Eating in South Korea: Korean Dining Etiquette 101

Eating in South Korea: Korean Dining Etiquette 101

Make sure to mind your table manners!

South Korea is undeniably one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. Thanks to its trendy culture, exciting attractions, and delectable cuisine, the Land of the Morning Calm has seen hordes of enthusiastic travellers flock to its borders, especially since Korean pop culture started making waves internationally. If you’ve ever had a vacation in South Korea, I’m sure you’ll agree it more than lived up to the hype.  

One particular aspect of South Korea that travellers seem to never stop raving about is the delicious traditional food on offer. From savoury soups and stews to the unforgettable experience of dining in an authentic hole-in-the-wall Korean BBQ place, there are simply an inexhaustible variety of culinary experiences to enjoy. 

However, did you know that, like many other countries in Asia, South Korea has its own set of dining customs and etiquette? While locals don’t expect foreigners to adhere to all of them, violating some of these Korean dining etiquettes can sometimes lead to awkward situations. And I’m sure you’d like to avoid that! So, pay attention because here are some of the most important South Korean dining etiquettes you need to know! 

Also read: The Dos and Don’ts of Eating At An Authentic Korean BBQ Restaurant

Universal Asian etiquette

I’m sure most of you have heard of the more basic Korean dining etiquette already. After all, these are also practised in other Asian countries and some of them border on common courtesy. But just in case, here’s a short list of the common dos and don’ts:

  1. NEVER stick your chopsticks vertically upright in your rice. This is extremely taboo because it looks like incense honouring the dead.
  2. Try not to double-dip. It’s just generally a rude thing to do. 
  3. If you’re being offered something, it is ALWAYS best to receive with both hands. This could be a drink or a dish that’s being passed to you. 
  4. Also, DO NOT hoard food on your plate. Since most dishes in South Korea are made for sharing, they often come in communal plates or bowls. Pick out what you need and place it on your own plate but make sure not to take more than you need in one go! 
  5. If you have a stuffy nose, DO NOT blow your nose at the table! Excuse yourself to another room or the toilet instead. 
  6. Finally, NEVER use a dirty spoon to pick out communal dishes. Use the shared utensil or spoon instead. 

Now that we’ve covered basic table manners, let’s crack on with some of the more unique dining customs in South Korea. 

1. Respect your elders!

Image credit: Jinho Jung

Being a country that’s deeply rooted in Confucianism, South Korea holds a great amount of respect for the elderly. This is most commonly seen at the dining table. If you’re somehow going to be dining with an elder, keep this general rule in mind: the elder comes first. 

This means that you should allow your elders to sit at the table first before you sit down. The same goes for eating. I know it’s hard to resist digging in when you first lay eyes of piping hot food, but in South Korea, it is considered rude to start eating before your elders. They should have the first bite. 

In addition, you’re supposed to wait for them to finish their meals before you leave the table. Doing otherwise is also considered rude, as it may seem like you are rushing them to finish eating.

2. Say “Jal-mukae-sumnida” before you dig in

Before digging in, it’s common for people in South Korea to say jal-mukae-sumnida”. Translated, it roughly means “I will eat well!”. Not only is this a way to compliment the chef/host, it also conveys a sense of gratitude for the food. While it’s not a major faux pax if you don’t say it, it would still impress the locals if you say it. Oh, and once you’re done with your meal, you can say “Jal-mukeo-sumnida” which means “I ate very well”. This is a direct expression of thanks to your host. 

Of course, I’m not saying you should say these words after ordering a Happy Meal at McDonald’s! But if you’re attending a private dinner party or at a humble shop lot, this will definitely score you lots of brownie points!  

3. You’re supposed to start with soups and stews before moving on to rice and side dishes

Now that you can FINALLY start putting food in your mouth, did you know that there’s actually a specific order to eating in South Korea? Before you start shoving delicious dakgalbi in your mouth, pick up your spoon, and sample the soups and jiggae (stew) first! 

Only after you’ve tasted the soup should you go for rice or other dishes. And remember, don’t double dip! 

Fun fact: while most Asian countries use chopsticks to eat their rice, you’re supposed to use your spoon in South Korea. The chopsticks are used only for side dishes. 

4. Pace yourself!

Wolfing down food at the table is considered rude in many countries. However, Korean dining etiquette takes it to another level. When having a meal with a group, you’re supposed to pace yourself to match the eating speed of others. 

If you finish much faster than others, it may seem like you’re trying to rush them to finish their meal. If you’re much slower, it may seem like you’re holding everyone back. Instead, try to keep up with others (especially the elders!) and try to finish your meal at the same time. If it’s impossible, then slow down occasionally and make some small talk!  

5. Do not lift the bowl of rice in front of you

I know. This one sounds like a weird one. After all, in many Asian countries, it’s completely okay to lift up your bowl of rice when eating it. In fact, some of us may even do it subconsciously. But because you’re supposed to eat rice with a spoon in South Korea, it’s fairly unusual to lift up your bowl of rice. Even if you want to finish those last few bites, your spoon should be more than adequate to get the job done! 

6. Don’t pour your own drink. Serve others and let them serve you in return

Image credit: Kai Hendry

Personally, I quite like this one! When you’re having a group meal in South Korea (especially with locals) you will most likely also have a side of alcoholic drinks to be shared at the table. Usually, it’s either soju or makgeolli (rice wine). Instead of pouring your own drink, the traditional custom is for you to serve others and allow them to refill for your cup in return! This custom transcends age, so don’t be surprised if an elder refills your cup. It may seem rude but it’s totally normal. 

Of course, when you’re doing the pouring, as mentioned earlier, do so with both hands. If it’s impossible (like when holding a small soju bottle), place your free hand under your pouring hand to convey respect. Plus, it stabilises your pour!

Also read: 15 Korean Dishes to Try That You Always See in K-Dramas

7. Don’t reject a drink from your elders!

Just like in many Asian countries, rejecting a drink from an elder is considered extremely rude in South Korea. Unless you have a very good reason for not drinking, the ideal thing to do is to graciously accept and enjoy it. 

8. Let the oldest or the sunbae pay for the bill

Ah, another custom I definitely love! If you’re Asian, you’ve no doubt witnessed (and maybe even taken part in) your fair share of the customary after-meal scramble to pay the bill. In South Korea, it doesn’t happen as often because it is widely expected for the oldest person in the group (or the person with the most seniority in terms of workplace hierarchy) to pay the bill. 

And when I say “pay the bill”, I really do mean pay for the entire meal. You could offer to split the bill but you’ll most likely be met with rejection. Trust me, I tried! So just accept the meal and perhaps offer to buy them drinks or dessert in return. 

Dining the right way in South Korea

And there you have it! Important Korean dining etiquette you need to know about when enjoying a meal in South Korea. Like I said, the locals probably won’t be expecting you to strictly observe all the dos and don’ts, but it’s always nice just go that little extra mile to show courtesy!

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.


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