The Culture of Eating in South Korea
by Sara Dorsey, Greenheart Travel Teach Abroad Program Manager
A big part, if not the most important part, of traveling for me is the food and culture surrounding meals in whichever country you’re headed to. I taught English in Seoul, Korea for a year and fell in love with a cuisine I had only tasted once before arriving at Incheon Airport. Korean food is a food after my own heart, full of flavor and most importantly – it’s spicy. The biggest thing I took away from Korean food, meals, and culture surrounding them though, is the communal way of eating – and the wide variety of food and flavors you will taste in just one sitting.
Korean style meals usually feature one large communal dish for everyone to share. That can range from grilling your own pork to digging into a large boiling pot of ramen. Typically you don’t have your own plate and things go right from the grill/dish to your mouth. The “family style” way of eating in Korea is something I really enjoyed – and eating becomes a centerpiece for conversation with your friends and family. It’s no longer “do you want to try mine?” it’s “here try this!”
When Americans (or Westerners in general) go out to dinner it usually consists of a huge personal plate of one type of food. Maybe you’ll throw in a side of potatoes in some variety, but for the most part – you’re eating one thing for your meal – like spaghetti. In Korea, meals are focused on one item, but you almost always have “banchan” which are small coaster sized dishes filled with little bites to try. The dishes included in banchan range from kimchi, to bean sprout salads, all the way to pickled squid.
Eating banchan is a communal thing, meaning you don’t get your own. While I understand, being a territorial eater myself, the stress that sometimes comes with sharing, especially small plates, banchan is unlimited! They refill your dishes when you finish them – for free! Unlimited kimchi is pretty much heaven on earth for me.
Food is one of the things I get the most nostalgic for when I think about Seoul, but a lot of that nostalgia comes from the experiences and memories I made during those meals. Family style dinner was a weekly event with my best friends in Korea, and that is something I wish was a bigger part of American food culture too. 맛있게 드세요