The best food and travel writers have taught us that regional cuisine is one of the ways in which culture is made manifest. Food is never simply fuel; it’s ritualistic by default. The way that it is prepared, served and eaten can reveal much about a nation’s histories and hierarchies.
In South Korea, where collectivism is central to culture, food serves as a means to develop and fortify relationships. Eating together is one of the pathways to jeong – the Korean word describing a connection between people. In Korea: The Impossible Country, Daniel Tudor describes jeong as a feeling of attachment and a bond of “deep interdependence” between individuals or groups.
For the foreigner in an untranslated world, sharing food may be one of the few ways to experience a sense of jeong. Without a common language or culture, the offer of a meal serves as an invitation to be part of a group. Likewise, gifts of food are often a way to communicate affection and friendship.
One of the best ways for foreign guest to form relationships in Korea is to try as much hansik (Korean food) as possible and be willing to engage with unfamiliar foods. Hansik is fundamental to Korean culture because eating rituals reinforce shared values, and embracing Korean cuisine shows a keenness to learn about Korean life.
When modestly declining a second piece of cake, you may come across the saying ”한번 정없어 두번 정이써”. There is no direct translation for this phrase, which roughly means that if someone takes only one piece or slice of food, there will be no jeong. Taking two or more, on the other hand, will encourage a spirit of togetherness. This may mean that polite restraint is the enemy of jeong, as one should relax and eat as much as one likes. In doing so, she or he is not only accepting food, but friendship.
You may also be asked to “please eat a lot”, a literal translation of “많이 드세요” meaning “help yourself”. Usually there really is a lot to eat. The Korean table is brimming with dishes large and small. Just as the periods of poverty in the nation’s history have shaped the flavours of its cuisine, so has the country’s relatively recent economic growth allowed for substantial meals.
Tables are also filled to ensure that no one is left wanting, as food is usually shared. Two or three large dishes will be chosen for the table, with all present being able to taste a little of each. When drinks are ordered, diners pour for each other. This prescribes a level of trust in your fellow diners, and makes for a dynamic in which individual needs and desires are secondary to the group experience. Your cup is not yours to fill; your belly not yours to govern. These social mores write jeong into the fabric of the meal, and foster moments where you can show your affection and respect for others – no words necessary.
– This post was originally published in ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal.