Tag Archives: Korean culture

Makgeolli- The Other Korean Drink

When I was watching Fantasy Couple 환상의 커플 (2006), it gave me several itches:  an itch to eat chajjang myeon (Koreanized Chinese black bean noodles), an itch to learn the Go Stop card game, and an itch to drink makgeolli. The last was the strongest and most impossible itch to satisfy. The drama made makgeolli look so appealing I had to replay many scenes  over again because I just couldn’t pay attention to what the actors were saying being so absorbed with what they were drinking and how they were drinking it! It was the first time I saw alcohol stored in a giant kettle, drank from a bowl, and appreciated so much in the way that Han Ye-seul’s character appreciated it.

Of course, I subsequently searched for makgeolli in all the Korean supermarkets I could find, but apparently makgeolli was not exported to the States back then! It was complete torture watching the rest of that drama seeing Oh Ji Ho and company lounging around in their rural seaside town, summer breeze caressing their faces, downing bowl after bowl of refreshing homemade makgeolli.

Traditional makgeolli, from its basic and sparse ingredients to its brewing technique all the way to the drinking experience epitomizes the image of Korean country lifestyle – resourcefulness, localization, patience, cheerfulness, and practicality. Makgeolli uses local grains, is inexpensive to make and purchase, quenches the thirst and hunger, and revives one’s sapping strength. These qualities are not surprising given the origin of makgeolli. This distinctively Korean alcohol was also called nanju or ‘farmer’s liquor’ which hints at its origin. Made from boiled rice or other grains and water, then fermented, makgeolli has a creamy off-white appearance, tickles going down from its slight carbonation, and can be consumed in huge volume before the 6-10% alcohol content sneak attacks. It used to be brewed and consumed primarily by country folks and peasants, but nowadays not only has it been embraced by all Koreans regardless of geography and trade, but because it’s now exported, first to Japan and Australia and beginning of 2010 to the US, it is also copiously enjoyed by those abroad .

In fact, as part of the Korean government’s ambitious campaign to culturally export hanshik (Korean food) as part of the greater hallyu (Korean Wave) phenomenon, makgeolli was given an integral role to play. It has been selected and promoted as the representative alcoholic drink of Korea.  To that end, Asiana Airline has started serving makgeolli during its in-flight services throughout its trans-Asian flights. Additionally, to increase makgeolli’s popularity with the younger generation, makgeolli cocktails which add fresh fruits such as pineapple, peaches, and raspberries to the brew, are being served in bars and fine establishments all over Seoul. It’s arguable that Korean dramas – hallyu’s rice and kimchi – are also participating in this campaign. Apart from historical saeguk dramas, which aptly features this traditional drink of the people, modern dramas are also starting to inject makgeolli into the storyline, whether as background setting, cursory prop, or context.

In the drama Gourmet 식객 (2008), Korean food and food culture are showcased through the protagonist Sung Chan’s journey to improve his culinary knowledge and skills in order to save his family’s restaurant a.k.a. Korea’s authoritative showcase of hanshik from becoming another commercial restaurant chain. That mouthwatering journey wouldn’t be complete if makgeolli wasn’t part of the course and education.

Then there is Cinderella’s Sister 신데렐라 언니 (2010), a reinterpretation of the familiar Cinderella story told from a sympathetic stepsister’s point of view. The story is set at a makgeolli making factory owned by Cinderella’s father. Consequently, makgeolli metaphors, makgeolli related anecdotes, and makgeolli transposed moral lessons abound i.e. ‘the yeast of life’ and ‘honest ingredients produces characters’. The quiet, temperature-stable brewery also serves as a haven for the characters in their rocky times of trouble and sadness.

With such compounded effort and support behind makgeolli, it’s not unlikely that future k-drama heroes and heroines will be clinking bowls of makgeolli instead of shots of soju in the near small screen as a reflection of the pop culture. It can happen! In the meantime, for anyone (of drinking age) who hasn’t had the pleasure of sampling a fresh bowl of makgeolli (expiration date crucially important), I highly recommend acclimating oneself to this hearty elixir.

The Price of Adultery

“Woman Faces Jail For Adulterous Affair”

No, this didn’t happen to some lucky woman in some Taliban-infested village of Afghanistan (an unlucky one would’ve been stoned to death or buried alive). This happened and is still happening in modern day South Korea. The same South Korea that has leapt to the forefront of stem cell research, is leading the pack in broadband saturation, and is impressing international audience with original gems like Old Boy, No Regret, Portrait of a Beauty, and Mother, but to date is still enforcing a 1953 law that criminalizes adultery punishable up to two years in jail. Although the number of cases where adulterers are thrown in jail is occurring significantly less these days, the number of lawsuits against cheating spouses filed in court is still shockingly high. For all who are interested in Korean culture, being aware and understanding this draconian remnant from post war Korea will shed light on many befuddling k-drama and k-film plot lines. How many unsuspecting casual k-drama viewers got stumped when the heroine In Sung in Bad Love 못된 사랑 (2007-2008) was thrown in jail for adultery? Hence, let’s delve a moment into the modern Korean psyche which grafts centuries old patriarch-dominant Confucian morality with progressive ideals of a young generation nursed on DHA-fortified milk, educated en mass at hagwons, brought up on the Internet, and fertile for global assimilation.

The stubborn refusal by the Korean Constitutional Court to overturn this law seems glaringly paradoxal and archaic to the aspirations of a continuously progressing modern Korea. The stale argument that decriminalizing it would weaken social morality is laughable in the face of all the conspicuously cheap and convenient ‘sex motels’ thriving in throes in Seoul. Plus, isn’t it an irrefutable fact that making something forbidden only fuels its allure, so the law inadvertently is propagating what it seeks to ban?

If popular culture is the lens into a society’s psyche, then the overused recurring k-drama scene of unmarried couples, cheating husbands and bored wives, horny teenagers, or anyone with a libido slinking off to do the horizontal mambo is telling of the futility of criminalizing adultery as an effort to protect and sanctify the marriage institution and stabilize society. Cheating does not necessarily stem from a desire to divorce or leads to divorce, especially in the cases of the wandering husbands, which statistically the courts have been hypocritically lenient with. People have and will cheat despite their vows of undying love and fidelity at the altar and laws punishing cheaters will not stop this behavior. Only the individual can enforce him/herself not to behave as such. Of course, sadly, it doesn’t help that the sex-trade is so rampant and accessible in Korea despite tougher crackdowns and punishments to date. The only seemingly utilitarian function this outdated law serves is contributing to twisted plot lines in every other k-drama and movie.

Would it have been as funny in Its a Good Day to Have an Affair 바람피기 좋은날 (2007) if Dew’s husband had tried to catch her in the act unaccompanied by a squadron of policemen in toe? What better catalyst for revenge in Bad Boy 나쁜남자 (2010) than Madame Shin’s calculated cruelty towards little Tae Sung for being an illegitimate child of her cuckolding husband? Just making a character an illegitimate child carries enough implications to illicit heart attack inducing reactions that are loudly and over-dramatically acted out in the dramas. The Korean audience understands why. And now, so do you.