12 Basic Rules of Korean Table Dining Etiquette
If a trip to Korea or a Korean restaurant is on your agenda, there's a key aspect you should know about – Korean table manners. My mom's visit has me diving back into the traditions of Korean culture.
For Koreans, good table manners create harmony during shared meals, allowing everyone to savor a variety of rich flavors together. So, the next time you enjoy a Korean meal, remember these 12 basic rules.
1. Say ‘I will eat well.’
Say ‘Jal-mukkes-seub-nida’, which means ‘I will eat well’, or ‘I will enjoy this meal’ – a polite show of appreciation for the food you receive and the person who cooked it. It’s akin to saying grace before eating, ‘Bon appetit’, ‘Itadakimasu’ for the Japanese, or a simple ‘Thank you for the food’.
2. Elder first
Like most Asians, respect for elders is a core value in Korean culture and is also practiced at the dining table. Typically, the eldest family member picks up their chopsticks first to initiate the family meal. If you happened to be the eldest? Well, don’t keep everyone waiting!
3. Start with soup
Begin your meal with a taste of soup or stews. This warms your tongue and preps your taste-buds for the flavourful dishes to come.
4. Chopsticks and spoons (and never point with your chopstick!)
Chopsticks are for dishes, a spoon is for rice and soup. Don’t hold your chopsticks and spoon together at the same time, never use your chopsticks like skewers, and never stab them in your bowl of rice – which is a funeral ritual. A Korean meal typically has an array of shared dishes, so don’t poke or dig around them with your chopsticks, pick what you want, and enjoy it from your personal dish plate.
5. Don't Lift Your Rice Bowl
Lifting your rice or soup bowl to eat is considered impolite. Instead, leave it on the table and use your spoon to bring the food to your mouth.
6. Don’t hoard
Sharing is crucial in a Korean meal, so ensure everyone can enjoy the shared dishes. Always take just enough from each dish, and avoid hoarding a pile of food on your personal plate and bowl.
7. Balance your flavours
Korean meals offer a rich tapestry of tastes and flavors through a combination of soup/stew, rice, meat, and veggie dishes. Temper the spiciness with rice and soup, and complement the heat of meat with refreshing veggies. Essentially, relish every dish at the table. Being selective means missing out.
8. Eat calmly, chew thoroughly
Unlike some cultures where slurping is seen as a sign of enjoyment, Koreans prefer quiet enjoyment. So, sip your soup or stew slowly to savor every taste. Don't slurp your food, rush through your meal, or eat with your mouth open; instead, chew slowly and appreciate the warmth, excitement, and umami flavors in every mouthful.
9. Stay focused
Enjoying your food and company is more important than scrolling your phone. So, don’t. No TV, magazine or newspaper either, please. Focus on your meal and conversations with your loved ones at the table.
10. Use two hands for passing or receiving
When pouring drinks or passing dishes, it's polite to use both hands, especially when offering something to someone older than you.
11. Pour for others
For Koreans, it’s also considered rude to refill your drink, especially for alcohol. Always pour for others at the table, and let them fill yours. So, if you notice someone's cup is empty, you know what to do now.
12. Finish with grace
After you filled your tummy and satiated your taste-buds, finish by placing your chopsticks and spoon beside your bowl or plate, not atop. Also, make sure there are no leftovers. And finally, say ‘Jal-muhguhs-seub-nida’, which means ‘I ate well’, to show your love and appreciation.