If you have lived in Korea for quite sometime, you’ve probably had an at least one socially awkward moment when eating with the natives. My first time at Kimbab Cheonguk (김밥 천국), I put my chopsticks in the bibimbap, causing an uproar at the tables around me. So, to avoid daggers piercing your inner soul, I’m going to break down each rule of Korean dining located at the back of the Lonely Planet Seoul guidebook. Now, these opinions are completely subjective, and as usual, if you have any feedback or experiences, please feel free to share them.
1) Taking off your shoes in a restaurant where everyone sits on the floor – Fact
This is a social norm in Korea, especially at Korean BBQ restaurants outside of the foreign areas (Itaewon). In northern Seoul, most of the BBQ restaurants in the area require you to sit on the floor while you eat. This is actually a pretty enjoyable experience, especially culturally if you are only visiting for a short period of time. However, if you are a rather large person, this can be uncomfortable. That said, your shoes must come off. They are usually placed at the entrance of the restaurants. If the restaurant is high class, they might have lockers to put your shoes in. If you got smelly feet, bring the Oder Eaters, cause you don’t want to ruin everyone else’s meal because of your smelly, sweaty feet.
2) Pouring drinks for others when their glasses are full, preferably with two hands – Faction
This rule is a bit of a mixed bag. Remember those times when you were at formal event and at first you were acting very polite, but as the evening wore on, and the alcohol began to flow any sense of formality slipped out the window like a cool, mountain breeze? That is what pouring your drinks is like in Korea. With the first bottle of soju, everyone is smiling and pretending to assimilate to the culture, even fellow Koreans pouring each other drinks in a slow and polite fashion. However, after the 9th or 10th bottle, people are grabbing the bottle and just pouring it right into their beers (or mouths).
3) Asking for scissors (gawi, 가위) when you can’t cut something with your spoon. – Fiction
Humm… I don’t understand why the LP would put this one in. It seems like a moot point. Most places when you visit Korea will give you scissors right away to cut meat and other various foods with. It’s very rare that you will have to ask for scissors. If you forget the Korean word for scissors, I suggest just cutting the air like a crazy man with your middle and index finger. This action works like a charm.
4) Place chopsticks and spoon back to their original positions at the end of the meal – Fiction
I’ve never actually heard of this before. I’ve eaten at hundreds of Korean restaurants with many different people and usually we just leave our chopsticks on a napkin. Most chopsticks and spoons, especially at Korean restaurants are in small wooden boxes. So, I guess we are suppose to put them back in the box? I wouldn’t worry about this one, unless someone at your table has specifically mentioned it or pointed it out.
5) Do not start or finish your meals before your elders – Fiction
In some cases, this might be a fact. For example, at a formal event with the Korean in-laws during an event like Chuseok or Lunar New Year, it might be polite to follow this custom. However, for daily life in the ROK, I don’t think it is necessary. I’ve witnessed hundreds of children in restaurants eating before their parents. This is a classic rule that might have been applicable back in grandma’s generation, but in modern Korea, I don’t think it is still applicable.
6) Do not use your hands to handle food unless it’s lettuce for wrapping other food – Fact
This rule shouldn’t be considered too much of a fact, but it is impolite to handle food, especially Korean food, without using chopsticks. Have you ever wondered why Korean chopsticks are silver while other countries use wood chopsticks? Koreans believe that silver chopsticks are purer and that wooden ones are tainted. So, just by this example alone, we can infer that they place a high emphasis on cleanliness and purity. However, as a foreigner, it would be understandable to a Korean that you might not be as proficient using a chopstick, so if you need a little help from the fingers, this will probably not be a huge social faux pas.
7) Use a spoon to handle rice instead of chopsticks – Faction
I’ve never heard of this one before, but observing every day meals, I’ve noticed that most Korean people do eat their rice with a spoon. That said, I’ve always liked to eat my rice with my chopsticks to actually practice using a chopstick. Since my culinary Kung-Fu is weak, I need all the practice I can get. It is also dependent on the food. For example, a few nights ago, when I was eating Samgyetang, one of the side dishes was sticky rice. There was no chance in hell that I could get that on a spoon, so chopsticks were the only option. For what is it is worth my Korean friend also used chopsticks when handling sticky rice.
8) Do not leave your chopsticks or spoon sticking up from your rice bowl. Why? Cause it means someone is dead! – Fact
Oh yeah, this one is a fact. This is an offering to deceased relatives and at first I thought this was silly, until I did it in a restaurant unintentionally and was stabbed with darts from the eyes of every Korean in the room. My friend kindly explained what that meant and took the sticks out. Alas, please don’t do this one for your own safety.
9) Don’t blow your nose at the table – Fact (But when you gotta sneeze, you gotta sneeze)
This Korean etiquette is always something that I try to follow, but at the same time, if the urge comes, I break it. Normally, try your best not to blow your nose at the table. However, who am I to stop mother nature?