You may not think twice about sitting down for a meal with friends in your home country, but dining in an unfamiliar culture can sometimes be stressful and confusing! Here are some essential tips and tricks to help you out in case you ever find yourself at a dinner table in Korea with no idea of what to do.
Although first-time restaurant-goers in Korea may be expecting an intense, traditional atmosphere (sitting on the floor come to mind, anyone?), the atmosphere depends on the type of restaurant and location. One common thread that may shock you is a lack of tipping culture. It is not customary in Korea to leave a tip for the server, so take all prices as they are listed on the menu. The tax is also usually included in this price, so relax and order to your heart’s content!
When it comes to ordering, you may be surprised to find that your server does not check on your table to see if you are ready to order. Instead, you are usually expected to get their attention by calling “저기요!” (jeo-gi-yo: "excuse me"). You should do the same if you need your server throughout the meal, so don’t be shy! Some tables in Korean restaurants will even feature a server call button, which alerts the server that their assistance is needed. How convenient!
Now that you know what to expect when it comes to the actual restaurant, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and discuss manners and customs. Firstly, it is important to remember the importance of age in all aspects of Korea culture, which is very much visible at the table.
The eldest of the group should sit before any other guest sits, and the eldest should also begin eating before any other guest. The youngest at the table is usually the one who will serve utensils, pour drinks, and grill food. Before eating, it is customary to say some form of the phrase “잘 먹겠습니다” (jal meokkesseumnida: "I will eat well"). This is similar to the Japanese “itadakimasu” or the French “bon appetit.”
When drinking, it is polite for younger guests to turn away from their elders while taking a sip. You may hear exclamations of “건배!” (geon-bae) which is the Korean equivalent of “cheers!” Among friend groups, it is common for the eldest guest to offer to pay for the entire meal, although this should not be expected in every situation. You should also keep an eye on your neighbors drinks and offer to refill them if they are low, as it is regarded as a bit awkward to pour your own drink.
Lastly, the part that could easily cause the most stress among those who are totally unfamiliar with Korean dining: chopsticks. Hopefully, you are somewhat decent at the art of chopstick-usage but, if not, don’t worry! Practice makes perfect with this utensil, and you may even come to find that chopsticks are far more practical in some scenarios than a fork or spoon. Even if you are not 100% confident with your chopstick usage, knowing the etiquette is essential for a peaceful Korean dining experience.
For starters, the “food side” of your chopsticks should always rest on a dish or plate, never touching the table. Try to avoid tapping your chopsticks like drumsticks, and be sure to never leave them stuck in a bowl of rice like a stake. This is a symbol commonly seen at Korean funerals, and could make your dinner partners uncomfortable.
Hopefully having these tips and tricks under your belt will help you to feel more comfortable when dining in Korea. If you are worried about remembering every tiny detail, don’t stress too much! Making mistakes is a natural part of learning a new culture—and could lend itself to some pretty great stories!
If you know of any other unique Korean dining traditions, let us know down in the comments! We’d love to hear any fun food stories you have to offer!
Written by Abby Kotar