K-dramas, K-pop, Korean food… It seems Singaporeans are crazy for all things Korean, and for good reason.
Their heart wrenching drama storylines tug at our heartstrings. Their very successful reality-variety shows like Running Man leave us in fits of laughter. Their virally catchy pop tunes stick in our heads and are fun to sing along to.
Today, we have several Korean beauty and skincare brands in every major mall, our Spotify playlists are filled with catchy K-pop songs, and the food – we don’t even know where to begin!
There’s been an explosion of Korean eateries popping up across our little red dot. From sweet BBQ-ed meats to comforting stews to refreshing bingsus, we Singaporeans love them all.
But although Singaporeans do enjoy Korean food, do you know that some of us may unknowingly be flouting Korean table manners?
To help us better appreciate their cuisine and get the full Korean dining experience, here are 11 ways you can eat and drink like a true Korean.
How Koreans Eat
In Korea, rice is a staple food with most of South Korea’s agricultural policies centred on rice. Though we are seeing more unique Korean food creations, the Koreans still love their usual meal of rice with side dishes.
True enough, if you’ve dined in an authentic Korean restaurant before, you’d know that they’d always serve banchan – small platters of side dishes.
But as we enjoy the many dishes on the table, do you know that there are things that we’ve been doing wrong all this while? Things like you’re not supposed to reach across the table for food – which is what we’ve been so accustomed to doing.
1. Use your spoon to eat the rice
Unlike some of its Asian counterparts, the Koreans eat their rice with a spoon—perfect for those of you who still have trouble using chopsticks.
2. Don’t lift your bowl from the table
Again, unlike other Asian countries where you may hold your bowl of rice or soup in your hand while eating, the Koreans keep their bowls on the table.
This is one act we are guilty of. While it’s that much more shiok to hold up your soup bowl for big gulps of the soup, it’s not recommended to do so in public, especially not so when you’re having Korean food – you’ll just seem rude.
3. Don’t reach across the table for food
As mentioned, a traditional Korean meal consists of a wide assortment of small side dishes that usually fill up the table. While it may seem normal for us to reach across the table for dishes placed further away, it isn’t for the Koreans.
It’s considered poor manners to extend your arm across the table to reach for food. The general rule is to bring the dishes closer to you, and if you really need to, get your friends to pass the food over to you.
4. When you’re done with your meal, place your utensils on the table
Once you’re finished with your food, don’t stick your chopsticks into your bowl, because they look like joss sticks offered to ancestors. It is regarded as disrespectful and a sign of bad luck. Place your utensils back on the table instead. But only do it after the elders have placed their utensils on the table, and make sure that you place them neatly.
5. You must drink the soups and stews before trying any rice and side dishes
As Koreans like to start off a meal with alcohol, the soup or stew acts as a way to cleanse their palates from the ‘bitter alcohol aftertaste’ before digging in on the side dishes and rice.
It’s such a common culture that this is still practiced even with meals without alcohol.
How Koreans Drink
Korea has a strong drinking culture and you’ll often see Koreans pairing their food with a drink or two.
In the Korean eateries in Singapore, you’ll notice three types of Korean alcohol feature most prominently on the drinks menu: Soju, Makgeolli, and of course, beer.
Soju is Korea’s national liquor. Reminiscent of slightly sweet, diluted vodka, it is an easy and cheaper way to get tipsy.
While Soju may be the national liquor, the title of “oldest alcohol” in Korea goes to Makgeolli—an unfiltered rice wine. You can recognize Makgeolli by its milky white colour, and the sediments that gather at the bottom of the glass. Milky, semi-sweet and slightly fizzy, this relatively healthy booze is popular among Korean celebrities.
And finally, beer—a drink that needs no introduction. Called Maekju in Korean, the beers from Korea are the most popular choice of alcohol right after Soju.
As much as Koreans love to drink and loosen up, they follow strict drinking etiquettes.
1. Never serve yourself alcoholic drinks
The first rule is to always pour for others. Never serve yourself alcoholic drinks. So you should always be alert and attentive. If you notice your table-mates have glasses that are less than half full, offer to refill it. Likewise, they will be obliged to return the offer and refill your glass.
2. Always pour for the elders
This is a sign of basic respect. And when you pour the drink, place your other hand under your pouring arm – you don’t want to look like you’re doing a sloppy job.
3. Always drink the first shot together
It’s all about table manners and respect. Koreans do not like to rush through meals, so don’t go gulping down that first shot by yourself.
Always wait for everyone to have their glasses ready before you toast and drink up together.
4. Do not refuse alcoholic drinks
The Koreans consider it rude when someone turns down a drink, especially when the elders offer it to you. So… bottoms up!
Remember to also hold your cup or glass with both hands when someone is pouring drinks for you.
5. Turn sideways when you drink liquor
Like the Japanese, Koreans emphasise a lot on societal ranking. One way that juniors show respect to elders, especially those higher in the corporate ladder, is to turn away when drinking.
6. Alcohol-food pairings
Did you know that some Korean alcohols were meant to be eaten with specific foods?
Korea has a long history of having alcohol when celebrating special occasions. Besides long-stemmed beliefs (like consuming Soju during the new year as a way to drive away bad spirits and illnesses), these alcohols actually make Korean cuisine that much more enjoyable.
Soju + Anju
While Anju is a general term for side dishes consumed with alcohol, Anju is most commonly paired with Soju.
These side dishes aren’t just any kind of foods. These are usually finger foods like nuts and fruits, or salads like Golbaengi-muchim (a mix of moon snails and vegetables).
Soju is also best paired with grilled meat like Samgyeopsal (pork belly).
Makgeolli + Jeon
The best food to eat with your makgeolli is Jeon, a fried pancake that at its most basic, consists of meat and/or vegetables, coated in flour and egg.
You can find all kinds of jeon—crispy, soft, doughy, and less doughy jeons versions, and they all pair deliciously with makgeolli.
Beer + Chicken
If you haven’t already heard of Chimaek, it’s about time you learnt of this.
A combination of “chicken” and “Maekju” (beer), Chimaek very literally means chicken and beer. The Koreans love their chicken with beer, particularly spicy and fried chicken. There are even Korean restaurants like Chir Chir that specialises in selling just that.
Learning from Asian Masters at e2i’s Taste Of East Asia
Wondering where we learnt all of this? It was at e2i’s Taste Of East Asia event that happened in May 2017, where Dr Kim Sang-woo, a politician and diplomat who is also Chairman of the East Asia Cultural Project, shared these tips with a class of trade professionals.
A session intended to introduce people to the cultural, economic and political aspects of Korea, Dr Kim gave us a peek into Korean food and cultural traditions that went beyond the glitz and glamour we’ve all come to associate with the country.
We Singaporeans love Korean food, and so does the rest of the world. Interestingly, food is one of the mediums through which Korea has forged closer, friendlier ties with other nations.
Taste of East Asia is one of many masterclasses organized by the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) to help working people.
For Taste of East Asia, people working in the F&B industry attended the professional development workshops by Korean, Japanese, Sri Lankan and Hong Kong masters, to increase their knowledge and mastery of food techniques.
Attendees also got to mingle with the masters, participants and booth exhibitors to expand their professional networks.
To find out more about future e2i events, you can contact e2i here.
This article is written in collaboration with e2i to help trade professionals upskill and network via trade events such as curated masterclasses.