korean cuisine is one of the best in the world. And I drew this conclusion after a decade-and-a-half long business career that took me all over the globe.
The Korean culinary culture is varied, catering to many tastes. Are you into seafood or fish? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different dishes you could try. Or perhaps you prefer noodles or dumplings? My mouth waters just thinking of the so-called Pyongyang cold noodles (naengmyeon). But if you are a meat lover, South Korea is a paradise since they have an entire culture built around the barbecue.
Dining in South Korea: What you need to know
If you are not a proficient chopstick user, it is recommended to carry a fork in your bag. While I lived for a year and a half in Hong Kong without touching the chopsticks, I had no choice in South Korea but to learn how to use them. Some restaurants might offer forks on request (especially the Western-themed ones like the Italian restaurants), but most have only baby-sized forks or none at all.
You don’t need to carry a knife, though—it is probably illegal to do so. Koreans use scissors to cut the barbecued meat, noodles, or the different kinds of local pickles. It might seem strange initially, but it’s actually more practical to use the scissors—we do the same now when cooking at home, even after returning to Europe.
Don’t worry about spoons—they come in different shapes and sizes depending on the dish you ordered.
In most places, diners sit at the table, similarly to Western restaurants. However, some establishments require you to take off your shoes. If you visit a very traditional restaurant, you will have to sit on the ground, barefoot, around a low table—it is a nice experience, albeit an uncomfortable one.
Eating and drinking are inextricably connected in South Korea. While Americans or Europeans might have a couple of beers with nothing on the side, Koreans eat when they drink and drink when they eat, especially outside working hours.
Beer is insanely popular while wine consumption is less widespread, although growing in popularity.
Soju is a strong alcoholic drink distilled from rice, and it is probably the number one drink in South Korea. It is cheap (at least the mainstream brands), helps with digestion, and lowers your blood sugar (I am a type 2 diabetic, so I can legitimately consume it as medicine). It comes with a different alcoholic content ranging from 18% to 40%, the 18% being the most popular. It is usually consumed using shot glasses.
Makgeolli is a sweet alcoholic drink made out of fermented rice. It has a milky aspect, and it has to be consumed while fresh (same as dairy products). Ingrid likes it a lot, but it is too sweet for my taste, diabetes aside. Koreans drink makgeolli out of cups, not glasses.
Apart from the omnipresent beer, soju, and makgeolli, Koreans consume different kinds of whiskey (bourbon, scotch, and so on), Japanese sake, and a variety of local fruity drinks (e.g., Korean raspberry wine or bokbunja-ju). Some places also serve vodka due to the migrants and guest workers from the former Soviet republics.
Interestingly, the adverts and posters for soju always feature women, while those for beer usually depict male models. It goes against the Western stereotype of men preferring strong drinks instead of the ladies who enjoy the lighter ones.
Like many aspects of Korean life, drinking (and dining in general) is ritualized. The main elements of the customs are related to who is pouring the drinks and the order in which the drinks are consumed.
Korean society is strictly hierarchical due to the neo-Confucian heritage of the Joseon period. Old people precede the young, bosses their subordinates, husbands their wives. This is also reflected at the dinner table. Let’s take a simple example.
A couple has dinner together. The lady should pour the drink into her husband’s glass using her right hand while she holds her left on her chest—the whole motion is similar to a slight bow. Alternatively, she can grab her right wrist with her left hand while she pours with the right. Meanwhile, the husband is supposed to raise his glass with the right while he keeps his left on his chest (or with the right while he holds his wrist with the left)—one should never pour alcohol while the glass sits on the table. Alternatively, it is enough for the husband to touch his glass with his right-hand finger while the wife pours instead of raising it. After the wife finishes pouring into the husband’s glass, the husband should repeat the whole procedure and pour into the wife’s glass. Every time a glass is empty, the process needs to be repeated, for it is considered offensive to have empty glasses on the table.
As you can imagine, things get more complicated depending on the relationship between the diners. If they are work colleagues, seniority is given by the position in the organization: big boss first, more minor bosses next, and so on. However, if they are family members, let’s say inlaws, the husband’s parents are the most senior (father first, mother second), followed by the wife’s parents, the husband, and then the wife. When the hierarchy is unclear, seniority comes with age: the older diner is the most senior, while the younger one is the most junior.
Given the hierarchy-driven rituals, it is unsurprising that Koreans prefer to dine with their peers—people of the same age and the same professional position, educational background, and similar financial status.
As for the order in which the drinks are consumed, there are different ways to approach it, depending on preference.
Usually, diners start by mixing beer and soju in a recommended proportion that I confess not to remember—I was lucky enough to be one of the seniors at most tables, so I never had to prepare the beer & soju mix. After a couple of glasses of this mix, each diner chose to continue with beer alone or with pure soju. Others prefer to kick the dinner off with makgeolli and then continue with beer or soju.
If you plan to visit Korea, you probably heard of the national dish called kimchi. Usually, they serve it as a side dish with virtually any main course. There are also many dishes containing kimchi as an ingredient. But what is kimchi?
It is basically a spicy fermented vegetable, similar to Western pickles. Koreans deposit the prepared vegetables into particular recipients, which they dig underground until the contents ferment. Due to the fermentation process, the kimchi has a strong smell that Westerners might consider unpleasant. But I assure you, kimchi is delicious.
The most common vegetables used to prepare kimchi are cabbage and radish, although there are numerous other types of kimchi.
Types of Restaurants & Pubs
There are many types of Korean restaurants& pubs. I’ll try to classify them based on the kind of food they serve.
Barbecue restaurants usually specialize in beef or pork. However, you can also find lamb in some places and different kinds of sausages and cheeses.
You are expected to order only the main dish (e.g. beef tenderloin) and alcoholic or soft drinks, while the side dishes and drinking water are served by default. Usually, the side dishes comprise a bowl of hot soup (e.g., soy paste soup), a bowl of cold soup (usually a bit sour and refreshing), a serving of rice, and several types of kimchi (cabbage, radish, and/or other vegetables). They might also serve cold noodles or a small crab or pieces of fried chicken as a by-default side dish.
In addition to the side dishes that come by default, you can order some cheese for the grill or Korean pancake—it is similar to pizza, but it’s made with kimchi or seafood (kimchi jeon, haemul pajeon, and so on).
One particularity of Korean barbecue places is that you are grilling the meat yourself. There is a hole in the middle of the table for burning charcoal or a gas burner on which you are expected to cook your own food.
Seafood restaurants. They are similar to the barbecue restaurant, but they serve seafood-based dishes (fish, octopus, mussels, oysters). In most places, they’ll prepare the dish on a wide metal plate, and then you cook it yourself on the gas burner.
Chicken restaurants. Fried chicken is probably the most consumed product in South Korea. According to the legend, there are over 80.000 fried chicken places in the country, and many people wonder where are the vast amounts of chicken coming from.
Moreover, there are places that serve chicken-based dishes in a similar fashion to the seafood restaurants—you cook it on your own on a gas burner placed on the table.
Sushi and Raw Fish restaurants. As the description suggests, they serve Japanese-style sushi, raw tuna, or even live octopus—we never tried the latter, although it is considered a traditional Korean delicacy. I don’t know if it is true, but according to the stories, sometimes people die choking on the live octopus.
“Traditional” restaurants. I don’t know how to call these places, but they usually serve different kinds of soups and stews. It is where I used to have my lunch. There are plenty of them nearby every office building or on inter-city roads.
Galbi-tang is a beef short rib soup served with rice and kimchi—my number one favorite Korean soup.
Haejang-guk, or hangover soup, is a Napa cabbage, vegetable, and meat soup said to cure a hangover. It can also contain oxblood, but don’t be deterred by this—it is good.
Ginseng soup is a famous Korean soup made with Korean ginseng and chicken. They serve it also with beef instead of chicken. It reminded me of the chicken & noodle soups of Central Europe with the added health benefits of ginseng.
Naengmyeon is a cold noodle soup originally coming from the Pyongyang area of North Korea. The traditional one has a salty-vinegary taste, while the “modern” version is more aromatic. Ingrid likes the aromatic version, and I prefer the traditional one. It is a must-try for every visitor.
Bossam stands for boiled pork shoulders wrapped in lettuce. It comes with kimchi, rice, and hot sauce.
Kimchi jjigae, or kimchi stew, is a mix of kimchi and pork or seafood served with tofu. It is considered a ‘soul food’ among Koreans—it is customary to sit around a bowl of kimchi stew with friends and share some drinks and stories.
Military soup is a Korean specialty with roots in the Korean war. Initially, it was a mix of US Army rations and Korean hot spices, but today the main ingredient is canned luncheon meat. Like the kimchi stew, it is most delicious when shared with friends over a drink or two.
Korean Chinese restaurants Korea has long historical and cultural ties to China since ancient times. Hence, Korean Chinese cuisine developed over the years, blending the two in a unique fashion. Personally, I prefer the Cantonese cuisine specific to south China and Hong Kong, but the Korean Chinese is not bad either (a bit too sweet and too heavy but otherwise delicious).
If you want to go for the whole Korean dining experience, you should try several places during the same evening. Since we lived in Seoul during the covid-19 pandemic, our usual evenings were restricted to two or a maximum of three rounds (restaurants had to close at 21:00 or 22:00), but we were told a perfect Korean night out comprises four or more hops. Remember that you are expected to drink and eat at every jump, so you shouldn’t eat your fill in the first establishment.
For example, you start at 18:00 at a Korean barbecue place specializing in beef (or pork). After one or two servings—and the appropriate number of beers or soju bottles—you should move to a seafood restaurant, followed by a sushi or raw tuna pub, and end with a kimchi stew or military soup place.
Service and Paying
You should always wait to be seated when entering a Korean restaurant, either by the usher, waiter, or owner.
In many places, there is a button on the table. Just push it once you are ready to order, and the waiter will come.
You pay when you leave, at the cashier—usually at the establishment’s entrance. There are no tips expected in Korea, and the bill includes the service charge.
Most of Korea is cashless, so it’s best if you have a contactless credit or debit card. They accept cash in most places, but it is not the preferred payment method since the covid-19 pandemic.
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