Research File: South Korean Dining and Manners

After reflecting on my own personal experiences of dining in South Korea I wanted to research more into the traditions. When over there I was just told what to do and how to behaviour rather than the reasons why. South Korea has a long and rich history and this it why they have so many customs and traditions. Something that stood out to me when dining was the option to dine on the floor and also how close to the ground a lot of the traditional furniture was.

When on a guided tour of one of the main palaces it was explained that it was due to the traditional heating method. The hanok’s (traditional housing) were high off of the ground and this was so they could be heated and cooled easily. The weather in S.Korea gets extremely cold in the winter and hot in the summer. In the summer the walls of the Hanok can nearly all be folded up to allow for the breeze to flow through the building. Whereas, in the winter they are all closed down and the floor is heated. The traditional heating method is called “Ondol”. When entering a Hanok you first walk up a few stairs because underneath the building is a “basement” of passageways that baked stones would sit in. The smoke then produced from these stones would rise and heat the building. The very first underfloor heating. This requirement to heat the Hanok’s has formed many traditions in S.Korea as Koreans traditionally, sit, eat, associate and sleep on the floor. Therefore, this is why many restaurants still have options to dine on the floor. Even in modern properties a modern electric form of heating is preferred to western radiator system as there is a S.Korean believe that keeping one’s hands and feet warm and head cool is good for health.

An important part of S.Korean culture is to eat with families and friend and something I found out when visiting is that S. Koreans rarely eat at home. When dining in S.Korea there is a long long long list of traditions and table manners to upkeep. Some traditions have dropped but some are still highly important. Respecting your elders is a vital part of S.Korea and in dining you can only eat when the eldest picks up their spoon and then you must keep pace with them while you eat. The eldest person usually foots the bill. A persons manners at dinner is a way of showing respect to the eldest at the table. Some of the basic table manners are:

  • Eat rice, soup and stew with a spoon. Everything else is eaten with chopsticks.
  • Koreans do not hold their bowls and plates with eating. (Different to other Asian cultures)
  • The spoon and the chopstick are not used simultaneously.
  • Do not make noises while eating. (Different to other Asian cultures)
  • Do not rummage through rice or side dishes.
  • Bones are discreetly discarded into paper.
  • First taste the soup, then the rice, side dishes and lastly the meat.

When dining in S.Korea I found that the tables were always covered in loads or dishes and drinks. I’ve now found that Koreans believe that sharing from one bowl makes a relationship closer. On the table stews, soups and meat dishes are often served in a large communal dish and people can eat directly from the dish or serve themselves into smaller bowls. Green tea and water is served at no extra cost. Dependant on the price of the meal and the occasion there is a varied amount of side dishes, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12 dish settings. When dining, all the food is brought out at the same time and hot foods are to the right of the table and cold to the left.

An experience I enjoyed in S. Korea was Korean BBQ. On the first night we all dined as a group and went for BBQ. We sat on the floor and heated up the grill, which is fitted into the middle of the table. Traditionally, the grills were heated with charcoal but are now gas. When ordering the food, you just order the meat. All the side dishes are within the price. The meat is then brought to the table raw and you cook it yourself. When eating Korean BBQ, you eat the meat by wrapping it in a large cabbage leaf and eating it in one mouthful. I personally really enjoyed the experience of Korean BBQ and liked the community feel of it.

A key difference I noticed in S.Korea were the chopsticks. In S.Korea they eat with stainless steel chopsticks and their chopsticks are flatter and more square then other Asian chopsticks. When researching it was stated that a Korean chopstick is shorter than a Japanese equivalent but longer than the Chinese. Also it was stated that historically the wealthy upper class would use chopsticks made our of silver, gold and brass. During Baekje, the royal family used silver chopsticks to detect poison in their food. Silver changes colour when it comes into contact with a poisonous chemical. It is believed that people followed the King and adopted the metal chopsticks.

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