The traditional Korean restaurant is filled with low tables; diners are required to remove their footwear and sit on floor-cushions. There are a number of rules of restaurant etiquette but a substantial amount of custom also surrounds the food itself; while what often appears to be a culinary free-for-all can draw gasps from foreign observers (eat the meal; boil off the soup; throw in some rice to fry up with the scraps; add some noodles), Korea’s great on conformity, and you may well provoke chuckles of derision by performing actions that you deem quite sensible – it’s best just to follow the Korean lead.
Restaurant meals usually consist of communal servings of meat or fish around which are placed a bewildering assortment of side dishes (banchan; 반찬). Often, these are the best part of the meal – a range of fish, meat, vegetables and steamed egg broth, they’re included in the price of the meal, and there may be as many as twenty on the table; when your favourite is finished, waitresses will scoot around with a free refill. Two of the most popular meat dishes are galbi and samgyeopsal, which are almost always cooked by the diners themselves in the centre of the table. Galbi is rib-meat, most often beef (so-galbi; 소갈비) but sometimes pork (dwaeji-galbi; 돼지갈비). Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) is strips of rather fatty pork belly. Prices vary but figure on around W7000 per portion for beef and a little less for pork; a minimum of two diners is usually required. Better for single travellers may be the hanjeongsik (한정식); this is a traditional Korean banquet meal centred on a bowl of rice and a spicy jjigae stew, which are surrounded by side dishes – a full belly of healthy, lovingly prepared food can be yours for just W6000 or so. Ssambap (쌈밥) meals are similarly good-value collections of rice and vegetable side dishes, though here the array is far greater – often filling the whole table – and is supposed to be wrapped up in leaves before it enters the mouth; figure on W8000 per person, and a total failure to clear everything that’s in front of you.