Greetings once more! Last week I went over the first five things on my list of 10 things to know about living in Korea before you actually do. The first list had more to do with the logistical things you’ll encounter if you decide to live in Korea. Now I shall proceed with the next five, which are more concerned with culture—in other words, the fun stuff! As a refresher, these are things I experienced in South Korea that I either wish I had known about before I went or feel are worth knowing for those who are planning to go in the future. I had planned to do the second five in one shot, but it turns out I have so much to say about number 6 that it requires its own post. I’ll try to get the others out this week as well. This one’s all about food, so let’s dig in!
6. Food and Food Culture
Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you’re already a fan of Korean food and can tell your jokbal from your japchae. However, South Korea has myriad food options, the availability of which varies depending on the province or city you’re in. While I absolutely love Korean food, coming from Toronto, I’m used to variety, and while I certainly could live on Korean food exclusively with ease, I do like mixing it up from time to time. If you’re worried about lack of variety, I feel you, but rest easy (even I had burger cravings every so often). In the bigger cities one can find all manner of ethnic restaurants, such as Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Japanese . . . the list goes on, especially in Seoul’s Itaewon district. However, Korean food is usually the cheaper option unless you go to an upscale restaurant. Many regions in South Korea have a signature food that is supposed to be better there than anywhere else in the country — for example, dakgalbi in Chuncheon and seafood in Busan — and while I was there I engaged in a lot of “culinary tourism.” It’s a lot of fun, so do some research and see what you can find — you’ll be glad you did!
Groceries vs. Eating Out
The important thing to know is that food in South Korean supermarkets tends to be quite a bit more expensive than we’re used to here in Canada, especially fruit. This is because South Korea imports a lot of its produce from Southeast Asia and elsewhere, so if you’re going to live in Korea with a limited budget you may want to consider bringing some multivitamins. (Seriously, a bag of apples once cost me almost $20, though they were really good and apples do tend to be more expensive.) I found that in most cases eating out cost about the same as buying groceries, though if you prefer home-cooking I recommend shopping at E-mart, because it tends to be cheaper than a lot of other places. Apparently you can get good deals at traditional markets, but if you can’t speak Korean well or are not good at haggling it can be daunting (though traditional markets are pretty cool places to hang out in). Most things you’d expect to find in a supermarket here are available in Korean supermarkets, though things that are not very popular over there tend to be expensive — especially peanut butter and healthy breakfast cereal.
Casual dining in Korea is considerably cheaper than in Canada; for instance, a small lunch of dokbokki and kimbap from the average street vendor in Seoul will run you around $3 to $4. Students, heed my words! The student cafeterias on university campuses are the cheapest places to eat value-wise. To give you an idea, at Yonsei University (not at the international cafeteria, though, which is actually more expensive), among myriad other things you can get a huge bowl of spaghetti with shrimp and mussels for around $3.50, and there are even free second helpings for many items (mostly rice dishes and soups and things). I am told that this is common in universities across the country. A number of times when I was waiting for money transfers to go through, I managed to get three square meals on less than $9 a day. Hard to imagine, but it’s true.
Here’s a survival tip: non-students can eat at student cafeterias, but if there isn’t one near you, a roll of kimbap usually costs less than $3 and is fairly healthy. Also good to know: most Korean restaurants have a button you can press to summon the waiter. If there’s no button, just raise your hand and yell, “Chugiyo [there]!” to get some service. It’s not rude, and if you don’t, you’ll probably have to wait a while before a confused waiter asks why you haven’t ordered anything yet. Finally, there is no tipping in South Korea and tax is pre-calculated, so you pay exactly what it says on the menu! :DDining with Friends
A lot of you may know this already, from watching Korean television or eating at Korean restaurants, that Koreans traditionally share food. If you’re going to eat out with a bunch of local friends, typically a few large dishes are ordered and, be it stew, rice, or what-have-you, everybody picks at them with their own spoon and chopsticks when they feel like it. While I personally have never had a problem with it, I met a number of foreigners in Korea who thought this standard practice was pretty gross when they first encountered it, and some apparently never got over it. For any germophobes out there, I’ve been eating Korean style for years, and frequency-of-illness-wise I’m probably one of the healthiest people I know . . . just something to consider. Also, if your a vegetarian it’s a good idea to let everyone know beforehand so you don’t look anti-social by ordering individual food.
At restaurants specializing in Western food, individual dishes are the norm. As for paying the bill, splitting the check is standard procedure with large groups, and oftentimes one person will collect money from the group beforehand. In small groups, the oldest person traditionally pays, though this isn’t always the case, especially with close friends. In my case, my friends and I would take turns treating each other.
I once read that South Korea has the highest alcohol consumption per capita in the world. I don’t know how true that is, but I could well believe it. Alcohol is very cheap in Korea compared to Canada. A bottle of soju is typically $1.50 to $2 in supermarkets and convenience stores and can cost as little as 90 cents in some pubs (or seuljips [alcohol houses], as they are called there). In the warmer seasons it is very common for people to buy an alcoholic beverage and a snack from a convenience store and hang out in a park and have a drink, as there are no laws against drinking in public.
If you work for a Korean company or especially if you are a student, you will be expected to drink something alcoholic, probably soju or beer. Whether you do or not is up to you, but be warned: Koreans often drink in large groups and usually everyone partakes, so it can take quite a lot of willpower to resist the peer pressure. While studying there, I met many people who had not actually started drinking until they came to Korea. I’m just saying, if you’re planning to be in Korea for a long time and have concerns about drinking, you’re going to need some mental fortitude. Koreans tend to go multiple rounds, often starting at a restaurant, then going to a pub, then a noraebang (karaoke room), and then maybe another pub. Cheap prices and the long operating hours of pubs help maintain this tradition.
There are a number of different sorts of pubs: Western-style pubs, which are very similar to what you would find in Canada; traditional Korean pubs specializing in rice wine (makkgeolli); beer pubs, which specialize in imported bottled beers; “room bars” in which a group gets a private room to drink and party in (very popular for couples and work parties); and your run-of-the-mill sojubangs or “hof and soju” bars, which are basically just places where you can get food and drinks relatively cheap. (Drinking places near universities are especially inexpensive.)
Something to note: in most Korean pubs you are expected, and in fact required, to order food with your drinks. I imagine this might be because if people just went there to drink, the place wouldn’t make any money because alcohol is so cheap, and without food to absorb all that alcohol, the party would be a lot shorter. If you’re very familiar with the owner or staff of a pub, you might be able to get around this rule, but it’s something to consider when choosing where to drink.
Like anywhere else in the world, the culture surrounding food and eating is more nuanced than many other areas of Korean culture, which is why I figured it deserved its own post. As in Canada, your behaviour while eating out can sometimes make or break relationships, so it’s always a good idea to know what to expect. Hopefully after reading this you will have a better idea of how to navigate Korean eating situations, which are, in my experience, totally fun and awesome — especially if you know what to do and are with the right people. Bon appétit, and stay tuned for the final four, coming next post!