A complete meal of Vietnamese people is usually a delicious meal of rice. The word “meal of rice” (bữa cơm) is the word that represents every “meal”. When inviting someone to dine, we often invite them to “eat rice” (ăn cơm). On the death anniversary of our ancestors, we present a tray full of fish and meat to “offer rice” (cúng cơm). In Korea, rice is a staple product of wet rice agriculture. Therefore, the Korean way of eating is closely associated with “kki ni” (meal of rice). In Korean dramas, the image of the whole family gathering at the dining table has become extremely familiar to audiences around the world.
For Vietnamese people, eating is usually not too strict. Dining manner is passed on from generation to generation as a way of educating people to live respectfully, to know how to care and share, to be patient and loving. At every meal, especially dinner, family members gather and eat while telling each other what happens during the day. At the end of the first bowl, another second bowl will be taken, one person takes another bowl of rice, and then the other person will take another bowl of rice. Everyone takes bowls of rice, picks up food, eats rice, takes soup, etc. Just like that, the family atmosphere is more happily and the family members are emotionally attached.
My Vietnamese friend who lives in Seoul for many years said that Koreans highly appreciate family meals, so many restaurants are open all week but only crowded every weekend. Koreans have the habit of eating at home, and the main meal of the day is the breakfast with the concept that after waking up, we need to provide enough nutrients to provide abundant energy for a long working day. Lunch is called “jeomsin” which means “to lighten the heart”. Dinner is light to help the body recover energy, but does not cause bloating, to get ready for a good night’s sleep.
For Korea’s hierarchical society, table manner is not only gentle advice but has long been an unwritten rule in the way people communicate. We were thoroughly explained by our native guide. On Korean dining tables, a rice bowl, a soup bowl and a set of spoon and chopsticks are always served separately for each person. An important rule when eating is not to lift the rice bowl but always place the rice bowl on the table. Therefore, Korean rice bowls are often flat with flat-bottomed, rather than row-shaped bowls that are easy to hold in hand like Vietnamese rice bowls. On the contrary, when using the soup, you must lift the bowl to slurp, making a loud sloppy sucking sound as if to show that you are eating very well.
At home meals, the elderly or the higher ranked people often sit at the top of the table. In banquets, the person with the highest or most important position usually sits in the center. Meals usually start when the elderly or the most important person holds his/ her chopsticks. When eating, everyone chews slowly and discreetly, not opening their mouths to talk while there is food in their mouths, eating economically, without leaving any excess food. They have to finish their separate portions of rice and soup. The pace of eating is slow and the meal only ends when the elderly or the most important person hangs the chopsticks and leaves the table. Others who have to leave the table must ask for permission.
In the Korean dining table, in addition to rice, soup, kimchi, there are usually some side dishes called banchan. It can be raw vegetables, stir-fried vegetables, fish sauce, grilled dishes, braised dishes, fried dishes, or dry dishes, etc. Having the opportunity to enjoy Korean foods in high-class restaurants, we were overwhelmed by the diversity and the deliciousness of banchan. At every meal, all kimchi and banchan will cover the table. However, another rule when dining with Koreans is that you should only pick up the foods placed near your seat, not reaching out to pick foods from afar.
Traditional Korean chopsticks are shorter than Chinese or Vietnamese chopsticks for this reason. Metal chopsticks appeared from 18 BC to 660 AD. The Kings and upper-class families often use chopsticks made of gold, silver or copper. Metals are durable, not easy to be scorched when eating baked goods, not easy to stick to color and smell when we eat the dishes with chili, chili sauce, or fish sauce, and very easy to clean. Another reason why Koreans maintain the use of metal chopsticks is to limit the cutting of bamboo, helping to protect the environment. Toothpicks in Korea are also made from corn or potato starch which is easy to be broken down.
To me, food is a part of the culture. Through the customs, habits, traditions, we capture the personalities and perceive each color array of a place. Standing out of the Korean way of eating is a bold cultural identity in modern society. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, I allowed myself to emerge in those colors, and to experience life in a different way than how I do every day.
(The article was published on the “Korea Luxury Travel Guide” by Wanderlust Tips magazine and Korea Tourism Organization)