10 musings about Korean food as eaten by non-Koreans

Written by on April 26, 2012 in Lifestyle

Korea is a country full of discoveries, many of them culinary. Yet, I’ve always noticed a sharp divide between what I find fascinating and what everyone wants me to like.

This couldn’t be more apparent when it comes to Korean food, which is known in Korean as Hansik. There are certain eating habits Koreans have that we westerners just do differently. And I’m not talking about not being able to use chopsticks or eat kimchi; kimchi takes a bit of getting used to, and I don’t care where you’re from: if you can’t use chopsticks, what’s wrong with you?

I’ve selected ten fundamental differences in how Korean food is consumed by Koreans and by (mainly western) foreigners. Some of these are just preferential differences, some are mistakes or even faux pas. I’ve also spilled over a bit into how Koreans consume western food, to muse about where they’re coming from.

I’ve done my best to identify generalisations that don’t apply just to me, because my eating habits are not representative of westerners. Full disclosure, I have the table manners of an F5 tornado (it even says so on my visa). So, if ever you find yourself wondering where I’m coming from, feel free to leave a comment. Likewise, if you have any other examples that would fit on this list, I would love to hear them.

10. Seaweed

Seaweed, known as gim or kim in Korean*, is a common ingredient in many Korean dishes, most notably kimbap*. It’s used mainly as a wrap for rice, or can be roasted and eaten as banchan (side dish).

Seaweed holds your food together.

Lately, kim has found traction in overseas markets, but it’s not competing with Vietnamese rice paper and Mexican tortillas — it’s marketed as a snack, competing instead with the likes of unhealthy snacks such as potato chips.

 

Roasted & sea salted snack pack. No MSG. No sugar. A gift from the ancient sea. Eat traditional style with rice ball and spice. Or snack on like potato chips! Use in salads. Add to soup. Try as a pizza topping! Product of Korea.

 

That’s actually a pretty brilliant idea, and a great dietary solution for the snack-food junkies of North America.

Let’s see what the reviews say on Amazon:

 

I use these as a snack for my grade schooler. He loves the freshness of the seaweed and the crispness. It is a convenient and healthy snack.

This seaweed is great! It tastes good and is a great replacement for potato chips.

…my four year old daughter goes for the crap and lollipops, but these seaweed treats have become an addiction for my daughter and all of her classmates. They now serve this snack in her school. Healthy, salty and certainly better than cookies.

Not only am I getting a variety of vitamins and minerals but now I am more likely to reach for a bag of roasted seaweed than a bag of potato chips and that makes me feel healthier and wiser.

These are the perfect salty vegan snack to get me through the day.

I’m a Korean student studying in the U.S. currently. I just don’t know why the product has been titled as “snack”: “Gim(=Kim)”, toasted with sesame oil and salt, is one of the most common side dishes for us, and it goes very well with steamed (short) rice. You may have this as a snack with your beer, but I don’t think it is a kind of “authentic” way of eating “Gim”.

 

Is there a right way and a wrong way to eat kim? Let’s let the people selling it answer that question.

Oh, but don’t worry, Korean student — Korea has been avenged. While I was writing this article, my coworkers called me over for “snacks.” I showed up, only to find servings of sandwiches. I had a laugh at that, the quintessential western lunch served as a Korean snack.

“Sandwiches cannot really be meals,” said one of my coworkers, “too small.”

*As long as we still spell kimchi with a k, I prefer kim over gim and kimbap over gimbap. I still haven’t gotten over Kimpo changing its name to Gimpo.

9. Mouthfuls

One of my favourite things about Korean foods is the various types of edible wrappings that are used. Kim, various types of lettuce, and whatever mandu is made of. I’ve always considered these things analogous to the bread of a sandwich; it’s a convenient way to eat without relying on too many utensils.

You eat a sandwich by holding it in your hands and taking bites out of it until it falls apart all over your lap. You eat Korean barbecue by placing a single piece of cooked meat in a piece of lettuce, adding sauce, vegetables, whatever you want, then stuffing the whole thing in your mouth all at once.

Then there those who try to eat Korean food like western food, holding onto it and taking more than one bite to finish it off. Granted, one portion of lettuce-wrapped meat can get pretty big, especially if you’re eating bossam or rice cakes, but that’s just how it’s done, and finishing it in more than one bite should be considered a failure.

Then again, choking because you have too much food in your mouth is also a failure. I see this one as a minor faux pas, one that might save your life.

8. Drink accompaniment

Earlier this year, the Korea Blog published the Korean Drinking Guide – the beers and the barbecue by Thomas Walsh.

While brutally honest about the state of domestic beer, he added:

But Korean beer companies have a secret weapon up their sleeve ? the barbecue. For some reason Korean beers work absolutely perfectly by reference to barbecue. It is almost their lack of distinguishing taste, their wateryness, their lack of ambition which renders them perfect fodder for the ritual of Korean barbeque.

I couldn’t agree more. But know who wouldn’t agree with this? Most Koreans, who order soju almost every time they’re out for barbecue. If they’re merciful, they’ll let me order a beer instead. Because I can’t imagine drinking anything other than beer with that meal.

Beer and galmaegi, by the power vested in me by the Universal Life Church, I now pronounce you husband and wife.

7. One-shot soju

While we’re daintily nibbling on our Korean food, we’re pounding the Korean liquor.

I’ve previously admitted I’m not a big fan of soju, so when I am forced to partake out of cultural etiquette, I like to get it over with as quickly as possible (presumably so I can get back to my beer).

According to Wikipedia:

Soju is usually consumed in group gatherings while eating, unmixed and portioned into individual shot glasses.

Wait, hold on a second. That’s not a shot glass! If you ever get a chance to casually observe a group of Korean people drinking soju, you’ll notice that they sip rather than dunk their soju.

You’ve probably also heard exclamations of “one shot!” when soju is brought out, but you’ll notice that it’s not for every round, unless you’re witnessing some kind of hazing.

So, it’s not a shot glass. Go easy on that stuff or you’ll be nursing a two-day hangover.

6. Beer before liquor

If you went to university or college in North America, you probably know the old adage:

Beer before liquor, never sicker.

Liquor before beer, all clear.

I noticed late one (work) night that my Korean coworkers were switching from beer to liquor, and I pointed out the error because we had to be at our desks by 9 the next morning. They had never heard the rule before, and in fact assumed the opposite held true.

Turns out we were both wrong.

5. Hoeshik

Speaking of those coworkers, the whole concept of drinking belongs on here.

For those of you who have never worked in Korea, the hoeshik (회식) is a meal eaten with one’s coworkers, usually accompanied by heavy drinking. It can be either a convenient excuse to fall off the wagon or a burdensome social pressure, depending on the individual. Generally, the pace is set by the highest-ranked employee (or employer) at the table, and everyone else must keep up with the pace that he sets. Afterwards, everyone goes to a second place for more drinking. Oh, and this is usually done on work nights.

A typical day at the office.

One morning after a particularly liver-murdering hoeshik, my supervisor (who hadn’t attended the night before) brought me aside. “I don’t know what you did last night, but the vice president is furious with you,” he told me. “What is the etiquette for drinking with your bosses in your country?”

“Don’t,” I answered.

To this day, I’m still not sure what I did to offend the vice president. But if this were a Canadian company, nobody would have ever been upset with me, because they’d never know if I had even ever tasted liquor, because I would only be drinking around my friends, most likely the ones I don’t work with.

4. Samgyetang

Okay, we need to get away from alcohol for a bit.

Samgyetang is basically a whole chicken stuffed with rice, garnished with ginseng, garlic, and ginger, and served in a stone bowl. It is traditionally eaten on the hottest days of summer, which are specifically named Chobok, Jungbok, and Malbok, during which you better have reservations in advance, or you’ll be waiting for a table for hours.

It’s the same basic ingredients as chicken soup, only not processed in any way. 

Image source: Wikipedia

 I don’t even bother going for samgyetang in the summer. Why would I want to eat a hot soup when the weather is equally hot? I tend to eat samgyetang in the fall, because that’s when I usually catch a cold.

Think about it: samgyetang is basically chicken soup. It’s the perfect thing to eat when you have a sore throat, with its salty broth and sharp herbs.

It is apparent that the dish is also intended to be medicinal by the presence of ginseng. However, it is treated primarily as a summer food. If you ask me, this is a cold-weather meal, and also a great comfort food for when you’re under the weather.

3. Food for bad weather

Samgyetang being a classic example, there are many Korean dishes that are considered best served during particular weather. Some are out of necessity, such as seasonal greens or raw fish (since raw fish will stay fresh a little longer in winter). Others are somewhat more arbitrary, such as naengmyeon in the summer and hotteok, bungeobbang, and patjuk in the winter. There are even foods for rainy days.

When it rains, the right food to eat is jeon or bindaetteok. I only recently found out the reason for this: frying bindaetteok in oil makes a sound that resembles rain. And since it goes well with makgeolli, that is also considered a rainy-day drink.

This picture was taken on a sunny day.

I don’t know though — none of these choices are instinctual for me. Yesterday it rained, and I immediately thought of getting Vietnamese pho at lunch. Something about the fresh, vibrant flavours appealed to me. I might’ve also reached for naengmyeon or kalguksu. As for alcohol, I’d think of something fruitier, like a chardonnay or a Korean plum wine.

Maybe it’s just me on this one though.

2. Water

Whenever I go to a restaurant with self-serve water, I always get two cups for myself. It means I’ll have to get up half as many times for refills. And even double-fisting my water, I’ll still go back a couple times for more.

Meanwhile, the Koreans at my table have barely touched their first cups. I’m not sure how this is possible, especially with the amount of rice they eat. There are certain Korean foods that have fluids in them, and all sorts of soups are available at most Korean meals, but for me none of them take the place of water.

Maybe I’m the weird one here? I guess I’ll look to the comments to find out.

1. Rice

A few years ago, I got a new job and my new boss took me out for a welcoming meal. We went to a restaurant that had some of my favourite foods: jaeyuk (spicy pork), tangsuyuk (Chinese sweet and sour pork), and kimchi jjigae. They served me a little metal bown of rice, which as usual I didn’t touch as I gorged myself on all these foods.

Most of the way through the meal, my boss asked me, “Is there something wrong with the food?”

“No,” I replied, “it’s amazing.”

“Then why didn’t you touch your rice?” he asked, as if ignoring the rice was somehow condemning the entire meal, when it was just the opposite.

To most Koreans, rice is such a necessity, it’s almost like a measure to show how much they’ve eaten, like some kind of rice hourglass. They’re used to eating meals — even breakfast — with a portion of rice available, so they can multi-task in order to consume their rice at the same rate as the rest of their food.

Not so with non-Asians. I find rice filling and flavourless. It has its place, but I won’t go out of my way to eat it. Even if I get started on the rice, I’ll inevitably not finish it all, either out of disinterest or because I’m full.

For that reason, I have trouble eating bibimbap. Every time I order it, I start off thinking “Why don’t I eat this every day?” Then by the time I’m halfway through, I’m about ready to explode. And I’ve seen Koreans half my size shovel down their entire bowl and then polish off the remainder of mine.

On the other hand, I’ve seen those same Koreans get full on a couple slices of pizza, whereas when I was in my prime I could finish an entire twelve-inch pizza.

0. Kimchi

Bonus point, because eleven points are always better!

Kimchi is available at every Korean meal, whether we’re talking about breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Now, I love kimchi, but I couldn’t imagine starting the day with it, and even by lunch I’m still not ready for it. I’ll only really reach for the kimchi if it’s later in the day, if there’s beer involved, or if it’s an especially good kind of kimchi.

Kimchi!

If you were to eat one particular food at every single meal, I’d imagine you would get sick of it over time. There is nothing in the western diet that we eat with every meal, not even bread.

Yet kimchi is such a quintessential part of any Korean meal, it or a substitute is made available even for most foreign meals. If you go to an Italian restaurant in Korea or even if you order pizza from Pizza Hut, they’ll always include a little thing of sweet pickles. Me, I never touch them — what are they doing there? — but to the Korean palate, it’s kind of like the Konglish version of kimchi.

This is not Italian-style kimchi.

Well, that’s eleven in all, and I feel like I could probably keep going. But you have a life to get back to, and I’d rather be out somewhere eating Korean food.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is an editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats