Visiting South Korea? Here's The Dining Etiquette Guide You Need
Image Credit: A restaurant in Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. Image via Wikimedia Commons

South Korea, a land of rich culture and tantalising cuisine, offers a unique dining experience that is both enjoyable and enlightening. As an Indian traveller exploring the culinary landscape of South Korea, it is essential to be aware of the local dining etiquette to ensure a pleasant and respectful experience. This guide will walk you through the essential do's and don'ts of dining in South Korea, helping you navigate the vibrant food scene with grace and poise.

1. Respect the seating arrangement

In traditional Korean restaurants, you may find low tables with cushions or floor seating. It is customary to remove your shoes before sitting down. When dining with elders or people of higher social status, wait for them to take their seats first. If you are unsure of where to sit, simply follow the lead of your Korean hosts or ask politely.

2. Master the art of using chopsticks and spoons

Korean meals are typically enjoyed with metal chopsticks and a long-handled spoon. It is essential to become comfortable using these utensils, as using your hands to eat is considered impolite. When not in use, place your chopsticks and spoon on the provided utensil rest or on the table, parallel to the edge. Avoid sticking your chopsticks vertically into your rice, as this resembles a funeral ritual.

3. Embrace communal dining

Korean meals often involve shared dishes, such as banchan (small side dishes), which are placed in the centre of the table. It is customary to take small portions from these shared dishes using your chopsticks and place them on your individual plate. Refrain from eating directly from the communal dishes, as this is considered impolite.

4. Understand the importance of hierarchy

In Korean culture, age and social status play a significant role in determining dining etiquette. When dining with elders or superiors, wait for them to start eating before you begin. It is also polite to offer to pour drinks for others, particularly those older or of higher status than you. When receiving a drink, hold your glass with both hands as a sign of respect.

5. Savour the flavours of Korean cuisine

Korean cuisine is known for its bold flavours, with dishes often featuring a harmonious blend of spicy, sweet, and savoury elements. You may find some similarities between Korean and Indian food, such as the use of spices and the importance of rice as a staple. However, Korean cuisine also offers unique flavours and textures that are sure to delight your palate. Be open to trying new dishes and savouring the diverse flavours that South Korea has to offer.

6. Mind your table manners

Good table manners are essential when dining in South Korea. Avoid talking with your mouth full, slurping loudly, or making excessive noise while eating. It is also considered impolite to blow your nose at the table, so excuse yourself if necessary. When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks and spoon on the table or utensil rest, signalling that you are done.

7. Express gratitude

At the end of the meal, it is customary to thank your hosts or the restaurant staff for the delicious food and their hospitality. A simple "thank you" in Korean, which is "감사합니다" (gamsahamnida), will suffice. If you are dining with Korean friends or colleagues, it is also polite to offer to pay for the meal or at least contribute to the bill.

8. Explore the world of Korean beverages

South Korea boasts a diverse range of traditional beverages, from refreshing rice wines like makgeolli to the potent soju, which is often compared to vodka. When enjoying alcoholic drinks, it is customary to pour and receive drinks with both hands. Additionally, it is considered polite to turn your head away from your elders or superiors when taking a sip.

9. Navigating dietary restrictions

As an Indian traveller, you may have specific dietary preferences or restrictions, such as vegetarianism or avoiding beef due to religious beliefs. While Korean cuisine is predominantly meat-based, there are still plenty of vegetarian options available. When dining out, look for dishes like bibimbap (mixed rice with vegetables) or japchae (sweet potato noodles with vegetables), which can be made vegetarian upon request. Additionally, many Buddhist temple restaurants serve delicious vegetarian fare. To communicate your dietary preferences, learn a few key phrases in Korean, such as "I am a vegetarian," which is "저는 채식주의자입니다" (jeoneun chaesikjuuija imnida).

10. Street food delights

South Korea is famous for its vibrant street food culture, offering a plethora of delicious and affordable snacks. From spicy rice cakes (tteokbokki) to savoury pancakes (jeon), there is something for everyone. When enjoying street food, remember to dispose of your rubbish responsibly and avoid littering. Many street food vendors provide designated bins for waste disposal.

Dining in South Korea is a delightful experience that offers a window into the country's rich culture and culinary traditions. By following these etiquette tips, you can ensure a respectful and enjoyable dining experience that will leave a lasting impression on both you and your Korean hosts. So, pack your bags, and get ready to embark on a gastronomic adventure that will tantalise your taste buds and enrich your understanding of Korean culture.