Most nights I go to dinner with other students and professors at places that specialize in violently spicy seafood soup, slabs of grilled bacon or red pepper chicken and glass noodles.
Seoul has an incredible number of restaurants and it is normal for people to eat out almost every night, especially students, because each person’s tab rarely exceeds $5. About four months have passed since I’ve been to Chipotle or eaten a decent sandwich, which no amount of delicious Korean food can truly replace. But as long as I live in Seoul, embracing the diet and food culture here is far better than trying to seek out imitations of what I could buy back in Washington.
Last Wednesday at dinner we ordered maeunttang, a four-course combination of boiled crab, mountains of bean shoots, pickled radish and chilled noodles. The older students in the group, along with our professor advisors, sat at the center of the table, while I gravitated toward some of the other undergrads who speak a bit of English.
Like Japan, a majority of restaurants in Korea seat dinners on the floor. I wish I could say that sitting cross-legged for hours has gotten easier, but I think it is one skill I will never master. I have to rub feeling back into my calves and hobble over to the door to put my shoes on after rising from the floor. This painful ritual is always a source of humor to my Korean friends.
A vast majority of diners in Korea eat with friends. I can count the number of times I have seen people eating alone on one hand. For my friends and homestay family, eating out is always a communal act. Restaurants support this eating philosophy, normally providing food only in portions meant for two or more.
The first dish to arrive that night was a bowl of pickled radish, which could be eaten as an appetizer or a side dish with the spicy food that was bound to come later. The main dish, a pot brimming with raw crab legs, tofu, shallots and raw oysters, came soon after. Almost all of the cooking in Korean restaurants occurs in front of you, over gas burners placed in the middle of the table. This means that you actually cook your own dinner, watching as the broth boils and food transforms from a pile of animals and vegetables to a meal.
Second to Korean eating’s communal nature, the most important aspect to keep in mind is how it reinforces social hierarchy. Everything is served according to age, even among close friends, from rice to alcohol. Ignoring an older friend’s empty shot glass or serving yourself first is bad manners.
At a similar gathering in America, it might be surprising to see a professor order a round of hard liquor for the table, but not so in Korea. Soju, the most popular drink in Korea, which has about half the alcohol of vodka and is literally cheaper than bottled water, is as commonly seen as a set of chopsticks on the dinner table.
When it comes to pouring for someone else, the habits of social hierarchy again play a part. It is considered a failure on the part of the other diners if you drain your glass way before they do. When it comes to the act of pouring, especially for an older person, it is always done with the right hand, your left palm supporting your right forearm about halfway between your wrist and your elbow. Also, one must make certain not to finish a drink directly facing someone who is older. Custom calls for the younger drinker to turn away from the older person, gulp the rest of the drink, and then turn back to face them.
While it may seem that dining in Korea is a maze of obligations and unwritten rules, after a few months it becomes quite natural. Most foreigners that I meet here have come to enjoy the communal way of eating. Sharing food, sharing bowls and being considerate of everyone else makes going out for dinner one of the best ways to make close friends here.
There are times when I miss grabbing a sandwich and eating however I like – and I still have trouble sharing soup from the same bowl as the rest of my table – but adjusting to a new way of eating has been a great way to better understand Korea. Being up for anything, no matter how spicy or foreign it may seem, helps to let my friends here know that I’m making every effort to learn their way of life.