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Learn Korean Verbs | How to Use the Korean Verb 먹다

How to Speak in Korean with 1 Word; Usage and Conjugation of 먹다. Plus, unexpected uses of 먹다.

Do you want to learn how to speak well in Korean? It’s easy! All you need to know is one word and its different conjugations. Today I’ll show you how to order and enjoy food in Korea using only one verb; 먹다. 

After that, read on to learn some of the surprising uses of 먹다 that will really help you to speak like a native Korean.

Using 먹다 when talking about eating food

Welcome to Korea! Now that you’re here, you’d probably want to try the local cuisine. Maybe you’ll start with an authentic Korean BBQ place…

Korean Barbecue - 삼겹살 (Samgyeopsal)
Korean Barbecue - 삼겹살 (Samgyeopsal)

Or, perhaps you might want to visit one of our traditional markets and try one of the food booths.

Gwangjang Traditional Market in Seoul, South Korea
Gwangjang Traditional Market in Seoul, South Korea

Can I eat ______ here?   -   여기서 ______ 먹을 수 있어요?

Wherever you decide to go, it’s likely you have a specific food in mind that you want to taste. However, it can be hard to tell if the restaurant or the food booth right in front of you has that particular food. If that’s the case, all you have to do is ask!

여기서 (name of the food) 먹을 수 있어요?
(yeo-gi-seo (name of the food) meog-eul su iss-eo-yo?)
Can I eat (name of the food) here?

For instance, if you want to eat 떡볶이 (Tteokbokki), you can say, “여기서 떡볶이 먹을 수 있어요? (yeo-gi-seo Tteok-bok-ki meog-eul su iss-eo-yo?).”

If the answer is yes, congratulations! Go inside, take a seat, and take a look at the menu. After you’ve decided on what to have, it’s time to order.

I'd like to eat ______.   -   ______ 먹고 싶어요.

(name of the food) 먹고 싶어요.
(name of the food) meok-go sip-eo-yo.
I’d like to eat (name of the food).

So if you want to have Tteokbokki (rice cakes) with Odeng (fish cakes) and Sundae (Korean sausage), you can say, “떡볶이, 오뎅, 순대 먹고 싶어요. (Tteokbokki, Odeng, Sundae meoggo sip-eoyo.)”

A spoon filled with tteokbokki - Korean rice cakes in spicy red sauce
떡볶이 (tteokbokki)

I can’t eat ______.   -   ______ 먹을 수 없어요.

But, be careful! If you cannot or do not want to eat any specific food that might come with your order, you have to say so.

(name of the food) 먹을 수 없어요.
(name of the food) meog-eul su eob-seo-yo.
I can’t eat (name of the food).

For example, if you want to eat Sundae but don’t want to try Naejang (cooked bits of pig organs that usually comes with Sundae) you should say: 

내장 먹을 수 없어요. 
(Nae-jang meog-eul su eob-seo-yo.)
I can’t eat naejang.

This conjugation of 먹다 can be used in various ways. For instance, if you go to a Tteokbokki restaurant that has more than one options for ‘spiciness levels’ and you don’t want to try one of the hottest levels and would rather settle for ‘mild’, you can say: 

너무 매운 음식은 먹을 수 없어요. 
(neo-mu mae-un eum-sik-eun meog-eul su eob-seo-yo.)
I cannot eat foods that are too spicy.

Now you’ve picked a place to eat, made your order, and all that’s left is to enjoy… But wait! You need to know how to get refills! In most Korean restaurants, you can get refills of your Banchans (Korean side dishes) for free. All you have to do is to ask for it.

이거 더 먹을 수 있어요?
(i-geo deo meog-eul su i-sseo-yo?)
Can I eat more of this?

Don’t forget to thank your server as you get your refill, always say “감사합니다 (gam-sa-hab-ni-da).” You’re getting free food, after all.

반찬 (banchan) - Korean side dishes
반찬 (banchan) - Korean side dishes

Thanks for the meal!   -   잘 먹었습니다!

Lastly, as you leave the restaurant or the booth after paying for your meal, you can say one last phrase using 먹다 to say thank you.

잘 먹었습니다!
(jal meog-eos-sseub-ni-da.)
I really enjoyed the meal. (Literally: I ate well)

It’ll make everyone smile, I promise!

Talking about the meal you had   -   past tense of 먹다

There you go! You’ve succeeded in having a meal in Korea, using Korean! If you really enjoyed the food, you’d probably want to talk about it to your friends and even make a post about it on social media, which means you should know the past tense form of 먹다:

어제 떡볶이를 먹었어!
(eo-je Teok-bokk-i-leul meog-eoss-eo!)
I ate Tteokbokki yesterday!

Note that this is the informal casual way of speaking. If you’re talking to a professor (or your boss), you’d better use the ‘polite version’ of the same sentence. It’s easy; just add ‘요’ to the verb ending!

어제 떡볶이를 먹었어요.
(eo-je Teok-bokk-i-leul meog-eoss-eo-yo.)
I ate Tteokbokki yesterday.

The meal you will have   -   future tense of 먹다

At the same time, you should also know the future form of 먹다, in case you ever feel the desire to talk about this amazing restaurant you are planning to go to next time.

내일 (name of the food) 먹으러 갈 거야.
(nae-il (name of the food) meog-eu-leo gal geo-ya.)
I’m going to eat (name of the food) tomorrow.

Again, when talking to someone older or superior to you, you’d better show respect by using the ‘polite’ form.

내일 (name of the food) 먹으러 갈 거예요.
(nae-il (name of the food) meog-eu-leo gal geo-yae-yo.)

Extra Tip: If you’re in a formal situation, like giving a presentation about your plans for the weekend in your Korean class, you will win extra points by using the appropriate 'formal' form.

토요일에 조개구이를 먹으러 갈 겁니다.
(to-yo-il-e jo-gae-gu-i-leul meog-eu-leo gal geob-ni-da.)
I’m going to eat grilled clams (shellfish) on Saturday.

조게구이 (jogaegui) - Korean shellfish BBQ
조개구이 (jogaegui) - Korean shellfish BBQ

Where can I go to eat some tasty food?

Of course, you may have a specific kind of Korean food you’ve always wanted to try, but don’t know any place that serves that food of great quality. As the Internet is full of ads now, the smartest thing to do would be to ask locals. In this case, Koreans.

어디 가면 맛있는 (the name of the food) 먹을 수 있어요?
(eo-di ga-myeon mas-iss-neun (name of the food) meog-eul su iss-eo-yo?)
Where can I go to eat tasty (the name of the food)?

For example, if you want your Korean friend to recommend you a good Korean grilled shellfish place, you can ask, “어디 가면 맛있는 조개구이 먹을 수 있어요? (eo-di ga-myeon mas-iss-neun jo-gae-gu-i meog-eul su iss-eo-yo?”

Extra Tip #2: If you ask me that question, I’d recommend 오늘 (o-neul) seafood barbeque at 을왕리 (eul-wang-li), a small beach close to Incheon International Airport (less than 20 minutes away by car.) The place offers a wide range of fresh seafood and a good view of the sea. Plus, the owner is an expert on how seafood should be grilled, so take her advice and you’ll get to taste wonders.

Let's go eat ______!   -   ______ 먹으러 가자!

After you’ve been recommended a place to eat, how about having your new Korean friends (or colleagues) come with you?

(name of the food) 먹으러 가자.
(name of the food) meog-eu-leo ga-ja.
Let’s go eat (name of the food).

See? I kept my promise, you don’t need to know a bunch of verbs to speak well in Korean. All you needed is one word; 먹다. In addition to what we’ve covered so far, know that this word also can be used in various ways that would shock most English speakers.

Surprising uses of 먹다

#1: 마음을 먹다   -   to make up one’s mind 

Let’s start with 마음을 먹다 (ma-eum-eul meok-da). Put 마음을 in front of 먹다, and you get ‘to make up one’s mind to’. For instance, if one of your new year resolutions is to do exercise, you can say: 

운동할 마음을 먹었어 
(un-dong-hal ma-eum-eul meog-eo-sseo). 

It means, “I’ve made up my mind to do exercise.”

But the funny part is, if you directly translate this phrase it’s more like: “To do exercise, I ate my mind.” 😂

#2: 나이를 먹다   -   to get older 

In the Korean language, you can also ‘eat’ age! 나이를 먹다 (na-i-leul meok-da) means to get old, 나이 (age)를 먹다 (to eat). You get +1 to your age on your birthday, right? It would be: 

한 살 더 먹다 
(han sal deo meok-da). 
To get one year older. (To eat one more year.)

Also, on the first day of a new year (or new lunar year), elders would tell their children and grandchildren about how they should act wiser as they are ‘eating one more year’. 

That’s why we eat Tteokguk on lunar New Year’s day. ‘Eating’ a bowl of Tteokguk symbolizes getting a year older!

a bowl of 떡국 - Korean rice cake soup
떡국 (tteokguk) - Korean rice cake soup

#3: 겁을 먹다   -   to be freaked out

Our third surprising usage is 겁을 먹다 (geob-eul meok-da). The noun 겁 means terror, fright, or dread, so to eat it means something like to be scared or to be freaked out. So to say “Shaun freaked out and ran,” you can say:

숀이 겁을 먹고 도망갔어.
(Shaun-i geob-eul meok-go do-mang-gass-eo.)
Literally: “Shawn ate terror and ran away.”

#4: 뇌물을 먹다   -   to take a bribe

On the list of strange things you can ‘eat’ in Korean language is…a bribe (뇌물)! Yes, you can also use 먹다 for taking a bribe; 뇌물을 먹다 (noe-mul-eul meok-da). Unlike #1 through #3, this is kind of informal but often used. 

For example, in a Korean drama about lawyers and/or politicians, they won’t use 뇌물을 먹다 in formal situations, like in front of cameras, but you’ll hear the expression often used in private meetings, both by good guys and bad guys. If that show has a righteous prosecutor trying to figure out how to put this really corrupt politician behind bars, he/she will probably use 뇌물을 먹다 to describe his deeds.

#5: 약을 먹다   -   to take medicine

Our fifth surprising use of 먹다 isn’t really that shocking but it is important important nonetheless. Koreans mostly use 먹다 for taking medicine. That goes for all kinds of medicines you take orally, including pills, tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids. 약(medicine)을 먹다(to eat) (yag-eul meok-da). In English it would feel odd to ‘eat’ pills, but in Korean, that’s perfectly normal. 

So, if you ever get a stomachache or catch a cold, go to the pharmacy, name your symptoms, and say;

약을 먹고 싶어요.
(yag-eul meok-go sip-eo-yo.)
I want to take some medicine.

a daily pill container filled with medicine


So there you have it. Today you’ve learned many ways to use one of the most important words in the Korean language, 먹다. You learned that not only can 먹다 be used to talk about eating food, but also in many other surprising ways as well!

Now please go out and have some fun trying them out on your next trip to Korea or with some Korean friends. They will be impressed for sure!

Want to practice conjugation of 먹다 explained in this article? Check out the Konju mobile app, the only Korean learning quiz app that specializes in conjugations! I’ll be back soon with my next article where we will learn how to use the Korean verb 들어가다. Thanks for reading! 😊

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