I eat Korean food much more often than anything else, partly because it’s what I am served every day for lunch in school, and partly because it’s much more widely available than real food Western food.
Lunches at school can be hit and miss. I’ve only had one so far that I absolutely could not bring myself to finish, and I really did have a fair attempt at it before my stomach started heaving. Mind you, I was feeling ill with my head cold to start with. But when I poked curiously at my soup with my spoon as I do every day (it’s basically water with a variety of unpredictable “things” in it, which mostly settle at the bottom until you disturb them), I found myself confronted by random fish body parts, including a spookily staring eye. This was not good. But I was hungry, and I was shivery, and the soup is the only warm part of the meal… so, bravely, I ate as much of it as I could, careful not to redisturb the mutilated fish carcasses. Sadly, the side dishes that day involved the original type of kimchi (which I do not like) and some really unpleasant spice-soaked tofu. So I basically ate my rice and the water from my soup for lunch that day.
Usually, however, I’ll finish my soup and fill up on a few banchan (side dishes). And some of these are pretty delicious! My favorite so far is Gim, which is the seaweed stuff you’d roll sushi in – but it’s been roasted in sesame oil, and is lovely and light and flakey. It’s kinda complicated to eat it like the Koreans do, as you’re meant to place it in your rice bowl, then do a difficult chopsticks manoeuvre to scoop up some rice inside the Gim, and eat it all at once. It’s addictive – I could live on this stuff.
As for table etiquette, I’m slowly but surely mastering the chopsticks, although it’ll be a while yet before I’m absolutely confident that whatever I’ve just picked up is not going to drop on to the table as soon as I try to transfer it to my mouth. But in general, I’m beginning to fit in a bit better at the lunch table – with the exception of one thing I’ve noticed. I’d read in an article somewhere that it’s OK to make noises when you’re eating “messy” food. So slurp your soup or your noodles, basically. However, I have now realised that it’s not just OK – it’s the way Koreans (at least the ones I know!) eat everything. Not only do they slurp messy foods, but they do something we Westerners would consider very bad table manners indeed: they smack their lips as they eat. Actually, the noise really comes from the tongue rather than the lips, but I don’t know if you can say “smacking your tongue”. Anyway, what I mean is, they keep their mouths open and chew noisily. It really, really bothered me at first, but I’m starting to get used to it. I haven’t asked anyone about it as I don’t want to appear rude and offend anyone, but I’m interested to know whether it’s just that it’s not considered rude and that’s just how they naturally eat, or if it’s something significant, like a sign of appreciation to the cook, as I have encountered a few different kinds of these in various countries.
Honestly, absolutely everything is different. It’s like having to relearn everything you were taught as a child. Fascinating, but a daunting task!