I sit by the second-floor window of a restaurant in Yeonshin-nae, a middle-class neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea. Men and women of all ages stream into the streets to celebrate their Friday night. High school students in their uniforms stroll past cellphone stores with neon signs that blare Korean brands: LG, Olleh, SK Telecom. Hip-looking, middle-aged women shuffle in and out of their stores, rearranging their clothing and shoe racks. Delivery boys on scooters whiz between walkers who carry take-out Korean fried chicken, jajangmyun, or black bean sauce noodles, and McDonald’s (yes, McDonald’s delivers in Seoul).
I had flown back to Seoul for the summer and finally had the chance to go out to drink in South Korea, where the legal drinking age is 18. A couple of my closest friends I met at taekwondo lessons in middle school took me out to drink soju, the most popular alcohol consumed by Koreans.
The distilled beverage of ethanol and water is made from rice, wheat or sweet potatoes, and served cold and neat; it contains 13-14 percent alcohol by 340 ml bottles. Soju, which translates to “burn liquor,” has been declared the largest-selling alcohol in the world, with sales of 71 million cases worldwide in 2014.
So, why haven’t you tried it?
The restaurant’s menu featured a variety of soju, including Chum-Churum, which translates to “like the first time,” Chamisul, “true dew,” and Joeunday, “good day.” There were three other pages of anju, a Korean term for big or small food dishes that are usually consumed with alcohol, which includes fried squid, scallion pancakes, tteokbokki, kimbab, pork BBQ and many other dishes that made the Korean in me giddy with desire.
A waiter with beetle-black hair in a mushroom-bowl cut that hid his eyes brought over two bottles of Chum-Churum, three shot glasses and a bowl of colored rice chips shaped like onion rings. My friend Min-Jung grabbed a bottle and shook it with a twist of her wrist; the soju twirled like a tornado and disappeared into wisps. But it wasn’t just for fun — it’s a Korean ritual before opening the bottle.
We were old friends hanging out so the order in which we poured our shots didn’t matter. But what if there was an elder at the table, and your poured your shot first?
“Expect a karate kick in the head and a serious tongue lashing,” said Min-Jung.
Min-Jung and our friend Seul-Gi explained the ground rules of drinking soju with an elder:
Use both hands when accepting and pouring a glass.
The elder will pour you a glass; and when they do, you must hold your glass with both hands — your left on the bottom and your right on the side.
In turn, you hold the bottle with your hand covering the bottle label and pour your elder a shot with both hands.
Drink the shot with your head turned to the side to avoid eye contact, cover your mouth and the glass, and then drink.
For the first shot, you’re expected to swig down the whole glass, as everyone else at the table will do. For subsequent shots, you can sip.
Every time you see an empty glass, offer to fill it.
Keep pace with your elder, so they aren’t waiting for you to finish your glass.
Again, always use both hands.
“Gun-bae!” my friends and I cheered with our glasses high.
Our glasses clinked and we took the first shot. I blinked at an empty glass; I hadn’t tasted anything. Soju felt like a blissful shot of water, unlike a shot of the Smirnoff and Skyy vodka I had grown used to drinking that leaves behind a painful, burning sensation in my throat.
I licked the remaining drops of soju on the bottom of the glass; it was chilled and clean.
Then, the night started to speed up.
We munched on snacks between a few more shots, and were delighted by the arrival of our entree. Our waiter had returned with a saucer of diced radishes, onions, potatoes, garlic, scallions, kimchi, beef and enokitake mushrooms in a boiling anchovy broth with spicy red pepper paste. And a dish of jokbal- braised pig’s trotters marinated in ginger, garlic, scallions, rice wine and soy sauce.
I took a bite of the tender pork, then a swig of the soju and a spoonful of warm soup. The three went perfectly together, like wine, cheese and crackers.
And that was only the first round.
After we had finished four bottles and a refill of the soup, we were on our way to our next destination with bubbly spirits. We were only slightly buzzed, as our stomachs were half full from the feast which had slowed down our intake of soju. At 9:30 p.m., Seul-Gi led us through walking traffic to a traditional Korean pancake house where they served haemul-jeon or kimchi-jeon. Korean pancakes are a beloved snack that is made by mixing scallions and either seafood or kimchi into a batter with cornstarch to make them extra crispy, and then fried into thin pancakes.
We also ordered two Hite beers, a Korean beer brand, along with two more bottles of soju to make somaek, filling our glasses two thirds of the way full with beer and dropping in a shot of soju before chugging, sort of like a Korean Jägerbomb.
The somaek really got us going.
At half past 1 a.m., we were so full (and, well, intoxicated) that we couldn’t eat another bite.
Finally, we gleefully chose to partake in the ultimate Korean sport: karaoke.
My first introduction to soju was unforgettable. That night provided me the best cultural experience (and the worst hangover) of my life. I arrived back home around 3:30 a.m. and collapsed in my bed. The following morning, I couldn’t move without getting head spins and falling headfirst back into the soft blankets. Soju and delicious Korean cuisine will, at the time, divert you from asking yourself: will this hurt me tomorrow?
It won’t just hurt. Soju will murder you.
Avoid the hangover by drinking a lot of water, during and after your meals. Pace yourself and count your shots, because soju is for enjoying, not for getting hammered.
Email TK at [email protected] or follow her on Instagram @teekettled.