How to mind your table manners in Korea

Photos by Hyemin Lee
Photos by Hyemin Lee

How to mind your table manners in Korea

by Hyemin Lee
Stripes Korea

Each country has a different culture. When you live in a foreign country, if you take the time to learn the culture and manners to follow, it will be a great help in acclimating to your new home and making new friends. Learning Korean table manners are an especially important and simple way to make a good impression on your Korean friends and coworkers.

Even if at first you struggle to master table manners in Korea, don’t worry because locals will be very understanding as long as you are trying to adapt to the culture.

Below are some important things to know before you go out for a meal in Korea. Your friends will appreciate your effort and definitely be impressed when you show off your new skills!

General manners
- Greetings (When you eat food with Koreans, use these phrases)
Before eating: Jal meok-get-seup-ni-da (잘 먹겠습니다) I’m going to eat well
After eating: Jal meo-geo-sseum-ni-da (잘 먹었습니다) I ate well
Jal (잘): Well / Meok-da (먹다): To eat

These phrases are especially useful when you’re offered food. If pronunciation is difficult for you, just say you will enjoy the food and thank the person offering the food in English. After the meal, don’t forget to say that the food was delicious. Koreans will appreciate your effort to express your gratitude. 

- Always wash your hands before eating. This step is important to Koreans, so most restaurants will bring wet tissues to the table at the beginning of the meal. Use the wet tissues to wipe your hands before digging in.

- Like in any other culture, making sounds and eating noisily will make others uncomfortable. Although talking at the table isn’t a conventional table manner, enjoying chatting is fine unless you talk with your mouth full of food. Don’t clink bowls or make noise with spoon or chopsticks.

- Never blow your nose at the table. When coughing or sneezing, turn your face to the side and cover your mouth with a napkin. 

- Don’t bring the bowl up to your mouth. This is a common practice in other Asian countries, but it is not a good table manner in Korea.

With spoon and chopsticks
- Don’t grab a spoon and chopsticks at the same time.

- Don’t use spoons to scoop side dishes. Spoons are for rice and soup.

- Don’t eat rice with chopsticks. Chopsticks are for picking up food from main entrees and side dishes (banchan 반찬).

- Don’t stick your spoon or chopsticks standing straight up in a rice bowl. This is only done as part of a traditional funeral ritual (Jesa 제사).

When sharing food with others
- Sharing is caring. Communal dishes to be shared between people are a very common Korean practice. Sometimes even sharing soup together if you are close to a person is acceptable. If there is only one soup bowl on the table and you don’t want to share it with others, you can ask to have an extra bowl. 

- When you share a dish with others, don’t hoard it like you’re at a buffet. Take a couple of bites and then go back to grab more after finishing them.

- When sharing a communal dish, don’t search through the dish for specific things. 

- Don’t shake off sauce over the dish. If you want to get rid of the marinated sauce, bring the food to your bowl first.

When eating with elders (Especially senior citizens)
- The oldest person sits at the head of the table or in the most comfortable seat. 

- Younger people usually take an aisle seat to be able to serve the older ones or go bring more side dishes and water.

- When you have a meal with seniors, the oldest one should have the first bite before everyone else at the table begins eating. 

- Try to adjust the meal time pace to the elder’s speed and finish the meal only when the oldest person has finished eating first. 

- When pouring or receiving a drink from an older person, be sure to use both hands. Also, it’s your duty to fill up their glass if it’s empty.

Table setting and utensils
A typical Korean meal includes rice, soup, and three or four side dishes. If it’s a big meal like dinner, this will also include an additional main entrée.

Each person at the table will usually receive their own soup and rice. The main dish will be in a communal plate at the center of the table with side dishes around it for everyone to share.

When the main entrée is soup, it’s served in a big pot and each person serves their own individual bowl with a ladle. It’s also common to share the soup in one pot with all the members of the table.

When there is meat or seafood, tongs and scissors are used to cut the food on the table instead of a knife.

Korean Lessons
- Spoon: Sujeo (수저) / Sutgarak (숟가락)
- Chopsticks: Jeotgarak (젓가락)
- Ladle: Gukja (국자)
- Tong: Jipge (집게)
- Scissors: Gawi (가위)
- Bowl / Plate: Geu-reut (그릇)
- Rice: Bap (밥)
- Soup: Guk (국)
- Side dish: Banchan (반찬)

Let’s learn how to use chopsticks!
1. Place the upper part of the first chopstick between the thumb and index finger and put the lower part on a ring finger.

2. Grab the second chopstick between the index and middle finger and hold it with the thumb.

3. You don’t have to move the first chopstick. Open and close the second chopstick to pick up food by using the index and middle finger.

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