Table settings are very important in Korean meals. There are casual, everyday settings and more formal ceremonial settings. For each, all the foods are traditionally put in the centre of the table at the same time so they can all be enjoyed together.
The most common daily setting is called “bapsang” in which a bowl of boiled rice is the main dish served with numerous side dishes, namely, “banchan” This can be further classified as “3-cheop” up to “12-cheop,” indicating the number of side dishes.
During the Joseon Dynasty periods, social class was determined in accordance with how many side dishes were allowed.
There are maps to show the traditional placement of dishes, but the everyday setting is changing as dietary habits change and nowadays women simply do not have the time to conform to the rigid settings.
Serving dishes are generally low flat bowls; the chopsticks are flattened metal and take an extra bit of skill to wield successfully. Rice is served in individual bowls; never serve food over the rice before serving.
One very pretty serving bowl is that for “gujeopan”, a deep, octagonal lacquered tray with eight sections around the outside and one in the middle. A variety of colourful vegetables and meats is served in the eight outer sections, while the middle holds dainty, thin pancakes in which the ingredients are rolled.
The ceremonial settings are different for memorable occasions, including a baby’s 100th day celebration, a first birthday, a wedding day and a sixtieth birthday.
Elders are served first and others wait for them to start eating. It is disrespectful to leave the table before the elders after the meal is over. The Korean meal used to be a silent affair, but now food is served communally, and conversation thrives.