[Korean culture and travel] Tips for best enjoying Korean cusine, Part II

Beautifully presented Bibimbap, Photo by Howard Lee

(The MICE=Sara Grant) Korea has its own forms of fast food as well. Bibimbap is a rice bowl with vegetable and some cooked meat in it. You put some red pepper sauce in, mix it up and it is a full meal ready to eat.

Kimbap is similar to a “California Roll” sushi except there is seaweed on the outside instead of rice. Kimbap is a sheet of dried seaweed with a layer of rice on it, followed by various vegetable and some seafood or meat. It is then rolled up and sliced into bit size pieces. It is easy to make and eat on the go. Koreans also make an egg roll called geyranmari that is also go to have on the go.

Kimbap, one of popular Korean fast food, Photo by Howard Lee

Korean cuisine is ever expanding and developing. Koreans are also putting their own spin on western dishes such as pizza, fried chicken, tacos, hamburgers, and other western stables. Korean television is replete with cooking shows as chefs continue to push the envelope on what can be accomplished with Korean cuisine.

The paragraphs above have given a simple overview of Korean cuisine. Dining in Korea also has its nuances for westerners.

First, the Korean place setting consists of chop sticks and a spoon. This makes sense since Korean cuisine is heavily oriented towards heavy soups. You use the spoon on the soup and the chop sticks on the various small plates of vegetable. Many place the vegetables in their rice bowls then use the spoon to eat the rice instead of the chop sticks.

At Korean barbeque restaurants, scissors are used to but the meat into small pieces. At many restaurants you are given a wet towel before dinner. Napkins are paper and normally in a dispenser on the table. Most places do have forks available if you ask.

At traditional Korean restaurant, guests sit in the floor. Photo by Howard Lee

Many restaurants have table and chairs; however, traditional Korean restaurants have their guests sit on the floor.(Some restaurants have both options available.) Koreans sit on the floor because that is where the heat is.

Hundreds of years ago, Koreans developed the ondol system of heating homes. This involved passing hot gas (with lots of carbon monoxide) through tunnels under the floor. The heat kept the house warm; however, it was most warm within a meter of the floor.

During the same time in the west, floors were stone or dirt and not warm. Chairs were used to keep you off the floor. Nowadays, the ondol system is a thing of the past, but, floor based radiant heat is still the norm.

If you go to a traditional Korean restaurant, expect to sit on the floor. You will normally have a cushion available, but if you lack flexibility as I do, here are some helpful hints: Try and sit with you back to a wall. This will give you something to lean against. Change your sitting position from legs left, legs straight, legs crossed, legs right every five minutes or so to keep the circulation going. Use the cushion to insulate you butt from the floor and provide padding. Don’t be afraid to get up and stretch.

Here is one last hint for dinning with Koreans. I have found Koreans to be kind, generous, and gracious hosts who care about showing you a good time and enjoying Korean cuisine. The meals are served collectively with everyone at the table taking veggies and other food from the large variety of small dishes around the table. When a dish is empty, it will be replaced with a new one containing more of the same food.

When people are full they stop eating (baebulleoyo means I’m full). Westerners are trained from childhood to clean their plates and eat all the food in front of them. When out with Koreans, if you eat all your food, more will be ordered. You can get baebulleoyo very quickly. When you are full, stop eating before cleaning your plate so that more food is not ordered. This is a lesson learned from many enjoyable meals at Korean Restaurants (Han Shik Tang or Korean Food Hall).

My last tip is about eating Korean style at western style restaurants. Korean these days have, in addition to a vast array of Korean restaurants, many western restaurants. Occasionally, I have gone to these with my Korean friends and came across another clash of cultures. Western dining is largely and historically based on rationing. You get your plate of food and that is your plate of food and you jealously guard it.

The Korean dinning experience is based on sharing the abundance at the table. When you and your Korean friends go to a western style restaurant, they want to sample all the different dishes in a manner similar to how westerners go to a Chinese restaurant and everyone orders a different dish and you share them as a novelty. Of course, when you order steak and fries in a western restaurant, it does not divide well among the other guests.
I have found no good solution to this cultural difference other than to order a variety of appetizers, share them, and then do the best you can with your entrees. It is just something to be aware of.

Korean cuisine is a true dining experience. Whether eating it at a restaurant in your home town or during a visit to Korea there is much to explore ande xperience. This article has been just a brief orientation based on personal experience. Everyone is encouraged to have their own adventure in Korean dining.