You are what you eat & drink

Posts tagged “South Korea

What’s Soju?

It’s a bean!

Noooo, that’s soya.

Soju is to South Korea like grappa is to Italy, or cachaça is to Brazil, or sake is to Japan, etc.

Interesting fact: Three times more soju is sold around the world than vodka.


A spirit  distilled from rice, between 20% and 46% ABV.

Soju: the most popular booze in the world

The South Korean spirit is the globe’s best-selling alcohol. But they’re not just drinking it in Korea these days – you can try chilled shots or soju cocktails in New York and London

A shot of soju: ‘The best is described as buttery, grainy or malty, with hints of sweetness.’ Photograph: Washington Post/Getty Images

Attention pub quizzers and booze geeks. There’s a brand of one particular spirit that sells more than twice as much as any other in the world. Any guesses? If you said vodka, back of the class. The answer is soju, national hooch of South Korea. Jinro Soju…

Soju now sells in 80 countries, with a rising profile helped by Korean superstar Psy, who not only proclaimed soju his “best friend” but also lent his dark-glassed visage to various campaigns to get the rest of the world smitten too.

Psy is just sharing his countrymen’s passion. In a country with the world’s highest per capita alcohol consumption (hey, it can’t be easy living next door to North Korea), soju takes a whopping 97% of the spirits market. But this is a drink embedded in Korean culture since the 14th century, when Mongol invaders taught the locals how to distill, with fermented rice as the traditional starter. Today, the final spirit ranges in strength from 45% ABV to more common varieties that hit your glass ataround 25% ABV.

As with most spirits there’s good stuff and bad stuff about – the latter being low-grade muck made from sweet potatoes and tapioca rather than artfully distilled fermented rice. Look for respected brands such as Chamisul or the delightfully named Chum-Churum. If you’re in Korea, search out Andong – a 45% ABV beauty so highly regarded it has been officially designated as Korea’s Intangible Cultural Assets No 12.

In the UK, it’s the less potent soju you’ll find in Korean bars and restaurants, where many punters drink it neat, chilled in a shot glass. This is also, of course, a great chance to discover soju’s ubiquity as a novel complement to nosh.

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Black Pudding in Korea…

Korean food is not so much underrated outside the country as not rated at all. Barbecue and kimchi are the only foods that have caused even a slight blip on the radar.

Inside Korea, however, food is a universal obsession. In Seoul, each popular dish has its own “town” – a street filled with restaurants all serving their versions of that particular food.

Blood sausage stuffed with noodles (sundae)

Seoul Soondae Soondae Photograph: Alamy

The dish Sundae is a dish best eaten with your eyes closed. Pig intestine casings stuffed with a mixture of vegetables, cellophane noodles and pig’s blood don’t make for a visually pleasing meal, but they’re rich, flavourful and surprisingly addictive. Sundae is student food, and a trip to Sundae Town (a bustling building packed with vendors, rather than a street) is where you’ll see them being enjoyed – chopsticks moving rapidly between plate and mouth, and a cheap bottle of soju (rice wine) close to hand.

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NB: The spelling sundae, soondae appears more correct.