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Table Manners in Seoul

ellyel Nov 11, 2006 03:21 PM

I've been perusing the boards, looking for places to try while I'm in Seoul in a couple of months, when it occurred to me: How does one eat in South Korea without offending others? Can someone give me a hand - I've never been to Seoul and I really don;t want to offend people with my "poor" table manners.


  1. m
    MakingSense Nov 11, 2006 06:23 PM

    I can only tell you what my approach has been through decades of facing this on my own and as a corporate and diplomatic spouse - and being faced with some tricky situations.
    Plead ignorance, humbly ask for help and throw yourself on the tender mercies of your dinner companions. I've usually been met with kind laughter that put everyone at ease. They always helped me out, tolerated my awkwardness with good humor and loved telling me about their food and culture. It worked from formal dinners to situations where we ate with our hands.
    Humility and good humor will get you through anything. Trying to fake it never works and only leads to trouble.
    Koreans are fun and warm and you'll have a great time with them.

    1. Monica Nov 13, 2006 08:01 PM

      They don't expect you to know everything so you shouldn't worry too much about it but here are a few basics.

      Unlike Chinese and Japanese, Koreans use spoons to eat rice and soup. Chopsticks are used only for the side dishes.

      When drinking alcohol with elders, make sure you turn your face slightly to the side to drink. This is to show that you respect elders.
      Empty your glass(one shot, they love to say) and fill others when it's empty.
      And lastly, drink like there is no tomorrow.

      1. d
        david kaplan Nov 13, 2006 10:31 PM

        At the risk of devolving into crude generalizations, I found on my one trip to Korea that the Koreans I met were boisterous, casual, and quickly intimate at the table. On my first night, going downstairs at my fancy hotel for bulgogi, the waitress didn't hesitate to show me how to eat it (even though I knew perfectly well) -- and proceeded to take a lettuce leaf, assemble it with her hands, and hand it back to me. She then nearly held my hands as I assembled the next one. In other settings, dining companions touched me and each other in ways that were totally comfortable and non-sexual in context but would have likely been considered very forward in other cultures.

        Also, I can't think of anywhere else I've been where people eat as much -- and with such gusto -- as Koreans. I went to one very high-end buffet, and to my surprise people were piling their plates high and going back for more. The quantities were appropriate to a low-end Vegas buffet -- but with fantastic food.

        In short, after having spent a week in Japan, where I was quite concerned about not offending people at the table, my concern about not causing offense in Korea quickly dissolved after these experiences put me at ease. It occurred to me that my greatest offense (though perhaps unnoticed by anyone else) was assuming that Korea would be similar to Japan in manners and customs.

        3 Replies
        1. re: david kaplan
          choctastic Nov 16, 2006 03:12 AM

          what kills me is that people are so thin there.

          where was the buffet?

          1. re: choctastic
            david kaplan Nov 17, 2006 03:50 AM

            Baffles me why Koreans aren't heavier. I finally asked someone, and he claims that many people believe that the heat (spice-heat not temperature-heat) of the food keeps people thin. Hmm.

            I couldn't find the name of the buffet or even the part of town -- sorry!

            1. re: david kaplan
              Das Ubergeek Nov 23, 2006 07:26 AM

              They're thin because they WALK everywhere (except to the subway, etc.) and they don't eat between meals.

        2. prunefeet Nov 14, 2006 05:01 PM

          I want to go!!!

          1. b
            bijoux16 Nov 14, 2006 06:49 PM

            I think it also depends on who you are dining with. I'm korean, and when I dine with elders, especially male elders, I always take care to follow certain customs: not eating before the eldest male at the table has begun to eat, offering to pour/refill his drink (always pour with two hands!), et cetera. when I eat with people around my age or most females, it's more casual and warm. and try not to refuse to eat something that's offered to you, if possible... I did that to my grandmother once and I learned later that she was really hurt by my refusal.

            1. d
              david kaplan Nov 14, 2006 07:07 PM

              Yes good point. I should have made clear that I was there in a business setting and was eating with business contacts. Although we hadn't met before, there were no age or gender differences (we were all professional men in the 30-50 range), which surely contributed to the informality.

              1. m
                MikeG Nov 16, 2006 01:56 PM

                Even if the rice bowl isn't too hot to pick up, don't. Unlike in a Chinese or Japanese setting, one doesn't use the rice bowl as a quasi-utensil - it stays on the table.

                1 Reply
                1. re: MikeG
                  Brian S Nov 19, 2006 03:44 PM

                  I'm not sure if you'll impress people in a Chinese setting if you use the rice bowl as a quasi-utensil. I used to do that years ago and I noticed people looking at me as if they were thinking, "That foreigner eats like a Chinese peasant!"

                2. e
                  ellyel Nov 16, 2006 06:17 PM

                  Thanks! You guys have been so great. I really appreciate how helpful y'all are! Keep the tips coming!

                  Oh, if it helps, I am a female in my late-20s.

                  Thanks again!

                  1. Monica Nov 17, 2006 01:38 PM

                    If you ever get a chance, watch Anthony Bourdain's visit to Korea on travel channel. I am sure you can even find it on youtube

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Monica
                      welle Nov 17, 2006 04:39 PM

                      Eversince the Googlification, Youtube took down all the copyrighted content from their site.

                    2. bitsubeats Nov 17, 2006 09:05 PM

                      like everyone said, if you are american (I don't know what you are btw...just assuming) koreans will not expect you to learn proper table manners. However here are a few things to learn.

                      like someone already stated, please do not pick up your rice bowl. Only the chinese and japanese eat their rice this way. It especially sucks when you use a metal bowl. However I only see metal bowls at restaurants.

                      do not stick your chopsticks straight up in your rice. thats pretty much offensive to most asian cultures because it looks like you are honouring the dead

                      do not blow your nose at the table. If you need to blow your nose, then excuse yourself

                      always eat after the oldest person has started eating. wait for them.

                      wear socks when sitting down for a meal. I guess this is why most korean men wear socks with sandals..hahaha.

                      always fill up an older person's glass using 2 hands, they should be served ahead of you. When they serve you, hold the glass with either 2 hands or your left hand grasping your right wrist while you hold the glass (I think this is right? i can't remember....help me out here) and then turn your face away when you drink.

                      don't go digging around in the panchan or kimchi for "special items" and don't leave grains of rice in communal stews or communal panchan.

                      2 very important things: please please please eat your ssam and kimbop in one bite, do not take 2 do not take 3 eat it all in one bite. i promise it tastes better that way! Last but not least, eat all of your rice and food and say thank you at the end of the meal.

                      wow, my rules sound like koreans are uptight but they really aren't. I break these rules allllll the time and hardly anyone notices, especially in an familiar setting like with my parents.

                      have fun and eat everything, koreans are very impressed when americans love korean food

                      10 Replies
                      1. re: bitsubeats
                        ellyel Nov 18, 2006 12:48 AM

                        Not at all - most of them make sense to me.

                        BTW, I'm Filipino-American. :)

                        1. re: bitsubeats
                          Brian S Nov 19, 2006 03:47 PM

                          " if you are [not Korean] koreans will not expect you to learn proper table manners" That's important. In some countries, they think like that; he's taken the time to learn our culture and he deserves respect, who cares if he makes a few mistakes? But in other countries, you can study for years and make one trivial mistake and everyone will be thinking, "the dumb foreigner made a mistake hahaha!"

                          1. re: bitsubeats
                            omotosando Nov 23, 2006 07:59 AM

                            "don't leave grains of rice in communal stews or communal panchan."

                            Could you elaborate? I'm not sure what this means.

                            1. re: omotosando
                              Das Ubergeek Nov 23, 2006 06:19 PM

                              Make sure you don't have rice on your spoon or chopsticks before putting them into communal stews or side dishes (panchan) -- then they float around and it looks gross, kind of like slopping the French dressing into the ranch dressing on a salad bar.

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                omotosando Nov 23, 2006 08:32 PM

                                Hmmn, do Koreans not follow the Japanese custom of reaching into communal bowls with the "non-eating" end of the chopstick? That would seem to do away with the possibility of depositing a stray piece of rice into the communal bowl.

                                1. re: omotosando
                                  Das Ubergeek Nov 24, 2006 07:07 AM

                                  Koreans consider the "blunt" end of the chopstick unfit for food consumption, it would be like sticking the handle of your fork into a communal dish.

                                  You either have to be careful about your chopsticks and your mouth, or you have to ask for communal chopsticks.

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                    omotosando Nov 24, 2006 08:33 AM

                                    Wow, this is all very confusing to me.

                                    1. What are communal chopsticks? Do you use one set of chopsticks to serve and one to eat?

                                    2. If you don't have communal chopsticks and if you can't stick the blunt end of the chopstick in the food, don't you risk sharing germs (which, is why, I thought the Japanese use the blunt end to serve).

                                    1. re: omotosando
                                      Blueicus Nov 24, 2006 02:54 PM

                                      Communal chopsticks means there's one set in front of each dish for serving one's self in addition to one set per person for eating.

                                      As for the second point, I guess they never thought it was a big deal to be stabbing multiple chopsticks from various mouths into dishes... depends on how one was brought up. Besides, you've been rubbing your hands all over the blunt end of the chopsticks... is that really that much better?

                                    2. re: Das Ubergeek
                                      choctastic Nov 26, 2006 05:20 PM

                                      really, nobody ever said anything to me when i put the blunt end into something. oh crap.

                                      1. re: choctastic
                                        Das Ubergeek Nov 26, 2006 11:30 PM

                                        I only found out after I'd done it and my Korean friend took me aside privately after the dinner and explained the faux pas.

                            2. pikawicca Nov 18, 2006 12:59 AM

                              Eat your rice! Everything else is in a supporting role, and your host will be concerned/mystified, if you don't eat the central element of the meal.

                              1. m
                                MikeG Nov 20, 2006 02:46 AM

                                Yes, of course, but even there they won't be "offended" the way they would if a native did something "offensive."

                                1. erica Nov 26, 2006 04:05 PM

                                  Thanks for posting these tips, everyone. I will try to remember them for a trip to visit a relative in Seoul in the spring!

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