Halfway through my stay, I think I’m finally accepting the fact that I’m no longer a tourist and that I am living like a local college student in Seoul. Things that amazed me when I first came here, such as the many street vendors (food & clothes vendors), skyscrapers at every corner, city lights, McDonald’s delivery drivers (you did read that correctly), crazy taxi drivers, all the walking that is done, seem very typical to me now as I see it daily. I’ve found my favorite restaurants to eat, favorite part of town to hang out with friends, I am even giving tours to friends that visit me. Now if I can knock down this language barrier, I’d be well off living like a local! But my most favorite thing of them all that I love to do daily is to EAT!
As I’ve stated before in past blogs, I can write a whole separate blog about Korean food, and here it is! But before I get to the food, you must learn about the etiquette that comes with it.
Sharing the dish amongst the people on your table is very, very common. Most of the time, there is only one big dish in the middle and everyone is digging in. Banchan, Korean side dishes, are also shared with everyone on the table.
When eating with traditional Koreans, it is disrespectful to eat before the oldest person on the table. You will have to wait as your mouth waters until the elder of the table eats. After that, you can dig in as much as you’d like.
One of my Korean friends told me that some Koreans don’t consider it a meal unless Soju is involved. Living like a local now, I’m also starting to believe this theory. Why? I’m not totally sure. But when there is Soju on the table, everyone becomes livelier and more talkative. Everyone is just friendlier than they’ve already been, and that’s probably one reason why. When it comes to pouring Soju, you must pour for everyone on the table first, and then someone must pour it for you. When drinking it, you are supposed to drink it looking away from everyone on the table.
Sorry, there aren’t forks here. Only chopsticks. This was a struggle for me when arriving here considering I’m not a chopstick person. But after a week of good eating, I am now a huge fan of chopsticks.
You First, Then Me
When passing out things such as chopsticks, spoons, napkins, water, etc., it is common courtesy to pass them to everyone on the table first, and then give them to yourself.
You don’t really have one personal waiter/waitress upon the table. Whenever you need help, they will just come and help you. These waiters/waitresses will not come up to you. Instead you have to push a button on the side of the table to get their attention.
Tipping is NOT practiced here. I’ve heard that it is very rude to tip. My friend made a mistake of tipping and the waitress quickly ran out to us telling us we forgot our money. You also don’t pay for tax so the price of the meal will be exactly what you pay.
Now onto the actual food itself! Wherever you are in Seoul, there are at minimum 5 tasty and lovely restaurants within a 1-mile radius just waiting to be devoured by you and I. I can guarantee you at least 1 of those restaurants have a grill built right in the middle of the table. This is what people call the “Korean BBQ”. Here, the waiter brings out the raw meat that is ordered and it is cooked right in your presence. Vegetables can be cooked here also if you like grilled veggies. There is also the hotpot, which is also a dish in the middle that is shared by everyone but is a soup-type dish. Again, these types of dishes will be shared amongst your table. If you’re feeling greedy and not wanting to share, I bet one of those 5 restaurants you will have one that serves you your own personal dish. These dishes tend to be very cheap and fulfilling depending on what part of town you are in.
Of course banchan is served with every meal! What would a Korean meal be without these side dishes? Almost every restaurant will give you free refills of banchan as long as you ask for it. You will rarely go into a restaurant that will charge for extra banchan.
Another form of Korean cuisine is the street food. Korean street food is found everywhere at every corner. They line up along the sidewalk side-by-side each other. Street food is a very good alternative if you want something quick, cheap and tasty on the go.
Being in Korea for about 2 months, I’ve developed a taste bud that continues to crave Korean food. It was a hard decision, but I’ve compiled a list of my 3 favorite dishes:
Samgyeopsal is probably one of the most served dishes here and my absolute favorite. The dish contains the meat of your choice (most likely will be along the line of pork) that is cooked on the grill at your table. After it is cooked and cut into bite-sized pieces, take a piece of lettuce, your slice of meat, throw some vegetables on it, wrap the lettuce around it and enjoy yourself a very appetizing bite full of wondrous flavors. My perfect bite of samgyeopsal includes the lettuce, the sizzling hot slice of salted pork dipped in ssamjang (spicy dipping sauce), slice of garlic, grilled onions, grilled kimchi and bean sprouts. Wrap the lettuce around it all and eat it in one go. The bite will be an explosion of delicious flavors in your mouth!
This is a dish that contains spicy chicken as its meat. It is a stir-fry styled dish that contains a variety of vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage, onions, green onions, etc. It sounds like a very simple dish but the spicy-ness of the chicken is what makes the dish one of my favorites. This dish is brought out raw and cooked on a pan in the middle of your table. Sometimes you will get noodles or rice mixed with it, sometimes you may not.
This isn’t exactly one dish, but I think it’s safe to put in this category. Why? Because a lot of these dishes go well together and I usually eat more than one kind every time I get street food which makes it seem as one dish to me. I love street food because most of it is kept hot. It’s also very cheap and quick to eat. I will briefly describe 3 of my favorite street dishes:
Tteokbokki is also known as spicy rice cakes and that is exactly what it is. Gochujang, spicy red pepper sauce, layered on top of bite-sized rice cakes.
A variety of fried goodies such as squid, eggs, sweet potatoes, vegetables, and more.
My absolute favorite street food. Odeng is fish cakes. It may look boring but something about the texture makes me come back for more. It is best served with the broth that it was cooked in.
My adventure of Korean cuisine hasn’t ended yet. There is still much more that I am waiting to try. My mouth waters every time I think about these foods. I am nowhere near your average chef. I can barely cook eggs, but I know when I go back home, I’m definitely bringing some of these recipes back with me!
You can see Yeejkim’s original post and his other posts here.