My parents had finally come to visit my Korean fiancée and I for a week for our wedding. After a day of walking through Ulsan’s Daewangam Grand park (대왕암공원) and taking in the lovely sights off the sea and pine trees we walked down towards Ilsan beach to enjoy dinner.
We decided on a marinated pork barbecue restaurant and after entering and promptly ordering the meat and drinks, the servers then began setting up the table with dish after dish of different assorted pickled and fermented as well as fresh fruits and veggies. “Who ordered this?” asked my mom, “are these appetizers?”, “Yeah, in a way” I replied.
My parents had never been to a Korean restaurant, even in the United States, and this was a truly unique experience for them. It also begins to tell the story of Korean dining customs and etiquette. It doesn’t matter if you are in Hongdae in Seoul or Nutley, New Jersey, here are a few things one can expect ( and what may be expected of them) when it comes to Korean dining!
What are banchan?
To start, my parents were surprised by the servers bringing us all these little dishes of veggies and other goodies. They thought these were appetizers, like ones that must be ordered (and are billed) separately from the standard entrée one orders. They were actually banchan (반찬). Banchan deserves its own article, but to keep it simple for now, these are the extra side dishes that include sauces, sometimes dried fish, sometimes soy bean paste, lots of veggies (and fruits like peppers) both fresh and fermented, and usually, the king of banchan, kimchi.
Banchan has a long tradition believed to go back to Korea’s Three Kingdom’s period. They are eaten with just about every meal. As to their role as appetizers, yes. They are. But they are also relish, sauces, accoutrements and digestion aids, as much as they are appetizers, too. As to ordering them separately, there is no need to! The server or your host, if you are dining at a Korean person’s house, will provide these to accompany the meal, free of charge! Even for refills, in Korea there is no charge to refill banchan, though, you may have to ask your server for a refill or get it yourself, depending on the restaurant.
Some banchan include soups and stews, both hot and cold. These are usually enjoyed during the meal in lieu of water. While eating, other beverages are enjoyed, but drinking water with a meal is conveying to the chef that the food is not tasty. Water is usually consumed after a meal.
No need to pass plates!
The next fun thing my parents did (this is not at their expense, but just really great anecdotes to illustrate how different American and Korean dining customs are!) was begin to pass the banchan around. I had to explain to my fiancée and again to my mother-in-law at another barbecue restaurant (that seems to be a theme, here) that in many American households, the different plates of side dishes are passed around, during the Thanksgiving meal. Luckily, my mother-in-law found this very charming and decided to play along, passing kimchi and the greens around as well! Typically, the long, steel chopsticks of Korean dining are used instead to just reach for the banchan or dish you want.
Now for the next anecdote about my parents at barbecue, in the same restaurant nonetheless! As the server handed me the pair of steel tongs and large scissors to cook the cuts of beef that I promptly threw on the grill, I felt my mother-in-law’s eyes fixate on me. Watching for any slight mistake. Naturally, I choked, the meat began to char and burn. And, she commandeered the cooking utensils from me and began grilling the meat herself. And doing a much better job, honestly. My mother, sitting next to me whispered, “Why are you making Mrs. Park cook?! You should be doing that!” and I didn’t argue because, well, she was right. For Korean barbecue, the proper etiquette is for the youngest male to grill and cut the meat up. As Korean barbecue often entails drinking lots of beer (맥주) and Korean rice wine, soju (소주) this leads to the next part of Korean table manners, drinking.
Pour me a drink, junior!
Just like other social interactions, there are rules for drinking too, and because Koreans usually enjoy drinks with some food (안주/bar snacks, drinking food), it has a place being discussed in this article. Korea’s culture is deeply intertwined with Confucian social values and roles. Thus, age and station hierarchy are strictly observed. Korean drinking culture is another topic that deserves its own article, but to keep this one brief as well, the younger or lower ranked people at the table should keep the older, or their superior’s glass or cup full. They should pour with both hands and should turn away when drinking. They should also drink when their elder/superior drinks, too! Observing and being receptive to the actions of elders and superiors at the table is a nice segue to the next custom!
One famous alcoholic beverage is Soju (which is a distilled beverage made from potatoes).
Wait to begin eating
When eating in Korea, it is customary to wait to even touch any silverware until the eldest person or highest ranked person begins eating. Luckily for my dad, he happened to be the oldest person at the table, and so he had the honors to set the pace of our family dinners both times our families met. A privilege I am certain he relished!
Tableware par excellence
Now to address the title of this article, that Korean table manners are more than just good chopstick skills. So, to wrap up this introduction to Korean dining culture, it will be with an overview of the silverware. And I do mean silver, or rather steel ware. Korean tableware differs from other Asian countries because instead of wood or bamboo chopsticks, Koreans use steel chopsticks. These chopsticks are flatter and often times engraved with symbols of longevity and luck like cranes and ginseng roots. Alongside the chopsticks the tableware will include a large, wide, steel spoon. The origin of the steel chopsticks is said to have 2 major theories. The first is that this practice was started by the aristocracy during Korea’s tumultuous Three Kingdom’s period. The king and nobility feared poisoning and thus used silver chopsticks. The silver was believed to change color if exposed to certain poisonous chemicals. The common people, in hopes of emulating the royalty, made their own shiny steel chopsticks, too. There is also the theory that because Koreans eat their rice with a spoon (another table manner, rice is eaten with a spoon, not chopsticks, unless the rice is being scooped with chopsticks to be added to other dishes!) the need for wooden chopsticks, which are easier to grip rice were not needed. The steel chopsticks are a point of pride for Koreans and perceived as more hygienic and sustainable, as they can be washed and reused multiple times.
Here are just a few, but all important, dining customs and traditions from Korea! As for my parents, their first experience of Korean food was a hit! By the end of their trip, my dad was ordering soju at every restaurant we went, and my mom’s chopstick skills went from asking for a fork, to being able to scoop kimchi with ease using the steel chopsticks, a quick improvement for sure! For Koreans, just like all cultures, food is a very integral part of life. Food isn’t just something to stay full, but it is the basis of existence. In fact, a common greeting similar to “what’s up” or “how are you?” is “have you eaten yet?” or a variation thereof. This isn’t a literal question, it’s one meant to inquire about another person’s very core being, are you okay? How are you doing? Have you had some good food? This is the true meaning of such a phrase. I hope this article was informative and encouraged some curious readers to go out and try some Korean food firsthand!