Makgeolli is at the top of my to-drink list when visiting Korea. And this being Korea, you cannot drink without eating. Although it is possible to sit outside any 7-11 and imbibe this Korean rice alcohol, it screams to be paired with better food than packaged dried squid. And because I’m classy, a trip to a makgeolli house or traditional pub ( 막걸리집 / 전통주점) is essential.
These are drinking places that serve a range of alcohol matched food items (anju, 안주). They’re often wood-panelled and reminiscent of the olden-days countryside, perhaps because makgeolli was traditionally the farmers drink of choice. Many are dusty and dark and decorated with replica vegetables and strings of fake leaves. Or, they may have interior walls covered in graffiti, with pens inviting customers to make their own mark. In other words, they’re fun.
Popular places for modeum jeon in Hongdae
On every table you’ll spot a teapot or bowl full of alcohol, and small, wide-mouthed metal bowls instead of glasses. Makgeolli is an alcohol made from wheat and rice which has been fermented to a milky, slightly bubbly and sour-ish liquid. It’s sometimes called ‘rice beer’, has a complex flavours that are frustratingly difficult to describe and altogether too easy to drink.
On sitting in plastic bottles in the fridge, the sediment will sink to the bottom, leaving an unappealing pale yellow fluid atop white sludge. This sight, and the horror story hangovers, is probably why it took me months to first try makgeolli. That’s too long wasted. Sweetness levels and overall flavour vary between bottles and brands, so taste widely, if you have the opportunity. Rice, fruit and nut variations are on restaurant menus and in convenience stores throughout Korea, but due to a mixture of short shelf life and unawareness, it’s rarely seen internationally.
Dongdongju (동동주) is a kind of makgeolli that is not strained. It has a much higher alcohol content and is rarely fizzy. These features contribute to its unrefined reputation, which has caused dongdongju to previously be held in low esteem. It’s served in a bowl with a ladle, as opposed to a teapot, and sometimes in summer it’ll be icy, like a rice alcohol slushie. It’s only available in restaurants, and despite its low standing, dongdongju is my favourite.
The menu at a traditional pub. I can read Korean, but have trouble with this script.
Just as every flavour of makgeolli is different, each makgeolli house has it’s own quirks and specialities. The string of joints behind Hongik University train station, with their streetside grills are popular for big plates of modeum jeon (모듬전, mixed pancakes) in similarly dank graffitied rooms. These are more like greasy fritters, tofu, green chillies, crab sticks and a range of vegetables are stuffed with a pork mixture, dipped in a runny batter and fried. Served with kimchi and plenty of dongdongju this dish marks the start of many a great night.
At other places each table will have a bubbling pot of spicy chicken stew, or plate-overhanging jeon (전, pancake) made with kimchi, or spring onions, or potatoes, or seafood. Or oily crunchy slabs of bindaetteok (빈대떡, mung bean pancake). Little plates loaded with boneless chicken feet slathered in dangerous crimson sauce, Golbaengi (snail) noodle salad, smokey grilled fish, and you get the picture. A lot of food.
Makgeolli and kimchi jeon.
Makgeolli is growing popular again in Korea, and cocktails featuring the drink are becoming available across Seoul. This popularity has also, and perhaps more desirably, spawned makgeolli and dongdongju making workshops and increased success among artisan brewers.
It’s tradition for Koreans to eat jeon on rainy days, because the sizzling pancake batter on the griddle sounds like the falling rain. And if the anju is jeon, the traditional drink will be makgeolli. But you don’t have to wait for a drizzly day. In fact, you shouldn’t.