Soju… with George
No doubt you have had the opportunity to taste soju during a dinner with Korean co-workers. It will always be the drink of choice when eating samgyeopsal (grilled pork belly) because it is criminally cheap and always available. In Ulsan, oori soju is White Soju (pronounced ‘hwa-i-te’). This brand of soju is ubiquitous in Ulsan and Gyeongsangnam-do (Busan included) but virtually impossible to find anywhere else. After over a year living in Ulsan I think I am finally used to the taste of our soju. Other brands claim to be the most popular in Korea, especially Jo-eun Day-i (좋은데이) but the real No.1 is Chamisul (참이슬). For a long time I didn’t believe that my friends in Seoul could tell the difference between Chamisul and Cheoum Cheoreom (처음처럼), the No.2 selling brand. Once I tasted White Soju that idea changed. I actually began to miss the taste of the Seoul brands, though White has its merits when chilled.
Chemically, the soju brands differ little. They are about 95% ethyl alcohol with water and some flavours and sweeteners. This is only true for the major brands commonly available in stores and restaurants. Real soju, ie the type that is distilled in a similar way to sake and whisky, has a much different taste and typically higher alcohol content. The popular brands have an alcohol content of about 20 percent with a rivalry to see who can lower that amount even more. See, people like to drink more than they should yet do not like the inevitable consequences the next day.
There was once a time when soju was around 35 or 40 percent. The distilling technique needed for soju came with the Mongols when they invaded Korea (1231-1270). Traditionally rice was used to make the soju, but in 1965 the government banned the use of rice in the distillation of soju to alleviate rice shortages. Instead ethanol from any source other than rice could be used. This was then mixed with water and flavours to create diluted soju. Even though the ban was lifted in 1991 most soju continues to be made in this way with only the premium soju being made the traditional way. The most popular of the traditional ones is Andong Soju, which I imagine goes well with Andong Jjimdak. The best soju I had was one from Pohang (Steel City) at the Gyeongju Traditional Wine and Rice Cake Festival. It had a similar taste to sake with nothing comparable to the run-of-the-mill sojus around here.
When I accept a drink or pour a drink for someone during an after work business meeting I usually use two hands because I’ve spilt enough soju on my pants to know I need both hands, though sitting on the floor probably increases my soju-on-pants chances too. You must never pour your own drink at these events as (I’ve heard) the person in front of you who is supposed to pour your drink will never marry. When pouring a drink for someone, the closer both hands are to the bottle the more respect you show for that person. Similarly, when someone pours you a drink the closer both your hands are to the glass the more respect you show. Among equals, one hand holds the glass and the other is usually over your heart or at the opposite elbow. Your hand at your elbow is most common as this goes back to when tigers used to smoke and everyone wore hanboks and needed to hold their sleeve back so as not to have it touch the food.
Sometimes an elder/superior will give you their glass. This means they are going to fill it and drink with you. Usually you will have to drink it down in one go but sometimes a sip will suffice. You should never put the glass down without drinking at least a little. You also need to return the glass empty to the giver as soon as you can as depriving the giver of their glass is considered rude. I hear soju gives flowers a nice sheen.
After about an hour at the dinner table you will probably hear the words ‘pado tagi’ which means ‘riding the wave’. Think Mexican Wave but with soju. This is usually followed by everyone taking turns to make a short speech about the event being celebrated and generally waiting for superiors to leave. Between the speech and the superiors leaving the schedule is a little hazy. Sometimes it will be ‘pok-tang’ time. This word means bomb is Korean and involves sinking a shot of soju into a glass of beer and drinking the cocktail. We used to call these depth charges. Another one recently introduced to me by someone I shouldn’t name is ‘gojin kamrae’. You take a regular beer glass; place a shot glass of cola in the glass and on top of that you place a shot glass of soju. Then you fill the glass to the brim with beer and enjoy.
Eventually, around 8pm, it is time for Round Two. But that is another story.