A business meal is a key part of building your relationship with your South Korean partners. Since South Koreans place great value on personal relationships, you can expect a fair amount of socializing with your partners, including several meals in restaurants. South Koreans are very proud of their cuisine, but their eating habits and table manners are somewhat different from ours.
Read on to find out everything you need to know about Korean cuisine and eating etiquette to make a stellar impression on your business partners.
South Korean Cuisine
Most Korean dishes are based on rice, vegetables, and meat. Beef, chicken, pork, fish and seafood are all popular in South Korea. Some restaurants serve dog meat as well, though its popularity with the younger generation has shrunk in recent years due to Western influence.
Other main ingredients include soy sauce and products like garlic, ginger, sesame oil, napa cabbage, fermented bean paste (in Korean: doenjang), and fermented red chili paste (gochujang).
Most dishes can be sorted into three different categories: main dishes, subsidiary dishes, and dessert. Main dishes are usually based on different grains: a bowl of bap is made with rice, juk with porridge, and guksu with noodles. Unlike in most Western traditions, soups are usually part of the main course in South Korea.
Side dishes are collectively called banchan. They include kimchi (fermented vegetables seasoned with chili), namul (steamed, marinated or stir-fried vegetables), bokkeum (a stir-fried dish with sauce), jorim (a dish cooked in seasoned broth), jjim (a steamed dish), jeon (pan-fried dishes resembling pancakes), and gyeran-mari (a rolled omelette). Special side dishes accompanying alcohol are called anju.
Non-alcoholic beverages typically served at a traditional restaurant include tea (cha), fruit punch (hwachae), sweet rice drink (sikhye), and persimmon punch (sujeonggwa). Alcoholic drinks are typically beers, rice and fruit wines, and various liquors.
Traditional South Korean confectionary is collectively referred to as hangwa. They include various types of rice cakes (tteok) and sweets made from other grains and sweetened with honey, bean paste, nuts, and raisins.
Non-alcoholic beverages typically served at a traditional restaurant include tea (cha), fruit punch (hwachae), sweet rice drink (sikhye), and persimmon punch (sujeonggwa). Alcoholic drinks are typically beers, rice and fruit wines, and various liquors. The most popular alcoholic drink is called soju. It’s a type of vodka and it has an alcohol content of 22%.
South Korean Dinner Etiquette
In most traditional South Korean restaurants, servers place a large amount of various dishes in the middle of the table and diners share everything by putting a small amount of each dish onto their own plate. Depending on the restaurant, you may get your own serving of your main dish, but banchan dishes are always shared.
Seating and Ordering
When arriving at the restaurant for your business meal, wait to be showed to your place. The eldest or most senior member of the party hosts the meal, and they determine the seating order. The seat facing the door is considered to be the most important place and it’s generally reserved for the most senior person. If you’re offered this seat, try to refuse it politely and ask your host to sit there instead.
The most senior person starts eating first, and the business meal lasts until they’ve finished.
In most scenarios, the host selects the food for everybody. Since South Koreans are eager for you to try their special dishes, it’s polite to accept anything they offer. If you have any allergies that prevent you from eating something, let them know ahead of ordering.
The most senior person starts eating first, and the business meal lasts until they’ve finished. Since most dishes are placed in the middle of the table to be shared, it’s common to serve others first. The eldest or most senior diners are always served first. Don’t put food on your plate, wait for somebody (most likely a person younger than you) to offer it first. When passing a dish, use both hands, or your right hand supported by your left at the elbow. It’s polite to regularly ask whether you can serve anybody anything.
Similarly, don’t pour your drink, wait for somebody to offer you a drink. If you don’t want to drink any more, leave your glass half-full, as an empty glass asks for refills. When drinking soju, South Koreans tend to shield their faces from more senior members of the party which is a way of acknowledging their rank and standing.
When drinking soju, South Koreans tend to shield their faces from more senior members of the party which is a way of acknowledging their rank and standing.
Never take the last banchan as it’s considered greedy. Try your best to taste all dishes offered to you and compliment them to your host. Never take food with your bare hands, and never eat directly from a collective dish: place the food on your plate first.
When using chopsticks, make sure not to point with them at anybody or anything. When not needed, place your chopsticks on their proper holder. Never cross them over your bowl or leave them sticking out of your rice dish, as this is a symbol in Korean culture associated with a funeral.
Don’t be alarmed if conversation ebbs while eating. Koreans usually don’t talk a lot during meals, they reserve conversation until after everybody’s finished eating. If you’re invited to join the party for drinks after dinner, accept the invitation.
The host usually pays for everybody. You may offer to pay, but your host will most likely refuse. Tipping is not very common in South Korea.
Remember, the easiest way to pay your South Korean suppliers is through Veem. It’s a connected payments platform that avoids the fees and delays of traditional bank wire transfers.
Veem offers convenient features that the banks can’t, like real-time payment tracking and end-to-end customer support, to ensure your money arrives intact and on time.