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Every culture in the world has its dining etiquette that embodies the values, traditions, and civility of its people. Knowingly or not, parents often teach their children to discipline through family meals, and the ways of eating that enhance enjoyment.
For Koreans, having good table manners brings harmony to everyone sharing the meal, and lets you truly savour the myriad of rich flavours together. So, the next time you enjoy a Korean meal, remember these 10 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 that is also practised at the dining table. Typically, the elder picks up his/her chopsticks first to start off 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. Bowl, chopsticks and spoon
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. Keep your rice bowl on the table at all times while eating.
5. Don’t hoard
Sharing is caring, cliché as that may be, but absolutely true in a Korean meal. So, make sure everyone can enjoy the shared dishes. Always take just enough from each time, and don’t hoard a pile of food on your personal plate and bowl.
6. Balance your flavours
Korean meals have many tastes and flavours from the combination of soup/stew, rice, meat and veggie dishes. Temper the spiciness with rice and soup, and balance the heat of meat with cooling veggies. Basically, enjoy every dish at the table. Being choosy means missing out.
7. Eat calmly, chew thoroughly
Unlike some cultures where slurping is actually a sign of loving the food, Koreans prefer quiet enjoyment. So, sip your soup or stew slowly to savour every taste. Don’t wolf down your food, or chomp with your mouth open; but chew and appreciate the warmth, excitement and umami flavours in every mouthful.
8. 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.
9. Pass with both hands, pour for others
When passing bowls, glasses, or dishes, always use both hands to show respect. 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.
10. 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.