Thursday, March 29, 2012

Furthest Reaches - Drink

My last update about Korea was all about the food. The food here is incredible. But as I settle in and get more and more comfortable with my new life here, the adventurous new food becomes more common, and the foods I was once so used to become harder and harder to come by and less difficult to make. Having already written about food, I thought a logical follow-up would be to talk about what Korean people drink. Everywhere you go there are things that are familiar and others that are truly strange.
Like much of the world there are some drinks that are easily recognizable. Most mainstream sodas are available, from Coke to Sprite and Dr. Pepper (though DP is incredibly expensive). It isn't common to see these sodas sold in large quantities or in bulk packs. In fact most canned drinks are sold on an individual basis (I will explain packaging in a future post on garbage). But if I want a Coke I can easily get one for about 90cents a can. But this post would really be dull if I only spoke of the ease of getting one of the most popular drinks in the world.
Most Koreans drink a lot of water. Filtered water machines are everywhere, from restaurants (where it is self serve water) to just outside my office. These machines are really cool as they filter the main waterline (no need for a big tank) and they offer electronically cooled and heated water. Very fancy. When dining, it is customary for on person to get water for everyone at the table. In public one must never pour a drink for yourself. Always pour and offer drinks with both hands and serve the oldest person first (age plays a large role in social hierarchies).
Apart from water, this country loves two things, alcohol and coffee. Now coffee here is not what you would expect. Sure I can get a normal Americano roasted and dripped coffee. There is a plethora of coffee shops around every corner. But real roasted coffee comes at a steep premium. A simple cup of coffee can run anywhere from $3-7. So to save their hard earned (and trust me it is very hard earned) dough, Koreans drink a lot of instant coffee. Thankfully this is some of the best instant coffee I have ever had. I mean they have perfected the instant coffee. Whether it comes in a little pack, a tea bag, or a large bag this isn't your grandpa's Taster's Choice.
Korean's work hard for little money. So often their choices are based on rather frugal budgets. Water is free, instant coffee is cheap and plentiful, and finally alcohol... Ok, alcohol isn't usually cheap. In fact if you can find a place with some real selection you can expect to pay quite heavily for your drinks. There is two real selections in most of Korea (unless you go to Seoul, which is about as western as Korea gets) hof and soju. Hof is beer. And when you go to a restaurant or a bar most serve hof. But the real catch is often it is only one brand. Cass, the local Korean brew. It isn't terrible when you just want a simple cheap beer. Like ordering a Bud to go with your meal. And then there's soju. And perhaps it is just my horrible introduction to the drink, but this stuff is not a warm scotch or a neat martini. The closest comparison I can make is moonshine. It is STRONG stuff. Made from a distilled alcohol using fermented rice and tapioca it is about 45% alcohol. Many liken it to a slightly sweeter version of vodka (I am not sure I can fully agree). I will refrain from sharing my first adventure with soju culture for the sake of my own dignity. And I won't bad mouth the drink. Like the food, it is such a integral part of the culture, to say anything badly would be in poor respect. I will take a good scotch anyday (were it not so insanely expensive for rather poor scotch here). But soju is the cultural drink of choice. Many Koreans gather together for a meal (in Korea eating alone is considered sad), have a few laughs and down a few bottles of soju. I think I would be able to handle it were it diluted a little in a cocktail, but unless you are in Seoul finding a cocktail in this country isn't too easy.
But that brings us to my final item, the new thing that suddenly fills my fridge which is neither alcoholic nor carbonated. The strangest drink I have come across and my new favorite beverage. When downing so much incredibly spicy food in Korea, what do Koreans do to cool their palate? Well as we know, milk would be a fine choice as it cools the heat of spicy food. But with my dairy allergy and distaste for milk, that won't do. And Koreans don't think of milk as anything more than something to put on cereal or a dessert drink. So what do you do when you are burning your tongue? Well what better to put on your burns than aloe. Yes that aloe. And I mean, if it works for sunburns, why not right? To be honest, I thought this was so strange when I was asked to try it. And when I was poured a full glass, the drink spilling out of the green bottle in viscous chunks, almost more a plant pulp than drink (think of the pulpiest orange juice you can buy, then double it, but with weird stringy bits of jelly the consistency of....well, it's interesting). I took one sip and was amazed. This stuff is hands down amazing. Not only is it cooling on a burning mouth, it has great flavor and is probably the most refreshing drink you can find this side of cucumbers in ice cold water. This drink was amazing in a water bottle as I trekked up my first Korean mountain (the tiny Chun-Ma, a painful reminder of how out of shape I am).
So as I finish this post, nursing an overpriced bottle of Hoegaarden, I can certainly say, there is no shortage of things to drink in this new country of mine. I haven't tried it all (so perhaps I will revisit this subject) but I have yet to try anything new I have found too terrible to drink. And if I had any word of advice to anyone else. Beware the soju, and try the aloe. It's ok to like it. Trust me you are "aloed". (Sorry, my dry humor and cheesy wordplay is lost on a nation who can't understand me.)


C. Stapleton said...

The Aloe drink sounds interesting. Is it pretty much just Aloe plants ground up and poured into a bottle or do they add sugar or flavoring? I've never thought about what aloe would taste like. Do you think i would be able to find it in Canada very easily?

Jeff Powers said...

You could try some large asian markets, or perhaps in specialty health food stores? If not there is always online, or I could send you a bottle. It's amazing stuff, it has replaced my usual juices.

C. Stapleton said...

You must have some school! I didn't realize they were so scientifically minded. So is there a special dialysis-type machine pumping this stuff into you as you work, or are they transfusing it some other way? I'm imagining a big tank in the basement...soothing attendant with a lab coat stirring you and the goop with a big paddle every hour. 2 turns clockwise, 2 turns counter clockwise. You know, to be thourough.

Brenna bethancourt said...

So glad to see you made it to ROK. I have yet to read all of your blog posts, but I hope you're enjoying it.
Aloe juice is amazing, isn't it? And here's a tip for soju going down easier: somae. Somae is when you put a shot of soju in your beer. The taste is pretty well disguised and it goes down easy as pie.
Also, better than case is hite dry. It was a new type of hite beer when we were there but it tasted better than the others. Of course not all of Korea is about drinking, only about 75% of it, but hopefully these tips help.

Ps - we are currently living in Bali. If you are interested in a vacation spot, let me know and we can set you up with some sweet digs. We'll be here until November.

Jeff Powers said...

Thanks Brenna. Yea Hite is not too bad, and really Cass isn't horrible. A man who runs a bar near work gives me free drinks, he gave me some new high quality stuff last time, it is essentially the Korean answer to Belgian beer. And as for mixing your soju with beer, been there and done that. It goes down easy, but it comes up even easier. I am just happy when I can find a half decent bottle of scotch. Surprisingly enough found a decent selection in a store in the subway. Thanks for checking out my blog. Try not to work too hard in Bali! haha!

Post a Comment