YEAH, I KNOW, I TALK ABOUT FOOD A LOT. HAVE YOU MET ME?
Not many people know much about Korean food past the growing popularity of Korean BBQ, but there’s a lot to the Korean dining experience. If you want to fully understand it, you need to look past just the food itself and take a look at what a typical restaurant visit is like.
The thing I love most about eating out in Korea is the independence you have. Allow me to explain:
Most places you’ll eat are probably very small and specialize in a main item, which means that they have very simple and short menus. So short, in fact, that they’re often displayed on the walls.
Once you sit and order, you receive what is called “banchan” which are complimentary side dishes. Typical banchan dishes include kimchi, a variation on tofu (by the way, if you say tofu is gross you’ve probably never had it prepared properly. Tofu is the bomb), pickled raddish (which will likely be white, yellow, or pink), and seasoned bean sprouts, but it varies by location. And you can always ask for more or, in some cases, serve yourself some more from the designated area.
You take (usually small) cups from the stack that are either on your table or in a sterilizer and pour yourself water from the pitcher they give you or from the cooler next to the sterilizer. There isn’t a waiter hovering around you, refilling your glass every time you take a sip like in the states. If you need a server, there’s usually a call button on the side of the table you can ring (just like a flight attendant in an airplane).
A lot of Korean food goes well with beer or soju (Korean rice liquor) and, even in a restaurant, these are pretty cheap. (The legal drinking age in Korea is 19…if you were curious).
The utensils are also located right on the table in a cup or in a drawer on the side of the table. That way if you drop your spoon or chopsticks, you can just grab another set without having to wait to ask someone. The napkins are also located on the table, but are small and thin to avoid waste.
The food arrives very quickly and sharing is very common, especially with the banchan. You don’t take a little of each thing on your plate for the most part. You just eat right out of the serving dishes.
At the end of the meal, you typically go up to the counter to settle your check and the price on the menu is what you pay: no tax, no tip. That’s why eating out is so cheap relative to the states. You can get a hefty and delicious meal with drinks for very little. It’s also convenient when you have larger groups because you don’t have to worry about change and dividing everything up: you just walk up to the counter, tell them what you ordered, and pay for it individually.
Something that is important to note is that Koreans don’t readily understand the idea of being vegetarian. If you tell them you’re vegetarian or ask them to take the meat out of certain dishes, they don’t often realize that they cannot serve beef or fish broth in a soup, or that chicken is also a type of meat. Even kimchi is made with anchovy paste and the best food here has some kind of meat in it and this has left a few of my friends here feeling frustrated. It reminds me of that scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the mom finds out her future son-in-law doesn’t eat meat and says “that’s okay! I make lamb”.
I have had some pretty amazing meals since being here and can’t wait to continue my culinary adventures. For example, the other night I went to an all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ buffet with at least 10 different types of meat to be grilled at your table grill and tons of side dishes. And guess how much it was? 10,900 won. That’s less than $10. Yes, it was amazing; yes, my life is awesome; yes, I had about 20 servings of meat (if you didn’t already know: no, I am not one of the aforementioned vegetarians).
Side note: it’s the fourth of July here in Korea, which also means it’s my good friend Nick’s birthday back in the states. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!