Sunday, February 15, 2009


In response to Ben's comment,

"Typically, the food is served on a plate, utensils are provided, and you are expected to finish the food at the stand."this sounds like a really good idea. do they have sinks at their booths? or do they bring all the plates/silverware home and then wash them?

Gretchen added,

I didn't think about the plate/utensils issue until Ben's post. There is potential for some serious sanitary issues. But, I'm paranoid. I'm sure you're managing.

I actually didn't think of this at the time either. Sometimes they they put a plastic baggy over the plate, so they don't have to wash that. Sometimes they don't though. And they must go through hundreds of plates a night on weekends. Who knows.

But in general, Koreans are less germophobic than Americans by far, at least when it comes to food. A lot of dishes at a restaurant are served in one giant bowl or plate that everyone shares. So everyone is dipping their spoon or chopsticks into the same food. It looks like this:
Chicken and baby octopus (맛있어!!)

Other times, they put a thousand little bowls on the table, and everyone eats directly from those. It looks like this.

Dinner for 2. Seriously, just 2.

I really first realized how little Koreans care about food sanity when I went to drink some makkoeli (막걸리) with some Korean friends. Makkoeli is a thick, sweet, milky, rice-based liquor that you can drink straight or with lemon-lime pop. So when the teapot of makkoeli arrived at our table (it is served in a gold colored teapot), my friend Lee pours in some 7up. He then proceeds to stir the pot with his finger. I must have looked suprised, because he laughed and said, "Korean style!"

One more example. Around the entrance to large Buddhist temples, there is usually a spring-fed stone basin of water. Around the basin are plastic dippers used to sip the water. This is part ritual, a way of cleansing the body and mind before entering the main prayer hall. But it also just used as drinking water. Temples are almost always on a mountain and you have to hike in a bit. A Korean girl told me she used to hike with her dad to the temple to get a few gallons of drinking water for the weekend. But to me, this looks pretty unsanitary. First of all, everyone shares these cups which probably never get washed. But more importantly, even if it is from a spring, you should filter your water. Giardia is no joke. In the end, I had some water anyway. When in Rome...

So are Koreans less careful about germs? Maybe. On the other hand, if you have a cold, you are expected to wear a surgical mask in public. Busanites don't drink their tap water, even though it is perfectly safe (I researched. but still boil it). So maybe not. Cleanliness is a funny thing. Germs are invisible and usually harmless. We have customs that we think protect us from this invisible dirty force. It becomes an emotional thing. It was a little offputting to see toilet paper hanging at a food stand to be used as a napkin. But why? And for anything that makes me think Koreans are unsanitary, I am sure there is something else I do which would break their code of cleanliness.

By the way, the next installment of the food series will be "How to order delivery in Korea". It will be a good one.


  1. mmmm maybe I should serve octupus and chicken and live squid family style at my wedding. toilet paper will probably work as napkins. I'll put ben to work on stealing rolls from random places all year. a great cost cutting measure, huh?
    this is my little way of saying
    I will work on getting you to come home (the the States) until then. :)

  2. interesting. i have a friend who is fanatical about thinning out his soap with water, because he is sure we are killing off too many of the good bacteria with our emotion-driven germophobia.