July 29, 2012

Rainy Day Makgeolli

The weather in Seoul is considerably different this summer than it was last year. Last summer, it rained everyday, consistently ruining my weekend plans and causing a lot of damage here in Korea. This year, it is still rainy from time to time but it has yet to put a damper on my fun. I've actually come to like the rainy season in Seoul, love it even. Sure, there are the monstrous mosquitoes that have the ability to move like lighting and whose bites leave welts that take at least a week to go away. And there's the umbrella traffic that can be ridiculously frustrating. But, I've come to discover and enjoy the magic that the Korean rain brings in with each passing storm.

To start, the rain keeps the air cool. The temps get pretty high around this time of year and the rain is always a nice break from the sweltering heat and unforgiving sun. Secondly, the rain transforms my neighborhood, Pyeongchangdong, into a picturesque scene of romance. Outlined with mountains, it becomes even more beautiful when the clouds roll in and settle into the hills while the sounds of water falling drain out the melodies of the street.

Still, there's one thing that has been most influential in the development of my new found appreciation for the Korean rainy season: makgeolli. Makgeolli (막걸리), or rice wine, is traditional Korean alcohol made by fermenting a mixture of rice, wheat, and water. Other ingredients can be added to create different flavors and I've seen variations using corn, lilypads, and even gumballs, those spiky little things that fall from certain trees. Originally a poor man's drink consumed by farmers, it has developed into a common, if not trendy beverage adored by Koreans of all backgrounds.

Makgeolli is most often consumed on rainy days in rustic back-alley bars or in pojangmachas, street food tents, as is tradition here in Korea. It is usually served alongside pajeon, savory pancakes, or bindaeduk, pajeon's crispier cousin. I'm no professional in describing food in words, but I can say that the combination of the sweet-and-sour flavors of the makgeolli and the savory greasiness of the bindaeduk are a match made in culinary heaven. When consumed in the rain, they taste even better.

Traditionally, makgeolli is served in brass bowls like this one to sip from. (Photo: Seoul Searching)

Makgeolli is usually consumed with pajeon, Korean pancakes. (Photo: Seoul Searching)

Enjoying a traditional rainy day snack on Nami Island. (Photo: Seoul Searching)

Makgeolli is also the preferred drink of hikers. Alcohol and hiking, you ask? In Korea, yes; the stuff is just as important on the trails as the hiking sticks and neon colored parkas toted along by the older generations that adore the hobby. In my few experiences hiking, I've almost always been offered a cup or two of maekgeolli at some point during my hikes by complete strangers wanting to offer up a bit of hospitality, something that the mountains of Korea no doubt encourage. Perhaps it was during these experiences that I first grew fond of the drink. Or maybe it was one of the many afternoons sitting along the Han River or the Cheonggyechon sipping it down over a chat with friends. Either way, it has become one of my favorite things about Korea.

Sitting on the Cheonggyechon, sipping makgeolli with Suzanne.

Korean rice wine is becoming so popular these days that makgeolli bars are popping up all over Seoul, replacing the once-trendy soju cocktail joints. Some of these places are quite swanky, offering everything from home brews to pricey but creative cocktails served in martini glasses. This is fine and dandy, but it's hard to argue that the best makgeolli is served up in a folk bar in a pot and consumed in little brass bowls. Makgeolli is, after all, not just about the taste. It's about the atmosphere, too.

It's kind of sad to know that the rainy season will be over soon, but I guess if good things never ended, we couldn't appreciate them. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy the rain's beauty and music, and of course, the makgeolli.


  1. I've had that drink here in Saigon, and I really liked it as well. Though calling it 'rice wine' is kind of a joke here, since Vietnamese rice wine is nearly as strong as ethanol...and tastes just as awful. Also I lol'ed at 'umbrella traffic', you get similar scenes here.

  2. Mike, I remember that about rice wine (and snake wine for that matter) in Vietnam. Totally different stuff, huh? We'll be drinking a lot of the Korean stuff come December! Hope you're ready!


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