To survive a Korean night out you will need to come equipped with three things; a liver of steel, an expandable stomach and a good set of lungs. Drinking with Koreans requires endurance.
Koreans bar-hop in a way that would put most university pub-crawls to shame. A typical night out will involve stopping off at several different bars, and each bar is called a ‘cha’. The stops are counted off as il-cha (round 1), i-cha (round 2), sam-cha (round 3), sa-cha (round four) and so on until, no matter how much you protest, you end up swaying and slurring along to Hey Jude in a norebang (karaoke).
The night will usually start with dinner, and the first few bottles of soju. Round two will most likely involve more soju or beer at a hof or a Western-style bar. Round three will be more of the same but maybe with some drinking games thrown in. Most hofs require you to order anju, food like fried chicken, fruit or dried squid. Many Koreans believe that eating salty or spicy food helps the body digest alcohol quicker. I’m yet to see proof of this.
Round four or five is invariably a trip to a norebang for a sing-along and yes, you guessed it, more booze and food. Then for those still drinking, or standing, a nightclub is usually the last destination for some dancing until the wee hours.
Make sure that you observe the rules of Korean drinking etiquette and remember, what happens on a Korean night out stays on a Korean night out!
So last week my best friend, the very same one who took me to eat intestines, rectum and raw liver (you’d think I’d have learned by now…), invited me to her house for dinner. As well as cooking the most amazing 목살 (pork neck meat) I’ve ever eaten, she also served up the not quite so amazing dish of sea squirts.
They look like something you shouldn’t eat, they smell like something you shouldn’t eat, and they taste like something you shouldn’t eat. Whoever first thought to eat a sea squirt was most likely insane. Apparently they’re very high in nutrients and are great for a hangover, but then Koreans say that about pretty much anything that you otherwise wouldn’t even consider eating. Personally I can’t imagine anything worse to try and eat when you’ve got a hangover, it’s certainly no bacon sandwich.
The ‘trick’ to eating sea squirts, she told me, is to pop the whole thing in your mouth, and chew it a few times until you feel the soft part burst and then spit the shell out again. It tastes like a revolting concoction of rubber, ammonia, brine and the seabed. The yellowy orange stuff in the photo is the flesh of the sea squirts, and it looks and feels like eating a massive, salty bogey. Sorry, but there’s literally nothing else I can think to compare it to.
There are some things that even soju can’t improve…
So, put down the chopsticks and back away from the sea squirts.
Well, it’s Sunday afternoon and I am unfortunately suffering from a soju-induced 숙취 (hangover). After going out with some of our Korean friends last night now seems like the right time to climb out from under the duvet, stop watching K-dramas, let go of the water bottle, and write about Korean drinking etiquette.
Everyone knows that Koreans are fond of a drink or two at the end of a long, hard day at work. What is easy to forget however, is that the same social hierarchy rules still apply even when you’re all pie-eyed, holding each other up, and swaying unsteadily to Hey Jude in a norebang at 5am. As a foreigner you will of course be forgiven for not knowing all the rules, but if you do try and follow them you will earn major brownie points!
- Never pour your own drink. Likewise, never let anyone else pour their own drink. Let them pour for you and then when their glass is empty (and not before!) you can return the favour. According to an old wives tale, if you leave someone with an empty glass for too long you curse them with an unhappy marriage…no pressure then.
- There are three (yes, really) ways to hold the bottle when you pour. Firstly, if you’re pouring for your boss or an elder, you should hold it with both hands. For someone who is of a similar status as you, you can hold the bottle with your right hand and support your forearm with your left hand. Lastly, you can hold the bottle just with your right hand if it’s someone younger than you or a very close friend. The same rules apply for holding your glass when someone is pouring for you, and pretty much whenever you give or receive something in Korea.
- Never decline a drink from the first round, you’ll ruin the atmosphere for everyone else. Drinking is a very important way of socialising here, so if you turn down a drink you might be seen as unsociable.
- If you are drinking with your boss or someone of a higher social rank than you, it is polite to either turn your back or put your hand up to cover your glass while taking a drink. This stems from the idea that young people shouldn’t drink, but even when you’re ‘allowed’ you should still be discreet.
- You can drink anytime, any place. Seriously. There are no laws against public drinking like we have in England. Similarly, drinking yourself into a stupor is not a weekend activity here, it happens every night of the week.
- And the golden rule; the events of that night are never to be discussed the next morning. In fact, the only evidence of the evening’s frivolities are the delightfully named ‘kimchi flowers’, left splattered all over the pavement.
Holding the bottle and glass with two hands
We all know that Koreans have a certain fondness for their national liquor, but according to a recent survey by Drinks International soju is the most consumed spirit in the world, with a whopping 767,520,000 litres of the stuff sold last year.
The survey, called the Millionaires’ Club, showed that not only was Jinro-branded soju at number one (for the twelfth year in a row!), but Lotte-branded soju was also sitting at number three.
Considering soju beat dozens of more famous, global brands to the top spot, I’d never even heard of it before I moved to South Korea. It’s a pretty potent rice-based spirit that is often compared to vodka, Japanese sake, or paint stripper and is consumed en masse in Korea. Most of the time it is drank neat with food but can also be mixed with beer, whiskey, aloe juice, pretty much anything really. Classed as a ‘local’ spirit, 94% of it is sold in Korea, to a population smaller than England’s, with the remainder sold in America, Japan and south-east Asia.
Koreans are known for their livers of steel and their heavy drinking. According to a WHO survey from 2005 Korea ranked 1st in the amount of spirits consumed. In fact, a 60 year old business man could drink an entire university rugby team under the table, kip on a bench, and still make his 7am conference call.
Drinking, and drinking heavily, is a big part of Korean culture, and it definitely ties in with their ‘work hard, play hard’ mantra. It is not uncommon to go for dinner on a week night and at the next table see a middle aged businessman face down surrounded by empty green soju bottles, while his colleagues are in a similar state of inebriation laughing manically and slapping each other on the back.
The three most popular drinks in Korea are soju, maekju, and makgeolli although expensive whiskeys are becoming increasingly popular these days.
Soju is like Japanese sake, or a slightly sweeter, more watery vodka (or paint stripper!), and is drank in vast quantities. You can buy a bottle of soju in the shops for around ₩1000 (60p/1$), and is only slightly more expensive in bars. Apparently Koreans drink so much of the stuff that the most well known soju brand, Jinro, is in fact the top selling brand of spirits worldwide. Pretty impressive for a population of 49 million.
Maekju is the Korean word for beer and it’s served pretty much anywhere. Well known Western beers are easy to come across, but are considerably more expensive than Korean brands like Cass, Hite and Max. I was never a big fan of beer at home and much prefer beer here, but the general consensus among foreigners is that it is fizzier and weaker tasting than Western beers.
Makgeolli (literally ‘farmer’s alcohol’) is a much more traditional drink, is an unstrained, milky spirit made from rice and barley. It has a much lower alcohol content than soju, around 6 or 7%, and comes in various different flavours.