John, Gom and I arrived in Seoul on January 31st, and just finished day 4 of our South Korean adventure. Gom, who was raised in Seoul and is a close friend from the MPA program in Paris, has been an absolutely amazing host. In addition to enjoying the beauties and mysteries of Seoul, on Sunday at 10pm we drove 3 hours to Buseoksa, the “Temple of the Floating Stone”. This Buddhist temple, constructed in 676 AD during the Silla dynasty, is the oldest standing temple in South Korea. At 4am we hiked up the hill to the temple to witness the ancient dawn ceremony, the daily meditation and homage to the Buddha. It was like stepping into a time machine and traveling back to the 7th century.
The other highlight to the South Korea visit was the food and the drinks. I would challenge anyone to find a more food and drink oriented culture. I’m serious, Koreans never stop eating and drinking! There’s actually a designation for a Korean man’s drinking tolerance that is listed on many professional resumes. Eating is ritualistic as well and I tried many delicious and exotic (to the Western palate) dishes, including raw sea squirt, live octopus, fermented fish, Ddeok Galbi beef rib, grilled squid, silk worm cocoons, grilled eel, raw sea cucumber, and enough kimchi to give a large elephant indigestion. And this barely scratches the surface.
With so much live and moving food, I guess you can’t blame the Koreans for the high level of alcohol consumption. Throughout the trip I tried many different types of soju, and fruit and herbal wines. None of the drinks were too complex but everything was quite refreshing and served as a great accompaniment to the diverse strong flavors and raw sea fare.
The most common drink was certainly soju, which accompanied virtually every single meal from breakfast to dinner. Soju (소주), Korea’s staple beverage, is a clear, slightly sweet distilled spirit, made from grain or sweet potatoes. It is generally inexpensive and typically is 20% alcohol by volume. Although soju is not seen as a premium high quality spirit, the city of Andong makes the country’s best quality soju out of select ingredients, using traditional methods, and can reach alcohol levels as high as 50% or 100 proof. Andong soju carries a government seal and can command more than 20 times the price of standard commercial soju.
Another traditional drink, makgeolli (막걸리), is a milky, off-white, sweet alcoholic beverage made from rice. Traditionally makgeolli was a peasants’ or farm workers’ drink, although today white-collar and blue-collar Koreans alike enjoy the beverage at the local seafood restaurants.
막걸리 소주 Makgeolli
Tasting Notes: sweet fermented buttermilk, pineapple
Pairing: 홍어찜 洪魚 fermented fish. This dish is absolutely addicting and easily the most bizarre flavor combination I’ve ever tasted in my life. The fish reaks of rubbing alcohol and a typical new comer would immediately discard it as way passed due. The initial flavor is sweet and extremely moist and tender and then all the sudden, BAM!, the rubbing alcohol quickly creeps in, shooting right to your nose, causing an intense yet soothing sensation.
안동소주 일품 Andong Premium Soju
Tasting Notes: A very aromatic and spicy nose with immediate yet distant and subtle background aromas of rubbing alcohol and formaldehyde, followed by more pronounced macedemia nut, almonds, and pineapple. A dry and linear soju with mild rubbing alcohol on the attack and the finish, and aromatic coconut and subtle piña colada flavors on the midpalate.
Pairing: 산낙지 live octopus, it actually tries to get away from you! Just make sure to hold on tightly to you chop sticks and watch out for those tentacles!
매화수 Cherry Blossom Wine
Tasting Notes: semi-sweet, light-bodied, very aromatic nose and flavors of cherry blossom
Pairing: 미더덕 raw sea squirt
인삼주 Ginseng Wine
Tasting Notes: off-dry, light-bodied, very aromatic nose and flavors of ginseng
Pairing: 삼계탕 chicken and ginseng soup
Stay tuned for 복분자주 Rubus Coreanus Black Raspberry Wine, upon my return to Seoul on the 9th or 10th of February.