I’m back with part 2 of the “What to eat in Korea” series. Catch up on part 1 here, if you haven’t had the chance to check it out, yet. This time around, I’m going to highlight some quirks of Korean food culture, and not necessarily specific dishes (I promise I will soon, sorryyy). I feel so accustomed to Korean culture these days that I find myself trying to remember what is “weird” for a Westerner haha.
Let’s get down to business, shall we?
I had a friend come visit Korea for the first time. We went out for dinner and they pointed out that they noticed that Korean restaurants don’t have many options. And that’s so true. Back home in the States, I often get overwhelmed with choices. It seems like we Americans want to always make everyone happy and restaurants will boast menus with endless options. In my opinion, this often ends with having a couple of really good, standout items on their menu, but the rest are mediocre.
It seems like the Korean restaurant scene has taken the opposite approach to this. Korean restaurants, especially more traditional ones, are usually separated by specialty. You’ll see restaurant signs saying 전문점, roughly meaning “specialty place”. If you want dak kalbi, you go to a dak kalbi 전문점/specialty restaurant. If you want Korean fried chicken, you go to a fried chicken restaurant. You want ddeokbokki, then you…..okay I think you understand. Of course this is not true for every single restaurant, but much more so than other countries I’ve been to. Menus in Korea will often have maybe only 5 things, which puts my indecisive mind at ease. If they have more than 5 things on the menu, it’s often just different versions of similar things. For example, jjigae, or stew restaurants will offer multiple kinds of stew with maybe 2 options of stir-fried dishes.
I first experienced this bit of culture shock when I lived in Jeonju eons ago in the summer of 2011. Three friends and I had just ordered some meat at a Korean barbecue restaurant. We were hanging out, waiting for the food and then we were given one medium-sized bowl of soup. That was great and all because we weren’t expecting soup, but then I noticed that there was no serving utensil nor individual bowls for us to eat the soup out of. We eventually realized that we were meant to all eat out of that bowl – double dipping style. It felt a little odd in the beginning but I’m totally used to it now. The soup’s delicious, anyway.
Have it your way? Nah.
I may have touched on this in earlier blog posts, but customization is not much of a thing here. Even at places like McDonald’s, I’ve noticed that when the person at the register is ringing in an order, if I ask for no sauce on a sandwich, they can’t enter that into a machine with the rest of the order. It’s literally not built into their ordering system. Now, they’re happy to shout back to the cooks and tell them that # such and such order wants no sauce, but it’s so rare to have someone want something customized that it’s not even an option in their registers.
I’ve seen this further when I went to dak kalbi restaurant with some friends, one of whom is Muslim. Dak kalbi is a stir-fry chicken dish, but this particular restaurant liked to add in little pieces of ham. Of course ham = Haram, so we asked them to bring us the (uncooked) dish without ham multiple times to no avail. We explained in Korean that she couldn’t eat it for religious reasons but I think they thought it would taste better with the ham in it! She eventually gave up and just ate around the ham, but technically she wasn’t supposed to do that I won’t even get started on how I was almost poisoned by my host family multiple times when they would try to feed me things I was allergic to 😛
At least in restaurants I can verbally make the request to have something altered, but when ordering through delivery apps, it’s not possible. So every time I want food delivered, I better order something that requires no changes haha.
Chopsticks, Spoons, and Scissors?
I have never been given a knife at a Korean restaurant (other than a steak house I went to). You cut things with a pair of kitchen scissors, here. At first I was really confused when I saw a pair of scissors at the table, but now I realize how stinkin’ useful they are! Chopping things like meat, kimchi, and noodles takes so much less time with some tongs and scissors than with a knife and fork.
Could you pass me some…uh…toilet paper?
If you go to a restaurant in Korea, don’t be surprised if you find a roll of toilet paper at your table. More and more restaurants are using (extremely tiny and thin and useless) napkins now, but you’ll still find places with a roll of poo poo paper at the table (lol I’m funny). Maybe this is just weird for North Americans but I’ve never thought to associate toilet paper with anything that would be on my dinner table. However, you get over it quickly, and those rolls of toilet paper get the job done – certainly better than the 1-ply shameful excuses of napkins that are often available here.
And I’ll leave you at that. I’ll probably be writing a mix of this kind of cultural food information along with specific food recommendations for this series. Next up, however, will be a Korean BBQ how to guide 🙂