Is this your first time visiting Korea? Would you like to know how to navigate the foods and customs? Here are some tips to lower your chance of embarrassing yourself:
- Don't always expect a menu. Food items are written in the Korean alphabet and often displayed on wooden placards nailed to the wall.
- Breakfast is similar to lunch and dinner and usually consists of rice (the staple food), fish and flavorful side dishes such as kimchi (pickled cabbage, turnip, radishes or cucumbers, sometimes very hot!).
- Lunch may consist of a bowl of soup, rice, a meat dish, and a number of side dishes, which are usually shared. Compared to the Japanese, Koreans consume a great amount of beef. Four side dishes are average for an everyday meal.
- Dinner is more elaborate than lunch and eating out is considered a special occasion.
- Some behaviors, which are common to the Korean culture, may seem strange to Americans. For example, it is quite customary for Koreans to make slurping noises when drinking soup, burp after a meal and clear their throats noisily to show appreciation for the meal.
- The Korean sweet tooth is virtually non-existent. Desserts don't automatically come with the meal, you have to specifically request a dessert at the end of the meal. You will then be presented with delicately cut fruit.
- Cooking at the table is common.
- Expect large portions of food for sharing, placed in the center of the table.
- Rice, side dishes and soups are served all at once.
- Don't look for bread, you won't find it. Instead, think of rice as bread.
- As for milk and milk products - they are not there either.
- Side dishes, raw or cooked, consist of kimchi, eggplants, seaweed, parsley leaves, spinach, bean sprouts, lettuce, celery, bamboo shoots, carrots, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, many types of squashes, onions, leeks, Chinese cabbage, red and green peppers, mushrooms, many types of beans (red, green, soy and pea), tofu and fried fish.
- There is garlic with everything. Everyone reeks of garlic which is quite acceptable. If your garlic smell bothers you, chew parsley, especially the stems. Custom has it that you should take home the kimchi containing garlic, so that your partner shares the garlic breath!
- A vegetarian's paradise, soybeans are prepared in a variety of ways such as mashed, raw, toasted, sprouted, as soybean curd (tofu), soy paste (miso) and soy sauce. If the restaurant doesn't have the National Restaurant Association's certification, choose cooked foods.
Spicing things up
With research demonstrating the beneficial effects of herbs and spices, flavorings are not only an art, but also a health benefit. These tasty food ingredients provide antioxidant properties, which boost the immune system, and may decrease the risk for many chronic diseases. Some of the most common flavorings are sesame oil, sesame powder, scallions, ginger, vinegar, pine nuts, mustard, onions, chili pepper, peppery spices, bean paste, ginseng, and garlic, both raw and cooked.
Talk the food language
Menu items are not in our alphabet, so you have to say what you want by pronouncing the words. You may snigger at plastic food mock-ups in the window, but you'll find them very helpful.
|Food Pronunciation |
How to say it?
|Hanjongshik||Full course Korean meal|
|Chapchae||Vermicelli noodle, beef or tofu and vegetable dish|
|Kimbap||Rice, eggs, soybean paste and vegetables wrapped in seaweed|
|Kimchi||A fermented vegetable dish, mostly cabbage|
|Mandu guk||An inexpensive and filling soup|
|Bulgogi||Barbecued boneless beef|
|Bulgogi doiji||Barbecued boneless pork|
|Kalbi||Marinated short ribs of beef|
|Doiji kalbi||Marinated short ribs of pork|
|Sangehoosam||Lettuce wrapped around foods and eaten by hand|
|Gujulpan||Nine section dish with pancakes in the middle and vegetables and cooked meat in the sections|
|Pibimpap||Barley with meat, vegetables and egg|
|Nengmyon||Cold buckwheat noodles in broth with vegetables and beef|
|Namul||Side dish vegetables like spinach, bean sprouts, etc.|
|Soju||Sweet potato vodka, 24% alcohol|
Eating around the clock
A roasted barley tea is served with meals - hot in winter and cold in summer.
Typical local meals consist of:
Breakfast: 7 AM
- The Korean way includes rice, fish, side dishes and tea. Top hotels serve Western style foods such as cereal, bacon and eggs.
Lunch: 12 noon
All served with soup, rice and side dishes.
Snacks: seldom in the afternoon, sometimes at the movies or late evening if socializing
- Dried squid - you may find it salty and rubbery.
- Strips of raw meat (marinated in garlic and sesame seed oil), similar to beef jerky, accompanied by thin slices of Chinese pear.
- Cold vegetable side dishes are served with drinks.
- Tea houses, with a selection of the best herbal teas in the world, and the new coffee houses are popular.
Dinner: 6 PM in winter, 7:30 PM in summer
- Stews or casseroles: a mixture of meat, fish, vegetables and bean curd simmered in beef broth over a charcoal brazier at the table. You may find tongue and tripe in your soup.
- Kalbi: barbecued at your table.
- Bulgogi: served in a pan at your table.
- Fish: served whole and broiled in the kitchen - be sure it's fresh. The story goes - if you believe the head is the best, tell people the tail is best and you'll get the head. By the way, the head is best.
A full course consists of a rich, seasoned beef broth, rice and side dishes and all of the above.
- Candy-coated, thinly sliced vegetables and candied fruits.
- Sweet rice cakes and rice cookies.
- Apples, pears, persimmons, peaches - peeled elegantly, and cut into pieces.
Restaurants are open until 10 - 11 PM. After that the clubs and beer halls are open until midnight. Hotel bars stay open until 2 AM, but drinks are expensive. Small grocery stores are open for food items, some for 24 hours. These stores have a good selection of foods, kimchi, rice bowls, snacks, soft drinks and beer.
Pace of meals
Breakfast and lunch last from 1 to 1 ½ hours. Dinner can carry on for 1 - 4 hours in the evening.
In westernized hotels, service is available for 24 hours. In local hotels, if there is a restaurant, room service usually won't be available after 10 PM.
Koreans have a great fondness for beer, wine and spirits.
Rice wine is 10% alcohol, a stronger and typical Korean version may be 15%.
A popular drink is soju, a sweet potato vodka, which is served in small, 1 oz glasses and drunk shot after shot.
Beer and soju are served at lunch.
In the evening, drinks are mixed - wine, beer and scotch. Go slowly, the hangover is brutal.
Don't pour your own wine - you'll look greedy. (Hold the glass or the bottle with two hands if you're with a person who is older or more senior than you, with one hand if more junior.) Pour for your hosts or guests and they will pour for you. It is believed when a woman pours, the drink tastes sweeter. Always fill the glass - pour to the rim.
If you're getting drunk, leave a full glass and no one will pour any more. You can get drunk among your friends, however, younger people should not pass out before their seniors. In business, drunkenness is considered very offensive while an inebriated woman is simply intolerable.
At beer halls, the prices are lower than nightclubs and you're expected to buy a dish of snacks or fruit.
Beer: OB, Crown, Cass, Hite
Wine: Kyonju Bobju.
Scotch: Johnny Walker, Red Label
Follow guidelines in the Appendices
One day's example:
|Vegetarian||Rice and kimchi||Nengmyon with tofu||Bokkumbap, beans and vegetables||Rice cookies, walnuts, apple, pear|
|Weight management||Rice, kimchi and fish||Gujulpan||Bulgogi - 3 oz. beef, rice, vegetables||Pear, peach|
|Heart disease||Rice, kimchi, fish||½ cup soup, chapchae with tofu||Poached fish, rice, vegetables||Persimmon, |
|Diabetes||7 AM: |
Rice, egg, vegetables
|12 NOON: |
|7 PM: |
|Cancer||Rice, kimchi, fish||Kimbap||Mandu guk with tofu||Peach, orange|
Drink 12 (2 oz.) cups of green or ginseng tea per day. Take advantage of the new findings on the benefits of tea, which have immune-boosting antioxidant properties.
Limit alcohol to two servings per day, e.g. 2 beers, 2 glasses wine or 2 oz. soju or liquor.
Kosher and Muslim - avoid anything containing doiji (pork).
Are the foods safe to eat?
- In good restaurants, the food is prepared hygienically and is safe to eat. Look for a plaque in the front of the restaurant, which the National Restaurant Association certifies as a tourist restaurant. In rural areas, be careful about the food that's served, as these restaurants won't have to follow health regulations. Seafood needs to be fresh or cooked. With raw oysters, eat only if your host says they're fresh.
- Pickling and salt inhibits the growth of bacteria, just as in the US we refrigerate foods to inhibit bacteria growth. However, if bacteria were present in the foods originally, they won't die.
Can you drink the water?
Koreans drink tap water but it is not advisable for tourists as it takes time to adjust to the water. Tap water can cause an upset stomach. Hotels supply bottled, good tasting water in your room. You can buy well-known brands. Otherwise, to be safe, drink boiled water, such as tea. You should try spring water which is considered superior and thought to have medicinal value. It can be bought in convenience stores. You may reap the same benefits from beers with labels stating "made with spring water."
- The main guest or older person should sit the furthest into the room while the host, women or younger person should sit closer to the door.
- If you eat with an older person or a guest, wait and start eating after them.
- Sit straight and natural with poise. In more traditional restaurants, you'll need to take off your shoes and sit cross-legged on the floor. Wear socks that are clean and in good repair. Women shouldn't wear short skirts.
- Rice, soup and vegetables are eaten with metal spoons or thin, metal chopsticks.
- Eat as carefully and neatly as possible - don't spill food.
- Don't search for your favorite piece of food in the bowls as this is considered rude - instead choose a piece and pick it up.
- With the hot, spicy foods, noses are destined to run. Blowing your nose at the table is unacceptable to Koreans. Gently wipe your nose or excuse yourself from the table.
- If you have food stuck in your teeth, put the palm of your hand in front of your mouth and use a toothpick or go to the bathroom.
- Don't finish your meal before your company does. If you finish early, place your spoon in a bowl and wait until others are finished. Then place your spoon on the table. When you're finished eating with chopsticks, place them in a parallel position across the top of the bowl or on a chopstick rest, but never on the table, never crossed, and never stuck upright in a dish.
- The host, male or female, pays. At the second business meal, you can insist on paying. If the host doesn't accept, insist again the next time.
- If a couple goes out, usually the man pays, but the woman can insist the second time.
- Tipping is not expected and will often be refused. Many hotels have signs asking that you do not tip.
Where to work out?
Pack your swimsuit and workout gear.
- Gym: your best bet is the well-equipped gyms in the hotels.
- Jog: some hotels have indoor jogging tracks or garden trails around the hotel. It is impossible to jog in the streets due to the crowds, traffic and pollution.
- Swim: use the swimming pool in the hotel for vigorous laps and relaxation.
- If your hotel has no gym or pool, inquire about the daily rate at other hotels.
- Walk: people walk a lot as traffic is slow and parking is impossible. For wonderful sightseeing, walk around T'apkol Park or the Secret Garden or Piwon, has 78 acres of woodland walks, lotus gardens, streams and shrines. For an aerobic workout, walk up to the highest point in the city, the broadcasting tower at the top of Mount Namsan.
- Stairs: climb the 100 steps or more in the subway stations.
- Relaxation: ask for a blind masseur in your room - you'll experience a genuine health massage. Otherwise you may be in for an erotic adventure.
When to work out?
When you arrive, check the open hours and plan your workout times in your daily schedule. If you don't, you'll never find time.
On weekends, hiking is very popular in the mountains. Ask at the hotel about traveling to the mountains and/or group hikes.
Is it safe?
Seoul is a very safe place with a low crime rate. However, women should not walk alone after 10 PM, as in most cosmopolitan cities.
Business dress is quite conservative but within Seoul, casual dress will often run to chic and sexy. To older Koreans, short shorts or bare midriffs are considered impolite. When walking, wear good leather shoes with rubber soles. Sneakers are not fashionable and look tacky.
Differences between regions and cities
Seoul is the capital and the most westernized city in Korea. Pusan is a smaller, westernized harbor city, with more variety of seafoods. The further away you travel, the more traditional foods and manners will be found.
In the country, explore the area by going for walks. Jogging along the country roads is not common and is considered strange.
Bringing Healthy Habits Home
- Low fat cooking methods - when fat is used, it's for light stir-frying.
- No snacking between meals.
- A large variety of foods.
- Few processed foods.
- Not eating when bored, stressed or anxious.
- No rich, sweet desserts.
- Use many herbs as they may have medicinal effects: e.g. garlic, chili, ginger and ginseng and green tea.
- High intake of cruciferous vegetables (a family of vegetables that may lower cancer risk), particularly bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi (new in our markets) and cauliflower.
- With drinks, add steamed or pickled vegetables to your raw vegetable and salsa dip dish. Serve instead of high fat beer nuts and chips.
- High intake of the important antioxidant vitamin E intake from sesame seeds and it's oil.
- High soybean intake may be associated with lower heart disease, lower breast, endometrial and prostate cancer in Koreans and lower menopause symptoms in Korean women.
- Walking for errands, at least one hour a day.
Leave The Negatives Behind
- Salt-cured and pickled foods are thought to contribute to high rates of stomach and esophageal cancer.
- Soup and soy sauce are high in salt and can lead to a rise in blood pressure - find out from your physician if you're salt sensitive.
- MSG should be avoided for those people with true allergic reactions.
- Asians are at high risk for osteoporosis, which could be related to the absence of calcium containing dairy products.
- The sudden high fiber intake from cabbage, beans and vegetables can lead to increased gas output and bloating which can cause discomfort. The benefits are softer and more frequent bowel movements, lower incidence of constipation and a healthier colon overall.
- Asthmatics and non-smokers should avoid spending too much time in bars and restaurants. Everyone smokes. It's worth the time and effort to find the occasional restaurant with no smoking sections.
Written and researched by Maye Musk, MS, MS, RD