It's more than the food - Korean restaurants are as much about the experience as the cuisine. Image Credit: Supplied

Sit down after taking your shoes off or find yourself a private dining room. Keep a look out for stray pieces of gochugaru (red chilli pepper powder) stuck in your teeth – some restaurants in Korea have a mirror installed at the door just for this purpose. Don’t forget to sample each banchan (side) dish but don’t make a meal of them because they are free. Instead, you would do well to wait for meat to be grilled on the barbecue at your table. And treat rice with respect. Regardless of the multitude of tastes on a Korean table, the word for a meal, bap, is also used for rice.

When dining out in a Korean restaurant, pay attention to food, yes, but also to the delightful ways in which it is consumed. Here are a few that caught our eye.

Banchan: A cursory look at advice on Korean eating habits will introduce you to banchan. First-timers at a restaurant may be forgiven for trying to explain to the impassive waitress that they did not really order this whole cornucopia of side dishes. It’s a delightful dilemma because the dishes look very tasty and you don’t really want to return them. You don’t have to. These small dishes in little plates accompany most Korean meals and are refilled each time you empty them.

They are usually seasonal and may comprise kimchi, which is typically fermented cabbage with chilli peppers and salt, namul, made of steamed, marinated, or stir-fried vegetables usually seasoned, bokkeum, a stir-fry, and many others.

Etiquette dictates that you don’t gobble up the last piece of your favourite side dish. Most Koreans or seasoned Korean diners would simply ask for a refill.

Just like Arabia

Private rooms: Why many Korean restaurants have private rooms, no one knows. At least no one on the internet does. However, we do know that like Arabian restaurants, most authentic Korean establishments have family-style private rooms, some with their own washrooms.

You may think you are entering a large clandestine operation as soon as you step into a large, deserted albeit decorated hallway, until a polite waiter ushers you into your own space. The urge to giggle is inevitable and the waiters knock before entering. Whenever you may need them, in most restaurants you will find a button that may be pressed to summon the waiter.

Sit down, literally: While one does sit down on cushions in front of a raised platform for a table, seating is not floor level in most restaurants. Instead seating space is located two steps up from floor level, which requires you to sit down once you climb up. Sometimes the outer, public section in a Korean restaurant is equipped with tables while traditional seating is preferred in private spaces. Before sitting down, you need to remove your shoes and place them on a designated rack.

If you look around, you’d notice that men sit with legs crossed in front of them, while women sit with their legs on one side with the knees bent or on their legs with the knees bent. You can ask for extra cushions.

Indoor barbecue

Bulgogi: Privacy only goes so far, since once you are at your table, the meal is communal. For many diners, the first introduction to Korean cuisine is a barbecue or bulgogi restaurant. Customers sit at communal tables and cook various types of meat and seafood on a tabletop grill. Bulgogi is an ancient dish, which originally comprised cuts of beef topped with garlic, scallions and soy sauce. Galbi is another type of barbecued meat, usually beef short ribs marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sugar and sesame oil.

The usual way to eat the barbecued meat is to wrap it in curly leaf lettuce (called ssam) with a bit of ssamjang, a seasoning paste.

It is not uncommon at the end of the meal for diners to take a few helpings of the meat and wrap them for the waitresses to consume. Striking a conversation with them is the usual etiquette in this mild reversal of roles.

Singing: It’s possible to come across singing waitresses at a Korean restaurant and it’s equally likely that your private little room will also have karaoke. Food tours in Seoul now offer a Gangnam Style tour where a visit to a noraebang, or singing room, is included so patrons can sing and dance with friends.

At some Korean restaurants in the UAE, private karaoke rooms can be rented by the hour, with tens of thousands of English, Korean, Tagalog and Hindi songs to pick from. So expect sounds of crooning to waft through the walls in case your company is not entertaining enough.