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.)

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- 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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