Friday, June 22, 2012

Business Lunch for Koreans?

Dear Korean,

I work at a company that will be hosting quite a few business meetings in Houston, TX. Our guests are from Korea and we will be serving lunch for them. I plan on not serving them Korean food as I know it would not be to their standard, as well as when I travel I want to experience new things. Are there foods that I should avoid, like items that would be considered an insult to serve? Are there non-Korean foods that are preferred by most? Are there certain items that should be made available like salt and pepper for most Americans?

Robert T.

First of all, do not be afraid to cater Korean food from local Korean restaurants. It is true that the quality of Korean food in the U.S. may not be as good, and that business travelers would like to try new things. But truth is, few things in America are truly new to Koreans, as most American staple dishes -- burgers, pizza, etc. -- are widely available in Korea. (They may exist in bastardized forms in Korea to fit the local tastes, but at least the concept is familiar to Koreans.) 

Serving Korean food for lunch can be a solid gesture of friendship. Especially in case of Korean businesspeople on a long business trip, it could be a welcome relief. If you are having several days of meetings with your Korean business partners, throwing in a Korean-style lunch at least once would be a great idea. 

When it comes to serving non-Korean food, here are some pointers:

- Go with hot food:  Here is an observation -- Americans like everything a little bit colder than Koreans. This applies to room temperature, drinking water, and most certainly to food. Vast majority of Korean cuisine is very warm, and a significant portion of Korean cuisine is sizzling hot. This means that for many Koreans, a meal that is not hot (or at least warm) is very unsatisfying. If you have salad, try and have hot soup accompanying it. Go for hot sandwiches rather than cold.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

- Avoid pizza and burgers:  If you must serve them, at least make them appear to be expensive. Pizza and burgers, in Korea, have established themselves unhealthy junk food that children might eat once in a while. The concept of high-end gourmet pizzas and burgers is fairly new. Pasta, on the other hand, has entered Korean market as a relatively upscale food, which makes it a good choice.

- Lower on salt, grease and cream:  To most Korean palate, typical American food is too salty, too greasy and too creamy. If there is a menu item that can avoid those things, go for that one. To this end, other Asian food (e.g. sushi) is fine.

- Don't forget the accouterments:  One of the most essential dishes in Korean food is kimchi -- it is on a Korean table for every. single. meal. (Even, say, an Italian restaurant in Korea would have some kimchi for customers who ask for them.) And the two main flavor profiles of kimchi is spicy and sour. This means that Koreans will generally crave those two flavors for every single meal.

So, in addition to the usual salt and pepper, hot sauce is helpful. Another helpful side is sweet cornichon pickles, which gives the sour profile. (In fact, a lot of non-Korean restaurants in Korea, in an attempt to compromise with Korean customers' yearn for the sour kimchi flavors, usually serve pickles on the side.) Pickled jalapenos -- the kind that usually tops nachos -- are also a good choice.


- Don't think too hard:  At the end of the day, this will all depend on the individuals. Korea is an export-oriented economy, and its businesspeople travel often. They usually do not expect their business partners to cater to their appetites, and a lot of them are quite used to the way Americans eat. Read and react; don't be obtuse, but don't be pandering either.

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  1. If you do anything I would highly recommend NOT serving cold cut subs. For some inexplicable reason this is the most standard business lunch provided in America and it is possibly the worst choice for Koreans. No spice, no sourness, and cold, honestly anything BUT that and they will be happy.

  2. I am Korean and I like warm cut subs.

  3. A friend of mine back in Texas has hosted groups of buyers from Korea before and of all the local foods he's tried with them, one has been a resounding success time and time again: Texas beef brisket barbecue. Whether is chipped or sliced, they've loved it, especially slathered in spicy BBQ sauce. Get a bunch of sides too and serve the family style. Potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans, mashed potatoes and green beans should all be OK. For desert, introduce them to peach cobbler. Another advantage of barbecue in Texas is that you can always find a place that looks authentically Texan inside. (A lot of the also cater.)

  4. Whatever you do definitely try to get things that have a lot of side dish options! I'm sure a lot of other readers on here have had the same experience, whenever you go to a restaurant in Korea the vast majority of the table is covered with various side dishes, to the point where it was hard to find places to actually put your utensils. In terms of what to pick- A lot of Korean side dishes tend to be vegetable-based, although many of them have meat or seafood mixed in. You could definitely consider having a lot of smaller portions of vegetable sides, especially things involving greens. If possible, I think having fresh cut-up fruit would be a great idea, too. As The Korean said, a lot of Koreans (and people from Asia in general) find American food too sweet, especially desserts. I also have gotten something of a feeling that fresh fruit is seen as being quite ... classy? stylish? something like that? in Korea. It's expensive as all-get-out, which probably has something to do with it. So, adding fruits to whatever dessert options you would normally provide might go over quite well.

    I definitely like Erik's idea about Texas bbq, that sounds like it would be really tasty and easy to give a lot of side dish options for people. Plus it has the benefit of being a local speciality, which never hurts anything.

    ... by the by, the one exception I always felt to the "Koreans don't like excessively sweet stuff" rule is in salad dressing. Had some seriously sweet mayo-based salads over there. Oi.

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  6. I was going to suggest catering from LA Burger from Irving, Texas but realized it's too far from Houston.
    It's burger/asian-taco made by Korean-Americans with kimchee mixed in. Don't see restaurants with 190 reviews and 4.5 stars so must be good.

    I also think the Texas beef brisket barbecue will do well. Also large trays of cut fresh fruit will do well too and make good impression. Fresh fruits are expensive in S Korea, for lack of farm land.

    And I don't know about the age of the Koreans you are hosting but if they are the older type, I recommend serving weak coffee, not Starbucks type strong coffee. Younger ones may be used to it as Starbucks are popular in S Korea, but older ones may prefer weak coffee with enough sugar/cream available. I also recommend having sugar/cream in nicer looking serving containers/jug/etc, not in the original paper containers they are sold in.

    And good luck to you and hope it all works out! :)

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  8. good points. in a mere one-week trip, my in-laws wanted to eat Korean food three nights -- if the koreans don't travel abroad a lot, or if they've been away for long, homesickness can totally work in your favor. Especially if Koreans from your town point out a restaurant near you that meets their standard -- my dad had found a restaurant that was multiply verified as really good, and authentic, and my mom-in-law (who's hard to please) loved it.

  9. Since you are in Texas you might also try serving some Mexican food (just stay away from the greasier stuff). You could do the usual sides of beans and rice and add a few more sides of Guacamole, Calabazita (squash), pico de gallo etc... Also red and green chile sauce.

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  11. +1 on the local food. Just stay away from cilantro... for some reason Koreans absolutely loathe cilantro.


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