South Korean Cuisine and the Food Safety Experience
By: Laura Onianwa
On May 2, 2022, I landed in South Korea, ahead of the US Eastern Standard Time Zone by about 11 hours. I do not speak Korean, nor am I well versed in Hangul, but it didn’t make me want to go any less and visit my close friend who resides there. Korean is the primary language spoken, as is to be expected. And although it is becoming more common, not everyone speaks English, since all Koreans aren’t afforded the same opportunity to attend English academies as young children. I was a little anxious, yes, but excited. The pandemic had previously uprooted my plans to study abroad in Spain two years ago, and I knew that opportunities like this didn’t come along often. Although I’ve never really been into K-pop or K-dramas, I can appreciate both; at any rate, I was both willing and ready to travel abroad to Korea.
Being a minority in more than one way, living on my own, traveling solo much of the time, and not being completely knowledgeable of the language, I most definitely would stand out as a foreigner. In preparation, however, I did educate myself on the culture and was given proper advice by friends familiar with the country. They helped in providing the major do’s and don'ts, and what is considered appropriate and/or disrespectful in the typical culture and customs of Korea.
As ready as I could be, I would spend the next 2 months in Korea. My experience there was surreal at times, interesting, informative, and genuinely good! I experienced many things for the first time; hostel living, Buddhist temples, palaces, shrines, Hof bars and pubs, jazz bars, busking, outdoor markets, underground shopping centers, the subway/metro train (beyond awesome), the night scene, vivacious mountains, cozy cafes and bakeries (individualized and aesthetically pleasing all-around), authentic street food, photo booth studios, lovely parks, cultural venues, and delivery drivers on motorcycles riding through both red lights and upon sidewalks (which they are legally permitted to do). However, as a student with CFI, I paid special attention to all things food and food safety, especially when eating out.
Sharing is Caring
Korea is by and large a sharing culture, but that shouldn't stop you from getting a bowl of Bingsu (a Korean dessert comprised of shaved ice, topped with fruit and sweet add-ons) for a party of one. It is very common to share meals there. From Korean Barbeques, in which the minimum amount is a two-serving meal, to desserts. Due to the portion sizes of the food, it is easy to notice when certain dishes are commonly shared versus made for one person to consume.
I noticed that the size of drinks is all largely the same, in that you get the same, one size, no matter where you go. Unlike the US, the food establishment will rarely let you choose the size.
No tips, please
Taxes and tips are included in the total price of food, and there is no tipping culture, so the price you see displayed is the only price you pay. This was quite a relief if I’m being honest. Tipping can be considered rude/impolite, as it can be seen as insulting someone’s presumed financial status.
Waste management was another interesting change from what I’ve seen in the US. Large garbage bags are not made readily available to the general public, but rather medium/small waste basket-sized ones are commonly found in stores. In Korea, waste bins are small because the apartments there are typically small in size, and the majority of the population live in these apartments. While staying in a hostel in Seoul, South Korea, I noticed how concerned they were about sorting one’s trash into food only, cardboard/paper, plastic, and glass-specific bins. Even with this concern, waste is collected daily, with people sorting through the trash based on the previously mentioned categories. It seems to be an all-around communal effort to adhere to the country’s waste management operation taking place.
Many restaurants offered those dining in with individually packaged sanitizing hand towelettes to clean their hands prior to eating, since many of the food establishments in South Korea don’t have public-use restrooms. As many may forget to wash their hands before eating, I thought this was a good way of keeping hand hygiene more consistent. I’m not sure if this had always been the case or a mitigation response due to Covid-19, but either way, I was all for it!
There was usually a pitcher of water and cup placed by the server at your table, or a universal one made available to use if you wanted water to drink. With communal use, I wondered, however, how often these reusable water containers were washed and sanitized? Daily? Weekly? I did not have the answer.
Like in the US, upon placing your order at either the self-service kiosk or at the front counter, many places would ask if you wanted to "take out" or "eat in". If you got takeout, you were not allowed to sit down and eat your meal inside the establishment. I suspect it had to do with the unnecessary waste of material that could accumulate in the food establishment’s own indoor trash can and was a good way of preventing the creation of avoidable waste. It may also be the reason why there were no obvious trash cans in these food places, except maybe a tiny waste bin near the front counter. There was an expectation that if you ordered to eat out or requested your food to-go, you actually ate your food somewhere else.
Reusable utensils were also a staple in restaurant eating. If you dined in, most, if not all the utensils used could be washed and reused. If you ate in, at a cafe, bakery or quick food shop, they usually gave you a tray, and once you were done eating you would bring it up to the counter for them. Even at a large franchise such as Starbucks, they used actual mugs, teacups, and glasses for those choosing to dine in. For the coffee drinks, I think this not only allowed them to show off their coffee art artistry, bringing class to fast-food style coffee, but prioritized sustainability.
In South Korea, cafes are on nearly every corner. Places to eat like small bakery businesses and chain-franchises alike are all able to maintain that “all are welcome” feel. I enjoyed how I could sit and savor everything I tasted. At these places you don’t feel forced to make it a grab and go process but are compelled to just have a seat and enjoy. On a few occasions, I noticed that at sit-down restaurants where utensils were required, such as chopsticks and spoons (reusable cutlery), they were either all stored in a pullout drawer connected to the table you were eating at or such utensils were simply in a universal container and out in the open where the dine-in customer could pick out their eating utensil from the collective. Although it could be a charming practice, I noted that it was another communal area possibly leading to the transfer or spread of illnesses. Especially, when left unprotected from human hands and thus the germs that each of us may carry.
At some bakeries and café locations, I noticed that the freshly made grab-and-go bakery items were not encased but rather freely open to plate. Although plastic or wooden trays with parchment paper and clean utensils were provided and required to be used by all when grabbing bakery items, there wasn’t a plexiglass covering or sliding door to provide some sort of protective barrier between the array of food and the perusing customers like we are used to seeing here in the US.
Ultimately, I found the food in South Korea, whether they were traditional Korean dishes or picturesque pastries, to be nothing short of fresh, unique, and tasty. The restaurants, cafés, and bakeries I visited, specifically the latter, exuded charm, prioritized visual appeal, and upheld quality. Now that I am back in the States, I can say that I’ve left South Korea with a plethora of interesting experiences, both food related and not. New friendships, an appreciation for clean and efficient metro systems, a better understanding of Korean history, a strengthened growth mindset, a newfound desire to learn Hangul, and over 200+ photos that will stick with me forever. I will definitely be traveling to South Korea again, and other countries as well in the future! 감사합니다.