So you’ve been going steady with your Korean partner and it’s finally time to meet his or her family over a Korean dinner. You’re nervous because you want to make a good impression and show them that you care about Korean culture. You’ve been practicing your chopstick skills all week but you wonder what else there is to know. Well, you’ve come to the right place.
At the onset keep in mind the importance of “nunchi” (눈치) — or “situational awareness” — in all facets of Korean interactions, including in a dinner setting.
When everyone is seated activate your nunchi and identify the oldest person at the dinner table; let’s say this person is your partner’s grandfather. Regardless of how hungry you are or how mouthwatering the food is do not take it upon yourself to start eating. Basic Korean dining etiquette states that you should not begin to eat until grandfather picks up his spoon and begins to eat. This is a reflection of a respect for elders.
A few pointers during dinner for A+ Korean dining etiquette:
- Once you have the green light to begin to eat it is customary to say “jal meokkesseumnida” (잘 먹겠습니다) or “thank you for the food.”
- Once dinner is served don’t let your food cool down no matter how busy you are with conversation.
- A spoon and a pair of chopsticks will be placed in front of you. Use your spoon for rice and soup; chopsticks are only for ban-chan (반찬) or side dishes. Never use both simultaneously.
- When eating your rice use your non-utensil hand to hold the bowl but do not pick the bowl up from off the table.
- Control your spoon so that it doesn’t make noise when you eat out of your rice or soup bowl.
- Be sure not to tap your chopsticks on the dinner table.
- When eating from a shared dish utilize a personal plate and take small portions from the dish to your plate.
- At the end of your meal place your spoon and chopsticks back in front of you on the table. Do not leave them on your plate or in your bowl. And similar to the start of the meal finish by stating “jal meogeosseumnida” (잘 먹었습니다) or “thank you for the meal” (past tense).
During the course of the dinner an elder may offer you an alcoholic drink like soju. When an elder offers you a drink use one hand to hold the shot glass and use your second hand to hold the bottom of the glass.
After receiving the shot turn your head away from not only the elder who poured you the drink but from any other elders sitting near you before you drink. (Remember: nunchi!)
Then reciprocate by offering to pour that elder a drink and the same etiquette applies. Use your right hand to hold the soju bottle and use your left hand with the palm facing up to gently support your right wrist as you pour.
Ultimately, as times change and cultures evolve some of these may not be hard and fast rules anymore; but they are certainly a good starting point for good Korean dining etiquette. Always keep in mind the importance of respecting your elders and when in doubt use your nunchi and see what other folks at the table are doing. Now that you know the dos and don’ts, go enjoy some Korean dining!
Christopher S. Bae is a second generation Korean American born and raised in New York. He credits his parents, who encouraged him to attend Korean school as a child, for instilling a great sense of pride in his Korean heritage.