Adjusting to Korean Life - Cultural Differences When Dining Out in Korea

Adjusting to Korean Life - Cultural Differences When Dining Out in Korea

 

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Introduction

Besides the dining experience itself being different in Korea, there are a lot of cultural differences as well. You may have heard about things like 회식 (Dinner/drinks with your coworkers) or that Koreans do not normally eat alone. In this blog post I will explain some cultural differences unique to Korea when eating out.

 

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Cultural Differences

Service: Korean restaurants often offer you items that are free-of-charge. In Korean, this is called 서비스 (service). In barbeque restaurants you may receive free 찌개 (Korean stew) or 계란찜 (steamed egg) along with the meat you ordered. Sometimes you may be offered a free soft drink or dessert item. Other restaurants may offer you service If you are a repeat customer or spend a lot of money at one meal. Also, normally in Korean restaurants 물티슈 (wet napkins) are free and if they aren’t given to you at the start of the meal, simply ask and more often than not the restaurant will have them.

 

As mentioned in the last blog post, if you need to get the restaurant staffs’ attention, it is perfectly acceptable to call out to them. This can be done by saying 저기요 (Over here) or 사장님 (owners, boss). Some restaurants will have a call button on the table to call the staff.

 

반찬 (side dishes): You will be given various side dishes at Korean restaurants. Most of these side dishes will come with free refills. Sometimes the staff will offer to refill them for you. Other times they will be self-serve. You can continue to get refills throughout the meal. These are meant to be eaten with the main dishes and not as appetizers. Remember to take only what you can eat as some restaurants will charge you for excessive amounts of leftover side dishes.

 

Portion size and Sharing: Many dishes in Korea are meant to be shared. Even if you order something for yourself, many times it’s expected that everything is shared among all people at the table. Therefore, sometimes the portions you receive will be quite large. Other times portions may be smaller so you can order many different dishes to try. 반찬 is always shared among everyone at the table. So, you may be asking if everything is meant to be shared, what if you are dining alone?

 

Eating Together: While eating by yourself in Korea used to be uncommon, these days it’s becoming more accepted. As such, some restaurants are starting to cater to solo diners as opposed to requiring two or more people. However, many people still choose to eat with their co-workers at lunch or with friends and family at dinner time. In relation to the point about portion sizes and sharing, many restaurants are starting to scale their portions to individuals or offer different sizes.

 

Dining Experience: There are some general rules of etiquette to keep in mind when eating in Korea.

You should:

  • Let your elders sit and begin eating before you do.

  • Eat your rice with a spoon, not with chopsticks.

  • Know that tax is included in menu prices

You should NOT:

  • Leave the table until elders have finished eating.

  • Blow your nose at the table.

  • Stick chopsticks upright into food.

  • Dip a spoonful of rice into a soup that is being shared by others. Instead it is proper to use your spoon to ladle soup into your rice bowl.

  • Tip in restaurants

 

Effects of Age and Relationship: In Korean culture in general, people pay particular attention to each other’s ages. This is also important when having a meal together. In addition to age, your hierarchical position at work or school can also determine how a meal is experienced. I’ll attempt to summarize this in relation to dining out together.

 

Drinking: If you are drinking with Koreans, you should never pour your own drink. Typically the youngest person at the table will pour for everyone else and then the oldest will return the favor to the youngest person. If someone older than you offers a drink, use two hands to hold your glass.

 

Paying for the meal: You may see Koreans fighting over who will pay for the bill. You can also see the exact opposite where everyone just expects one person at the table to pay for everything. Why the two extremes?

 

Koreans may find it awkward to “go dutch” and split the bill evenly. If a group of Koreans are good friends or around the same age and status then they may fight over who pays the bill. More often it is the older generation that displays this type of behavior. They may also take turns paying. So if one day you go out to eat and you pay, the next time your friend would pay, and you’d continue to take turns. Another example is the person that didn’t buy dinner will buy coffee, dessert, or whatever the second round is. However, you shouldn’t always expect to only buy the coffee and your friend to always buy dinner. Be sure to share and take turns.

 

If you are out with your Korean co-workers or seniors from school, it’s almost a given that the oldest person is expected to pay for you. This stems from the feeling that someone senior than you has an obligation to take care of those younger than them. This practice comes from the Korean concept of 정 (Jeong) which has no real translation in other languages. It is a sense of connection, sympathy, and related to altruism. 정 is difficult to explain, even in Korean.

 

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회식: (Dinner/drinks with your coworkers): Your boss or team lead will pick a day to have a meal together as a whole team. After working, you will go out to eat with all your co-workers, this will typically also include additional rounds after eating such as drinks or even noraebang. It’s seen as a way of bonding outside the work environment and historically was encouraged. While people do decline these dinners, those that enjoy spending time with their boss at 회식 may also win their favor for promotions or other privileges. These days, in order to decrease favoritism and promote better work-life balance, some companies have said that 회식 can only be limited to dinner and must end at a certain time. Other companies have gotten rid of the concept all together.

 

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Do you have more questions about cultural differences when dining out? Send your questions to the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor!

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Adjusting to Korean Life - Dining Out In Korea

Adjusting to Korean Life - Dining Out In Korea

Adjusting to Korean Life - Dining Out in Korea

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Introduction

Korea hosts a variety of local and international cuisines and new restaurants are popping up almost daily. Eating out is very popular in Korea and there are no shortages of restaurants or eateries. If you are worried about not being able to read the menus - in tourist areas, most restaurants will have multi-lingual menus with Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English as the most common languages. Elsewhere you may not be as lucky. Depending on the restaurant, many have menus that have photos of the menu items.

Korean food

Korean cuisine can be very affordable, even in restaurants, with certain dishes being only a few thousand won. While there are expensive Korean dishes, in general, eating Korean food is quite affordable. Local restaurant chains such as 김밥천국 (Kimbap Heaven) offer a variety of affordable meal options such as 찌개 (Korean stews) and all sorts of 김밥 (kimbap). Also, Korean fried chicken has soared in popularity and there are many well established chain and independent chicken restaurants.

Be aware that an area of town or even restaurant popularity can determine prices for basically the same food. For example, you may see 삼겹살 (pork belly) for KRW 5000 for 150 grams and then later the same amount for KRW 11,000 a few blocks away. In more affluent areas, menu prices may be inflated just due to it being a more affluent part of town.

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International food

International cuisine is becoming more and more common in Korea. Especially in Seoul, you can find many different international foods. However, it can be more expensive and is sometimes “Koreanized” or modified to appeal to Korean palettes. Certain foods may be found to be sweeter or spicier than their originals. For example, Korean breads tend to be sweeter and some pasta dishes may be made spicier to appeal to a Korean palette.

There are also a lot of foreign chain restaurants present in Korea. Chain restaurants such as Subway Sandwiches, Outback Steakhouse, McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, and Starbucks are common in Korea’s major cities.

Brunch is also increasing in popularity as shown in the photo above. Many cafes and restaurants will feature brunch on weekends.

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Alcohol/Soft Drinks

Soft drinks are plentiful in Korea. Marts and convenience stores carry a wide variety of beverages - everything from teas and coffees, vitamin and energy drinks, to sodas and juices. In fact, a bottled soft drink may be more expensive than a bottle of soju.

Korean alcohol such as soju and local beer is inexpensive, especially at marts and convenience stores. Even at restaurants and bars, prices are reasonable. Other imported alcohol can sometimes carry a premium price. Price can also depend on where you are drinking - a club, bar, restaurant, etc.

One advantage of having a night out in Korea’s large cities is that instead of driving their own car, people can take taxis or public transit home. On the other hand, drunk driving remains an issue in Korea as according to the Chosun Ilbo, 1 in 10 traffic fatalities are still caused by drunk drivers. So be careful out there when you’re on the roads at night!

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Cafes

There is no shortage of cafes in Korea especially in large cities like Seoul or Busan. There are many different types of cafes besides the typical coffee and tea cafe. Pet cafes that feature cats, dogs, and even raccoons exist in Seoul. Others may focus on books or Korean comics called 만화 (manhwa). Many others focus on desserts such as cakes, pies, and the Korean shaved ice dessert called 빙수 (bingsu). Different theme cafes are also popular such as the Hello Kitty Cafe. The below table, showing different types of cafes, was also featured in my post about activities for families in Korea:
 

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Cat Cafe Example
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Lilliput Kids Cafe (키즈카페 릴리펏) (MAP)
Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 12.47.48 PM.pngKids Cafe: Petit5 (쁘띠5)
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Thanks Nature Cafe (Sheep)
Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 12.58.20 PM.pngBlind Alley (Raccoon) Map Link Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 1.03.04 PM.pngDog Cafe Example (Map)

 

Prices in cafes can vary widely depending on neighborhood, cuisine, quality of coffee, teas, etc. You can find small cafes offering a hot cup of coffee for as low as KRW 1,500 but other cafes may charge more than KRW 5,000 for a similar cup.

Dining Experience in Korea

So, what makes dining in Korean restaurants unique? After being seated, it is up to you to get the staff’s attention. Rarely will staff continue to wait on you or check to see if you need anything. Sometimes the tables will have a small button to call the staff. If there is not a button, it is perfectly acceptable to call out to the wait staff. Remember to press the button just once; no need to press it multiple times, unless a few minutes have passed without any response.

When the staff does take your order, you can order everything at once - food and drinks. Water is normally self-serve or a refillable water bottle will be placed on your table. Also, the size of cups that are provided are normally less than 250mL (8 fluid ounces) in size.

When food comes out, you may also have a number of 반찬 (side dishes) given to you. Typically, basic 반찬 like Kimchi, or sprouts can all be refilled for free and are meant to be eaten with your meal, not as an appetizer (although if you are really hungry, feel free to dig in early). Some 반찬 like grilled fish may not be free for more servings, so make sure to check when asking. Some restaurants will also have their 반찬 as self-serve. 반찬 can vary from at the very least kimchi to sometimes ten or more different dishes.

A lot of restaurants will have food cooked in front of you at your table. 고기집 (Korean barbeque restaurants), 닭갈비 (stir-fried spicy chicken), 곱장 (pork/cow intestines), 샤브샤브 (Hotpot dish), some japanese restaurants, and some Korean style bars will have built-in table grills or portable burners for cooking. If you are not sure how to go about cooking the dish, normally staff will assist you and tell you when the food is ready to eat.

While some restaurants will have you prepay, most will have you pay after your meal at the door, not at your table. Simply go to the cash register and wait for a staff member to calculate your total. Sometimes a running total bill will be kept at your table. In that case, take the bill to the cash register when you are ready to leave.

The above can apply to restaurants in Korea that serve international food as well. It may be an Outback Steakhouse but the wait staff will still operate in a Korean fashion.

Expressions useful in a Korean restaurant

Try using them in Korean restaurants where you live:

제일 잘 나가는 것이 뭐예요? What’s your most popular dish?

뭐가 제일 맛있어요? What’s the most delicious?

추천하시고 싶은 것이 있나요? Do you have any recommendations?

휴지 좀 (더) 주세요. Please give me (more) napkins.

물 좀 (더) 주세요. Please give me (more) water.

김치 좀 더 주세요. Please give me more kimchi.

화장실 어디예요? Where is the bathroom?

예약 되나요? Can I make a reservation?

미리 예약했는데요. I made a reservation in advance.

주문이요/주문할게요. I’m ready to order.

맥주/소주/콜라 ___병 주세요. ___bottles of Beer/Soju/Cola please.

삼겹살/불고기/갈비___인분 주세요. ___servings of pork belly/bulgogi/rib meat please.

계산이요/계산하고 싶어요. I’m ready to pay/I want to pay.

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We will continue this series on eating out in Korea during the coming weeks. Stay tuned for more! Contact the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor with any questions you have.

 

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Adjusting to Korean Life - Grocery Shopping and Cooking at Home

Adjusting to Korean Life - Grocery Shopping and Cooking at Home

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Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping in another country can be challenging. Acclimating yourself to reading new food labels, knowing what products are common and readily available, and how products are priced can all cause stress. In addition you have to figure out where to shop and what options are available to you. Luckily, in Korea, a variety of options exist for buying your groceries.

Many people still shop at local markets where you can find produce, meats, fish, as well as Korean side dishes (반찬). Other places include local marts, supermarkets (HomePlus, Lotte Mart, and EMart), and even department stores (Hyundai, Lotte, Shinsegae). There are also many online shopping portals that offer food and will deliver right to your door. Even convenience stores carry a small variety of grocery items.

So, what’s unique about grocery shopping in Korea?

Produce: Many vegetables are easy to find and prices are generally inexpensive (with some exceptions). Fruit prices can vary but beware of fruit in fancy packaging selling for premium prices as these are normally used as gifts for special occasions or holidays. If you’d like, support small business owners by visiting fresh fruit & vegetable stands or outdoor markets. You can normally haggle for prices and prices may be cheaper than your local supermarket.

Meat: Generally expensive, especially beef since a lot is imported from Australia or the USA. Local Korean beef is called Hanu (한우) and is also expensive.

Seafood: Many supermarkets and traditional markets sell a variety of frozen, dried, and fresh seafood. There are also some famous seafood markets such as Noryangjin in Seoul and Jagalchi Market in Busan.

Spices and Herbs: Certain spices and herbs can be difficult to find in Korea or are very expensive if you can find them. On the other hand, locally used spices, herbs, and sauces such as gochujang and doenjang have many varieties and are inexpensive.

Grains: You can buy very large quantities of rice at supermarkets and even some smaller marts. Although for wheat products like bread - department store bakeries, supermarkets, and Korean chain bakeries (e.g. Paris Baguette, Tour Les Jour) are better than smaller marts since they may not carry that wide of a selection of bread products. Note that Korean breads tend to be sweeter than similar western bread products. Department store bakeries will often have western style breads but at a premium price.

Cereals: Dry cereals and oatmeals are usually available in marts but may be lacking in variety. Supermarkets carry more varieties but it is usually nothing compared to a grocery store in the USA.

Tips and Tricks

Here is a tip about shopping for food in department stores. At the end of the business day the food areas of department stores will have sales on food they need to sell by the end of the day.

If you have some Korean language skills, some local marts and the larger supermarket chains will deliver to your home (a minimum spend may be required). Larger supermarket chains also offer online shopping but their websites may only be in Korean.

Challenges

Unless you own a car, grocery shopping can be challenging as you have to carry everything you buy back to your home on public transport (Taxi, Bus, Subway, etc), walking, or biking. While some stores will provide plastic bags for free, others charge a small fee per bag. Some store’s bags can be reused as general trash bags, check the bag to see if it is district-specific. That being said, it is best to bring bags with you, they can be any reusable bag (plastic, canvas, etc). If you shop at a supermarket like EMart, they often provide boxes, tape, and scissors to package your purchases after checking out. At Korean Traditional Markets, it is also advised to bring your own bags to carry your purchases if you are going to purchase large amounts.

Finding international ingredients?

If you are having trouble finding certain international ingredients, there are international grocery stores and markets that sell a variety of goods. Within Seoul, these are mostly located around the Itaewon area. You may also try your luck at the American warehouse store called Costco (Membership Required) which has locations scattered around Korea. Be aware that some imported products may carry high prices.

International Grocery Markets

High Street Market

223 Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

Korean: (주) 하이스트릿, 서울 용산구 이태원로 223 2층.

Website: http://highstreet.co.kr/

Foreign Food Mart

36 Usadan-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

Korean: (주) 코리아트레드앤드써비스, 서울 용산구 우사단로 36.

Website: http://www.foreignfood.kr/

Costco [Any Costco membership card can be used worldwide. If you want to purchase membership in Korea it is currently ~KRW 40,000 per year]

Various locations around Korea.

Korean: 코스트코

https://www.costco.co.kr

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Cooking at Home

In regards to kitchen space - Unless you live in a large apartment, villa, or free-standing house, kitchen space is generally limited. Counter space for food preparation is generally not very large. Cabinet and pantry space may be limited as well but at discount or online shops, other shelving and storage can supplement what is in your kitchen.

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Appliances

While almost all kitchens will come with a gas or electric stovetop, this may be your only cooking appliance. Stovetops are generally not very large and will often only have two burners. Full size ovens are not as common. Compact counter-top ovens are common for kitchens with limited space. A microwave may or may not be included in your kitchen. You can also find combination appliances that can function as a microwave, small oven, and steamer. Washing dishes by hand is more common than having a dishwashing machine. For one-room studio apartments and other smaller housing options, the refrigerator may not be very large (as shown above). Large apartments may have a fairly large refrigerator and even separate refrigerators for kimchi. Ice makers are rare and are most common in restaurants and cafes, not in homes. Many Koreans still believe having a water purifier or bottled water is a necessity even though tap water is safe to drink. Many people still cook with bottled water or filtered water.

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Banchan

While many people do make their own Korean side dishes, there are options to buy them rather than make them on your own. There are many different stores and small shops where you can buy kimchi and other side dishes. Even convenience stores will sell individual servings of kimchi in small packets. Traditional markets will normally have banchan stalls as well. As stated earlier, department stores will also run sales close to closing time and these often include ready-to-eat side dishes and other food items.
 

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Do you have more questions about grocery shopping or cooking in Korea? Contact the G.O.A.’L Community Mentor today!

 
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