Korean table manners

Food culture and table manners in Korea

In this article, I’ll tell you about table manners in Korea. First, I tell about basic elements of Korean food, Korean food culture and table etiquette.

I also share how Koreans think about food.

What are the basic elements of Korean food?

Koreans always eat rice (밥). With every meal, yes, including breakfast, but nowadays Koreans don’t just eat white rice (백미) because we think a lot about good nutrition and health. We eat rice with mixed grains (잡곡) or mixed with black rice (흑미). Basically, black rice is more nutritious than white rice and more delicious. It has the better consistency and richer flavor. When white rice is cooked with black rice (about 10%), the white rice turns purple.

Rice (밥), a soup (국) or stew (찌개), and kimchi (김치) are the basic elements for Korean food. Kimchi, Korean cabbage salad is made from cabbage, chili powder, fish sauce, garlic and onions and fermented.

If we have soup, we usually don’t need stew. Conversely, if we have a stew, we don’t need soup. The soup is usually clear and the stew is thick.

A bowl of soup is usually served individually, but a stew involves the whole family eating from the same pot. So the position of soup and stew on the table is also different. I’ll tell you about it later.

We eat not only the basic elements, of course, but also many different side dishes (반찬). Side dishes are usually served in small bowls, as they don’t need to be as large as the main course. In fact, kimchi is one of the side dishes, so you can’t eat kimchi as a main dish.

Anything can be a garnish. Side dishes are served on small plates or in bowls and, unlike rice and soup, are shared with other people.

At the moment we are thinking a lot about hygiene. When we eat at a restaurant with someone who is not family or a friend, we sometimes use a small personal plate of apjeobshi (앞접시) so we can eat separately.

The Korean table culture

Where should rice, soup, side dishes, etc. be placed on the table?

In Korean table culture, a smaller bowl of rice is placed on the left side and soup is placed on the right side of the rice. On the right side of the soup, place the cutlery (수저). The cutlery is a spoon (숟가락) and a couple of chopsticks (젓가락). The spoon should always be on the left side of the stick.

A bowl of rice and soup is eaten by one person, but a stew is shared with others, so it is placed in the middle. Side dishes are also placed in the middle so everyone can eat.

15 Rules of Korean Table Etiquette You Need to Know

  1. The most important rule when eating is that you should not pick up the cutlery before adults pick it up. That is, you may eat after the older people or the people who have a higher position have begun to eat.

  2. If you are eating with adults or older people , it is important to adjust your pace of eating to suit them. You are not to eat faster or slower than them.

  3. Eat rice, soup and stew with a spoon. Kimchi and other garnishes with the chopsticks.

  4. Do not hold the spoon and chopsticks in one hand.

  5. Do not use spoons and chopsticks with both hands at the same time.

  6. You must not put spoons and chopsticks on the side dishes during the meal.

  7. You must not put the cutlery in the rice because we only do that for our deceased ancestors at the ancestor ceremony.

  8. You must not hold the bowl of rice or soup in your hand while eating. Koreans use porcelain or stainless steel bowls, so the bowls are heavy and get very hot because of the hot food.

    However, Japanese eat with a bowl of rice or soup in hand because they use wooden bowls. Wood doesn’t just get hot. They usually only use chopsticks when eating, not spoons, so they lift the bowls and drink the soup.

  9. Are you not allowed to make chewing noises while eating in Korea?
    Smacking your lips while eating means it tastes good. Especially when we eat Ramyeon (라면), we make a lot of noises. Actually, it has a good meaning in Korea, but nowadays it seems that if you make a lot of noise while eating, you are not well educated.

    Here you can see advertisements for Korean noodles as it is.
    Advertising 1 Advertising 2 Advertising 3

    I was really surprised when I ate with Europeans. I couldn’t hear anything from them while I was eating, so I felt like I was eating alone.

  10. However, you should not make any noise with the cutlery.

  11. If a cough occurs during a meal, turn your head and cover your mouth.

  12. Is it okay to blow your nose while eating in Korea?
    If it’s not too loud when you blow your nose and doesn’t cause any discomfort, it’s not forbidden and it’s not rude.

  13. You must not rest your chin on the table with your hands.

  14. When you have eaten everything, put the cutlery back on the table as at the beginning and not in the bowl.

  15. Koreans usually use paper napkins or handkerchiefs. These used paper napkins or tissues can be placed in the bowl after the meal to make it look tidier.

How do you say bon appétit in Korean?

There are two expressions! 맛있게 드세요 and 잘 먹겠습니다.

맛있게 드세요 literally means eat delicious, so the host says it to guests.
잘 먹겠습니다 literally means, I will eat well, so the guest says.

맛있게 드세요. Mashitge Dseyo. – host
잘 먹겠습니다. Chal Meokgesseumnida. – guest

Food culture in Korea in the past and today

When I was a kid, South Korea was not yet a rich or developed country. My parents’ generation was very poor in Korea. My father often told me how poor Korea was. After the Korean War, Koreans didn’t have much to eat. When my dad was a kid, someone threw a melon rind in the street and my dad ate it. He walked 4 km to school, but he was lucky because at least he could walk to school.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Koreans currently eat a lot of grains for health reasons, but my mom doesn’t like grains as much because she only ate grains, not rice, when she was young. Rice was very expensive back then, so not everyone could eat it.

Therefore, food is very important for Koreans. We often ask, “Have you had breakfast?” or “Have you eaten anything?” as a greeting. I didn’t know myself that I ask my friends so often.

Have you eaten yet? 🙂

식사하셨어요? very polite
식사했어요? normally polite

Important phrases and vocabulary:

쌀 raw rice
밥 boiled rice
백미 white rice, refined rice
흑미 black rice
현미 Wholemeal rice
잡곡 mixed cereals
국 Soup
찌개 Stew
반찬 Supplement
숟가락 Spoon
젓가락 Chopsticks
수저(숟가락+젓가락) cutlery (spoon+chopsticks)