Should We Re-Use Restaurant Food, Like Korea?
April 8, 2014

Should We Re-Use Restaurant Food, Like Korea?

I recently learned that it has traditionally been common practice in South Korea for restaurants to re-use half-eaten food that customers leave on the table. The leftovers are tidied up a bit and passed on to other hungry (unless they find out) diners.

Korean food in particular is a candidate for this sort of behavior because it often consists of several small side dishes. It seemed to me during the three years I lived there that some of them are mostly for decoration. I have never seen so much food wasted in my life (or what I thought was wasted). Each meal consists of a banquet of dishes that people pick at while concentrating more closely on the rapid consumption of beer and the local alcohol soju.

I was told that such extravagance is a result of the years of hardship and hunger that Koreans had to suffer right across the peninsula, which only ended in the South a few decades ago. It is also just the style of Korean food that it comes in the form of many small plates. Whatever the reason, much of it is left on the table.

When I came to Japan, I heard reports on the news of the way those pesky Koreans behave, with their restaurants sneakily re-serving food to customers. I thought it may be a bit of an overblown story, given the difficult history and on-going hostility between the two nations over the disputed island and Japan’s use of ‘comfort women’ during their occupation of Korea, but a bit of research now tells me that it is largely true. Sorry for doubting you, Japan.

In 2012 the Korean government introduced legislation restricting the practice. This is good in a way, but it is worth noting that the act means firstly that the re-use of food was so widespread that it needed legislating against, and secondly that the legislation still allows for a bit of recycling. For example, unprocessed cold food such as cherry tomatoes, lettuce leaves (popular for wrapping meat in in Korea) and other salad items can be washed and re-served if completely untouched.

Before I put anyone off visiting South Korea, I should say that the food is incredibly delicious and cheap and the staff is usually lovely. Despite its incredible economic progress, South Korea does still have a bit of a third world hangover to it, and a completely sterilized vacation experience is not guaranteed as the above example shows, but it is a wonderful place to travel to.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue that the practice of serving us a stranger’s old dinner is not appalling. I’m sure this happens in the West too, though, and we would be foolish to think that what goes on behind the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen will always be acceptable to us.

Most of the time, this is simply bad practice and skinflint money saving. But it is worth asking the question of whether our sensibilities have to be overcome in the name of reducing waste, which is going to become an increasing problem in years to come. I suspect it will be very difficult to convince people, including myself, that eating leftovers is the answer. Maybe a little less extravagance in the first place is a better option. I’m sure restaurants will love the day they can claim to be serving smaller side dishes and condiments to improve their carbon footprint, but we may have to be prepared to accept their reasoning.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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