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An Ode to Drunken Rice

In South Korea, people know how to drink. It’s part of daily life: a way to deal with a dictatorial boss, screaming in-laws and the looming threat of nuclear Armageddon.

In Korea’s culinary capital of Jeonju, a milky rice wine called makgeolli is the beverage of choice. It’s about 6–8% alcohol by volume and has no clear English translation—a government-led initiative to give makgeolli an English name resulted in the moniker “drunken rice.”

Six friends and I took the bullet train from our homes near Seoul to Jeonju, to spend an evening tasting this offering of Korean culture. Throughout Jeonju, makgeolli houses provide one of the world’s most unique drinking experiences, and Gamnamugol—“Persimmon Tree Valley”—is one of the finest.

It’s a small shop covered in graffiti and torn movie posters. And there’s not a trace of English anywhere. But don’t let that worry you. There are only two choices to order: Option 1 and Option 2, the latter a bit more expensive.

So if you’re able to count on two fingers, you’ve got all the qualifications to order makgeolli in Jeonju.

Koreans don’t drink without anjou, or “food to keep the drink down.”

It comes in great brass kettles, which are weathered and proud, just like Korea. The rice in the makgeolli never fully dissolves. Clouds form in the porcelain bowls as you pour.

Drunken rice comes in all sorts of flavors and consistencies, and they aren’t all great. This one was cold, thinner, tangy and refreshing. Also a bit sweet, with a slight banana flavor.

Korean drunken rice / Photo by Jo Turner
Photo by Jo Turner

Koreans don’t drink without anjou, or “food to keep the drink down.” It comes out in great steaming dishes from the kitchen, and is included with Options 1 and 2.

We got kimchijeon, a flat pancake cooked with flour, kimchi, vegetables and seafood that is dipped in soy sauce. There were two huge fists of jokbal (pigs’ feet), the pork coming off the knuckles tender and flaky. Fresh oysters and grilled mackerel arrived, along with steamed squids that were sliced up to dip in red pepper paste.

But the pièce de résistance was the kimchi tofu, which involved fiery, fermented kimchi served with thick slices of fried pork and crumbling, housemade tofu. It’s best eaten with a spoon, we learned, as we dropped the mess all over the table, ourselves and each other.

Behind us, a young couple licked each other’s fingers underneath a sign that read in Korean, “Water is self-serve. Life is self-serve. Love is self-serve.”

Drunken rice, on the other hand, is brought by the management.