The best way to learn about Korean food, drinks and culture is firsthand experience in Korea. However, meeting new Korean acquaintances at ChoSun Korean Barbecue is a more practical and fun alternative to an expensive, hours-long overseas plane flight.
I met Christy Lee, who belongs to an food-based social media group, at ChoSun to learn more about soju for a magazine article. Soju is the most widely-consumed spirit in the world. Made from fermented rice or other grains, soju is typically clear and tastes similar to sake or vodka. This version was slightly sweet and surprisingly smooth, making it far too easy to drink. While soju can range from 20=80% alcohol by volume, the brand available at ChoSun was at the lower end of the range, thank goodness.
Christy has been a regular at the restaurant for a decade. We received a complimentary array of pickled radish, seaweed and, of course, kim chi. I don’t know why we were offered free appetizers to nibble on, but I wasn’t shy about trying them. Christy advised me that food is always consumed with soju.
A bottle of soju is served with a shot-sized glass. The spirit may be consumed as a shot, sipped from the glass, poured into a beer such as Sapporo, or as a “bomb” immersed in the beer and quaffed at once. After a customary shot, I opted to sip soju both neat and added to a cold Sapporo but it didn’t impart any noticeable quality to the beer.
As luck would have it, Christy’s ex-husband was in town to celebrate their son’s graduation. They joined us along with an old friend Jimmy, although the son didn’t stay much longer. Before I knew it, we gathered at a table with a pot of rich, spicy seafood soup, haemool maewoon tang. Tofu, octopus, crab in the shell, mussels, shrimp, vegetables and fat udon noodles filled the pot. A pair of scissors comes with the soup customarily so that ingredients like large pieces of octopus, squid and long noodles can be trimmed to size. Odd that the kitchen doesn’t do this in advance, but I suppose it is the Korean way.
Another custom: Chase a shot of soju with a deep slurp of soup broth from the bowl. Done. Drinking soju and eating Korean dishes involves many subtle traditional customs that include serving soju with two hands, holding the receiving glass with both hands and showing appreciation of the spirit audibly. A Korean can better explain this last bit. Apparently, I mimicked the sound well after the first try and nailed it several times afterward.
We also noshed on a savory fried kim chi pancake that was reddish and contained pickled cabbage, a variation of the seafood scallion pancake shown above. The pancake was rich and helped soak up the bountiful soju that kept flowing. Jimmy was in the mood to entertain so we were treated to some old-school (new to me) Korean songs sung as karaoke.
I couldn’t have stumbled into a better way to learn about Korean food, drink, customs, stories and familial lineage one-upsmanship than hanging out with this group.
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