Category Archives for "Drinking"

Oct 06

Silkworm pupae, urine fish, and farmer’s wine: A meal to remember in Korea’s culinary capital

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking , Food and Leisure , Korea , Local Politics

Koreans have a saying, “Eat once in Jeonju, and you’ll be spoiled for life.” The city of 600,000, which is the capital of North Jeolla province, is a UNESCO Creative City for its gastronomical heritage.

On a visit this past July, I was excited to taste Jeonju’s legendary fare. So why, when I went with two Koreans to a famous dining district, was I staring down at a plates full of silkworm pupae, jelly made of smashed acorns, and a fish that has been fermented in its own urine?

We were at the Jeonmun Makgeolli Town, one of seven makgeolli towns prominently featured on tourism maps. Makgeolli is a Korean “farmer’s wine” made from rice and traditionally served in bowls. It has a reputation as being an honest, working man’s drink. It’s a drink that old men drink straight from the plastic bottle outside convenience stores at 3 in the afternoon. In fact, the national security law during the period of military rule was jokingly called the “Makgeolli Security Law” because so many people were arrested for things they said in casual conversation.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

Magkeolli bottles photographed by Jeon Han of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism Korean Culture and Information Service.

In short, makgeolli seemed to me to be a representative drink for the progressive stronghold of Jeolla, which was the site of both the 1894 Donghak Peasant Rebellion in Jeonju and the 1980 Gwangju Uprising to the south.

The restaurant we chose, Yeongjinjib Makgeolli, was loud like the Jeonju people, and the walls were covered in Korean graffiti. For about 6,000 won (US$5.30) each guest, a table gets six dishes per person of food and a brass kettle of the milky yellow liquor—a good deal, considering the more extravagant hanjeonsik royal feast can set you back 90,000 won.

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After a waitress covered our table with plates, my Korean friends encouraged me to take a bite of a sickly tan gelatin-like substance. It jiggled and limply fell apart in chopsticks. The taste wasn’t good either, but I washed it down quickly with a gulp of sweet makgeolli. Later they told me it was dotori-muk (acorn jelly), which is what you get when you mash the innards of acorns into powder and then boil it into unappetizing squares.

Next on the menu was beondegi (silkworm pupae). The round fat insects had bodies the brownish color of nature, with eight clearly segmented outer body sections. A dirty brown liquid covered the bottom of the plate and glistened off the pupae’s bodies. They looked like bugs from a Hayao Miyazaki film.

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While relatively flavorless, the texture of beondegi is another story. My teeth came down and there was no crunch but rather a gooey, chewy sensation that almost had me retching. One pupae was enough, and then a long sip of heavenly makgeolli.

Finally I saved the smelliest for last. The fish, hongeo (skate), excretes urine through its skin. For some reason, it is considered a delicacy especially in the southern part of Korea. Even drenched in hot sauce, a bite of hongeo still smelled like an outhouse as I brought it to my mouth. Of the three, hongeo had the best texture but the worst taste. I gagged it down and emptied my bowl of makgeolli.

Despite such extreme foods, I was starting to feel good vibes. Although makgeolli is just between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, it is carbonated, and it gets to you quick. I could kind of understand why urine-flavored fish is considered a perfect compliment to makgeolli; it makes you want to drink!

The rest of the foods I honestly enjoyed, but they all had one thing in common: heavy flavors. Whether it was sweet pumpkin, smoky mackerel, or seafood in spicy dipping sauces, each bite called for a drink to clear the palate.

Eating once in Jeonju is something I’ll remember for life.

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May 16

How Korean students party at “one-day pubs” (일일호프)

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Korea

May is the month of college parties in Seoul.

At 5 pm on a Friday night, May 12, students dressed in Hogwarts School of Wizardry cloaks were taping ribbons onto the street in Sinchon district, along with signs and arrows. Others dressed as characters from Hiyao Miyazaki films held signs advertising “one day pub” parties. Some intersections had six different ribbons crisscrossing leading to six different parties.

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May is the month of college parties, and Sinchon is the college party district.

On the northeast of the ring subway line around Seoul, Sinchon is located at the nexus of Yonsei University, Ewha Womens’ University, Seogang University, and Hongin University. Along these narrow streets, where neon lights adorn three-story shophouses, masses of young men and women walk to and from bars, karaokes, barbecue restaurants, burger shacks, Japanese izakayas, arcades, and cheap student guestrooms. Groups gather outside convenience stores drinking beer on the street or challenging each other to see how hard they can hit the Dragon Punch power game.

On any given weekend in the spring, there are always a lot of ribbons on the street. It’s perennially marked with green tape stuck to the pavement. But the parties really get going in May.

“Ewha Nursing,” a sign says. “Performance at 8:30.” One group has a raffle game on cardboard. I pick a post-it note and win a free order of chips with purchase of a drink if I attend their party.

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I don’t end up attending their party. Instead I and Pato Rincon, my classmate from Indiana University who is also in Seoul and is just getting started as a writer (read his debut piece for Bombs + Dollars), go to the event at Barfly held by Ewha University’s foreign studies students featuring their dance team. The pretty girl standing outside in baggy hip hop apparel wearing a bandana couldn’t have influenced my decision.

Inside, after paying a ₩5,000 (US$4.47) cover each, we bought beers for ₩4,000 each. The underground bar was dark with colored lights, red and green streaming lights, and bright Finlandia adverts. Most of the tables were reserved for Ewha students. Pato and I took a seat at the bar. Behind the counter, a bartender was pouring Barton vodka (on whose bottle the word “vodka” is written in larger letters than the brand name) through a funnel into empty Finlandia bottles and adding juice.

“This isn’t what I imagined when you said we were going to a college party,” Pato said.

After all, we had had the experience of drinking together at house parties in Bloomington. Not so in Seoul, where the population is dense and houses are smaller. Instead, students and other groups rent out pubs (known as “hof” (호프)) and have the place to themselves for a day or night. The practice is called “ir ir ho-pe” (일일호프), which means “one-day hof.”

Typically it is the freshmen or underclassmen (underclasswomen, more often, it seems) who host parties to connect with each other, earn money, or meet upperclass friends. The large number of parties hosted by women in Sinchon could be explained partially by the fact that Sinchon is so close to a few women’s universities, and the fact that female students are not surprisingly used to promote mixed parties. One person suggested it was a good way for Ehwa students to meet boys at other universities, such as Yonsei. But Yonsei students have hosted their own parties for particular groups, too, including the Yonsei hockey team.

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Students began lining up in front of a marked dance floor. Anticipating an event, we took places along the edge. Before long, Kpop began playing, and girls in hats and jackets, including the girl who was promoting at the door, came out to dance. Showing their power and precise dance moves, they earned big applause. They took off their jackets and top layers and confidently put their bodies on display for the next song.

With so many one-day hof parties going on at the same time, Pato and I didn’t stay too long. After a few separate dance teams, the dance performance was finished, and we went out for some pajeon and eventually to another student party. The next one was in another underground pub, with no cover, but rather a menu with various Korean comfort foods. We ordered spicy rice cakes.

When we were heading back home just after midnight, the same students who had put down ribbons a few hours before were tearing them off the road and rolling them up. Groups of people were milling around outside 7-11 and GS25, and guys were punching arcade games. Another week, and it will be all the same.

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Dec 07

Little Tokyo Karaoke

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking , Travel

The line outside Daikokuya snakes past three storefronts on a Sunday night in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. The wait was an hour. We didn’t have time to wait that long; I had to sing karaoke.

Instead we went to the ramen shop next door, Manichi, which opened in January, the first branch of the famous Japanese ramen restaurant to open in the mainland U.S. The menu brags that it once won an award for its gyoza. According to the L.A. Times, Manichi started in Japan in 1953 as a gyoza cart.

The one in Los Angeles is certainly worthy of its supposedly famous lineage. The gyoza were nice and crispy. The ramen was delicious. The egg yolk was cooked right, floating into the mouth as I ate it. It also has fried chicken and rice bowls. Maybe Manichi deserves to have some of the line Daikokuya does. The whole street (E 1st St just east of S San Pedro St) is lined with ramen and sushi bars.

Across the street, there is the Japanese Village Plaza Mall, and this is where the karaoke comes. More restaurants and souvenir shops with kitschy Asian designs (at the crappy stores) or Japanese-imported cute cats and foods line a walking street. Around the vicinity, there are also a number of famous Japanese-flavored fashion shops like Popkiller.

On the second floor, on the inside part of the mall, is the karaoke bar Tokyo Beats. At 8:30, it was packed, as happy hour (6-9) was soon to conclude, and people were taking advantage of half priced drinks. Ordering a hot sake, I stood at the bar until I could find a seat.

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”I’m going off the rails!”

Karaoke is a fun pastime in China. But we usually sing in private rooms. Only in Lijiang, or other tourist cities, do they have many of these kind of karaoke bars where you sing from your chair at the bar for everyone to see.

After some sake, I was ready. I wasn’t going to take it. I wasn’t going to take it anymore. And so I sang “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and let off some stress. (I had seen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on TV that morning. Oh, they’re so condescending.)

“We’re Not Gonna Take It” is such a good karaoke song. The lyrics are shoutable. The topic is what everyone is thinking after drinking. Others joined in singing or head bobbing. I sang a lot of other songs like that that night: “Fight For Your Right (To Paaaaar-taay),” “God Save the Queen,” “Sweet Home Alabama.”

There was one real singer at the bar. Mike was the drummer and singer in a local band. He sang a song that required more than just shouting, “Patience” by Guns N Roses, and sang it well. A bar worker on his day off was giving shots of tequila. A group of early 20-something guys from 90 miles out in the desert came in to Little Tokyo to celebrate their friend’s birthday. They were obsessed with anime and Japanese culture.

Tokyo Beat
319 E 2nd St
Ste 205
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Little Tokyo, Downtown
(2nd floor of mall)

Manichi
321 1/4 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Little Tokyo, Downtown

Oct 06

Drinking Cocktails With Chinese Students who Go to a Bar for the First Time

By Mitchell Blatt | Drinking

Four Chinese college students laughed and talked with me in the back of a bus heading towards the “West Lake” (河西) area of Nanjing. Two couples from the same high school, they were happy to meet a resident willing to show them around Nanjing, and we just happened to be going to the same neighborhood.

Then I asked them the question Chinese students dread hearing from foreigners, “Can you speak English?” Their eyes opened wide, embarrassed, and a few of them shook their heads and laughed, before the boy in front, Jiawei, responded, “Yes. We can.”

Of course they can. All Chinese students study English in high school, and many need to pass English level 6 to graduate college, but most are much better at reading English than speaking it, and, at any rate, are too shy and scared of making mistakes to speak it.

I was just joking with them, but Jiawei carried on a reasonably fluent conversation in English for a few minutes before we switched back to Chinese and I asked him if he had ever been to a bar. No, he said, none of them had been to a bar, but they really wanted to go!

They grew up in a small town in Shandong, and, while it did have some bars, they were “good students,” so they didn’t go to the bar.

But now, you’re in college, I said. Why haven’t you been to the bar since you left your parents?

Of course they had drank together, but many Chinese students—particularly from the countryside or traditional-minded areas—would do so more often at late night shaokao bbq joints or private karaoke rooms. Bars still held a touch of mystery and danger to them—the province of playboys, prostitutes, and foreigners.

The next day, before our appointed meeting, Jiawei texted me and said he was having second thoughts. “The four of us discussed, and we feel if we go to the bar, we are a little bit nervous about money. How about we eat shao kao and have beers instead?” he said.

I responded that they are traveling and don’t have many chances to see a bar with a foreigner for the first time. How much do drinks cost, he asked. About 30-60 RMB (~US$4.70-9.50) a glass, I said. (I underestimated—somewhat consciously, maybe—each drink cost between 60-75 RMB.) I also know a poolhall bar where the beers only cost 15 RMB each, I said, but by then Jiawei was convinced. He wanted to see the trendy bar district in Nanjing—1912.

Located next to the old Presidential Palace that Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek held offices in, 1912 consists of bars and restaurants in Republican era style—stone and brick buildings with columns, Westernized Chinese architecture, laid out along walking streets. It is popular among the fashionable middle class, nouveau riche who want to show off their wealth at a private table, tourists, expats, college students, and kids who want to party all night. Businessmen and corrupt officials know of private clubs elsewhere, but 1912 is a big deal for the mass market.

Dance clubs like Mazo and Richie, with pounding music and tables with at least a few thousand RMB minimum, make the place famous. The shady businesses that make bars “bad” places for high school students are evident in the darkness of some of the underground clubs—girls sitting at tables together, in alluring dress, looking uninterested the whole night. Even the restroom attendants, who try to harass unexpecting customers with a hot towel and a shoulder massage while they are pissing and then demand payment for it, seem like a gang.

But 1912 also has a lot of family-friendly restaurants—hot pot, Starbucks, the artistically-decorated Maan Coffee, KFC—and a few classy bars. One of those few, that just opened around the beginning of the year, is Kamakama, a cocktail bar with thick menu of drinks organized by cocktail base and an atmospheric interior that I thought would fit in just fine in Shanghai.

I had been there a few times. The cocktails there are really good—also things you would expect in Shanghai or in an American city—not like the “mojito” I once had at Mazo, which seemed to be mostly just lemonade and water and syrup. So I thought it would be a good place to give the amateur Chinese drinkers a taste of their first real bar.

“Have you ever had Western liquor before?” I asked around the table. All of them said no.

I thought how to explain the different kinds of liquor to Chinese who had never tried it, but I decided it was useless—if they haven’t tried it they would have no idea what they liked. They could decide by reading the descriptions or asking the waiter, and eventually they would learn on their own.

As expected, their selection of drinks was varied: Jiawei with a Godfather (whisky and disaronno amaretto), Chengyi with a Blue Moon (gin, parfait amour, and lemon juice), Wuyue with a Tropic (blanc wine, grapefruit juice, benedictine, and lemon juice), and Zhiyu with a Cosmo.

Zhiyu, who goes by the English name “Curely,” is a guy. I told him that some cocktails are traditionally associated with genders. Jiawei looked up “Cosmopolitan magazine” on his phone and showed him the cover, and Zhiyu dropped his head and laughed. When his girlfriend, who was hanging out at the bar with the other girl watching the “handsome” bartender make drinks, came back to the table, she looked at Zhiyu’s cosmo, topped with a rose petal, and said it looked pretty. Zhiyu said, “It tastes like juice.”

Jiawei, whose chose the English name “Jarvon” from the game League of Legends (LoL) that almost everyone in the internet bar I am writing in is playing, ordered the Godfather. He said, “The flavor is softer than beer. It’s a lot like a kind of Chinese medicine (川贝枇杷膏) that is used for coughs.” Comparing a drink to medicine isn’t often a compliment, but in that case it was. And the place itself, with its wood-paneled walls and ceilings and colorful liquors under lights behind the bar “has sentiment (情调) and artistic feel (文艺).”

Chengyi and Wuyue (aka May) took longer to finish theirs. Chengyi, with the blue moon, said, “With the first sip, I thought it was too bitter, but then I realized that it was something to drink slowly.”

Wuyue said she ordered her tropic because she liked lemon and sour flavors wasn’t disappointed with wine, grapefruit juice, and lemon juice, along with benedictine, in her cup. “I thought it was really great from the first sip,” she said.

All in all, they were quick to assimilate to the bar and to the flavor of liquor. No one asked what was the difference between whisky and a cocktail.

Jun 22

Shaq Stars in Harbin Beer Ad, Dances in the Street

By Mitchell Blatt | Culture , Drinking

If you ever wanted to see Shaquille O’Neal drinking beer with Chinese guys and doing a funny dance, you just got your chance.

Shaq has been starring in Harbin’s ads throughout the year. During the NBA finals broadcast on CCTV, he was shown delivering a bucket of Harbin beers to someone’s table. Here’s Shaq celebrating the year of the lamb in a Chinese New Year advertisement poster (via my Instagram):

In the newest ads, Harbin uses the tagline 一起哈啤 (“yi-qi ha-pi”). This is a funny play on words that means both “Harbin together” and “Happy together.” 一起 means “together”, 哈 is the first character in Harbin (哈尔滨, which is the capital of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang), and 啤 is the character for beer (啤酒). Put 哈 (“ha”) and 啤 (“pi”) together, and it sounds like “ha-pi” or “happy.”

In related videos, here is Shaq apparently writing Chinese characters:

And here’s another Shaq ad for Harbin beer from a few years ago:

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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.