The Dos and Don’ts of Eating Korean Barbecue

Michelle No/Thrillist
Michelle No/Thrillist

As a Korean who's consumed her share of grilled pork belly, I know a thing or two about Korean table manners. This was especially highlighted last week when the KBBQ etiquette of a few of my colleagues had me cringing.

The meal started with a heaping portion of thinly sliced brisket, and over the next two hours I watched as my fellow eaters flipped their cuts of meat no fewer than a dozen times, double-shot soju in between bites, and requested dessert menus at meal's end. If none of this strikes you as irrational, then you've got some learning to do.

Read on for a guide to how to best enjoy Korea's most popular non-kimchi export.

Don’t be startled when you’re greeted with unintelligible yelling

In line with Koreans’ good hosting gene, many places will welcome guests with an enthusiastic Korean greeting... often also unintelligible to fluent speakers.  

Do feel free to ask for wooden chopsticks

Unlike Japanese or Chinese restaurants, a majority of Korean establishments will be furnished with heavy metal chopsticks. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for wooden ones -- their metal counterparts are weighty and difficult to wield even for native Koreans.

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Do create a chopstick rest

Keep the table clear of stains and meat grease with a DIY chopstick rest. You could also just place it atop your rice bowl, but folding's more fun.

Don’t be scared to eat with your hands

Feel free to grab leaves with your hands, then use your chopsticks to pile them with meat, rice, paste, and your choice of banchan.

Do eat wraps in one bite

Similar to sushi etiquette, wrapped meats should be consumed in a single go. If the wrap is too large for your mouth, you’re probably overstuffing it or using pieces of lettuce that are too big.

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Do order extra banchan

Banchan -- side dishes served at all Korean restaurants -- are included in the cost of the meal and include “free refills.”

But don’t hoard banchan on your plate 

You’re encouraged to pick from these bite-sized portions either before your meal, or with your main meat or stew course.        

Do order rice

Couple helpings of meat or spoonfuls of stew with rice for extra chewiness and balanced flavor. Rice is a base, so don’t feel the need to finish it once you’re done with your entree.

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Do order soju and makgeolli

South Koreans are some of the world's biggest drinkers, so do as the Romans (South Koreans?) do and drink with your meal.

Don’t shoot your alcohol

Soju’s low alcohol proof makes it palatable as a neat drink, while makgeolli’s sweet flavor will make you understand why South Koreans are some of the world's biggest drinkers.

Do grill kimchi

Pair it with a piece of meat for a spicy-and-savory pop of flavor. 

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Don’t over-flip the BBQ

Meat should be flipped only once or else you risk crisping away the fatty flavor and bouncy texture of the meat. If you’d like to keep your meat warm but not let it burn, place it to the side of the grill.  

Do cook meat thoroughly

I might enjoy my steaks pink, but I check all preference for mooing cuts of meat at the door: with Korean BBQ, the understanding is that the flavor comes from the combination of dipping sauce, marinade, and meat fat -- and not how well or not well it's cooked.

Don't forget to change the grill between meat dishes

You don’t want to sully your meat with the residual bits of BBQ past. Ask for a fresh grill and the servers will be happy to change yours out, if they haven't already.

Michelle No/Thrillist

Do request sesame oil

And be ready to discover the best new dipping sauce/thing in your life: sesame oil topped with salt.

Don’t order dessert

The restaurant won’t have any. Besides, if you have room for dessert, you didn’t do dinner right.

Do check your teeth for red peppers

There’s a reason why most Korean restaurants offer toothpicks in lieu of breath mints at the door.

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Michelle No is a production assistant for Thrillist. Rice drowned in sesame oil and salt is her secret favorite side dish. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_no and on Instagram at @michellenope.