When you think of Korean alcohol you probably think of soju. But as Korean Traditional alcohol specialist Julia Mellor would reveal at the 4th Korean Banquet Showcase, aptly titled ‘An Introduction to Korean Alcohol’, there is so much more to drink and enjoy.
Julia is an Aussie originally from Brisbane who now calls Seoul home, having spent the past decade teaching, studying, and brewing there. Julia was back down under, at the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney to host the night’s auspicious event.
The food pairing was created by Chef Heather Jeong, a renowned TV chef and Australia’s leading Korean cooking instructor. Her dishes for the night paired the best of Australian and Korean cuisine with the best of Korea’s brews. “This dinner is inspired by land, sea, and air,” Heather quipped, “because by the end of tonight you’re either going to walk home, swim home or fly home.”
But before we get off the ground, we have to master the basics. Traditional Korean alcohol was homebrewed during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) and is comprised of 3 basic ingredients: rice, water and nuruk – a fermentation starter made of yeast covered grain that helps convert the sugars in the rice to alcohol.
As with kimchi, homebrews were mostly prepared by the matriarch of the family, using high quality and oftentimes creative ingredients. However, after the Japanese occupation there was a ban on homebrewing and as a result tens of thousands of family recipes and regional varieties of homebrew disappeared (they were usually passed down verbally in the family and not recorded). Korean nuruk was swapped out for Japanese koji (often used in sake production) and, without cold storage, quality suffered, leading to the introduction of sweeteners.
Much like the recent explosion of craft beers and small batch breweries in Australia, in Korea there’s been a rise of artisans and a return to the homebrewing traditions of the Joseon period. Julia is adamant that the best is only found in Korea as it’s unpasturised (the yeast is in a fresh state and still alive) and difficult to import. Luckily for us she managed to bring a few rare bottles over.
“To masineun chingu (drinking friends)!” We raised our glasses of Sansachoon, a golden clear Cheongju with 14% alcohol content (ABV), for the first collective ‘geonbae’ of the night, led by the head of the Korean Cultural Centre Australia, Sin Young An. In feudal Korea, Cheongju was the drink of the kings, the very top layer of a rice-nuruk fermentation, and so it was very fitting for it to be served with light and delicate scallops with crushed peas. The Hawthorn berry-infused Sansachoon Cheongju brought out the sweetness in the seared morsels nicely – no sweeteners needed.
Next up was an alcohol so fresh it was living – the Boksoondoga, a milky Makgeolli with 5% ABV sent directly from Korea especially for tonight by a small batch brewer. Makgeolli is a cloudy sediment brew with natural fizz – in fact the level of CO2 is so high, Julia carefully swilled it open at arm’s length to prevent the lid from popping. This Boksoondoga brew smelt savoury and tasted like an alcoholic Yakult with a creamy, earthy finish. This was our favourite of the night – we’re told it’s more available in Korea at dedicated Makgeolli bars.
Three varieties of Jeon (Korean pancakes) were served with the Makgeolli – kimchi, garlic chives, and mung bean. These traditionally peasant dishes were served with a tart vinegar and onion dipping sauce, cutting through the creaminess of the Makgeolli nicely, itself a ‘drink of the people’.
From a peasant dish back to something fancier for our first main – Prawn and bream filled pasta with creamy rice wine reduction. The delicate handmade pasta parcels were cooked perfectly and brimmed with prawn flavor. Heather let us know that 15kg of prawns went into the prawn bisque sauce alone! This was definitely our favourite dish of the night.
Served alongside the pasta was a glass of Gyereong 100 Days Wine, another Cheongju with 16% ABV. Despite its namesake, the 100 Days Wine of the Gyereong brewery has a very long family tradition – the son of the family has only recently taken over from his mother. Usually clear, this Cheongju is infused with pine needles and five-flavour berry – you can smell it in the woody aroma. It complemented the seafood pasta with a strong crisp taste and a bitter finish.
Things escalated quickly as shot glasses of Hwayo Soju (41% ABV) were poured. Traditionally soju has an ABV of 40%, but these days most soju sits around 21%. Julia observes that soju seems to drop 1% in ABV per year, but firmly believes that all soju should have an ABV of 39% or above.
Enough percentages! As a table we agreed to down our shots at once. The Hwayo soju smelt deceptively sweet, but had a clean grain flavor and warmed as it slid down our throats with a fiery, zingy finish on our tongues.
Heather said she wanted to match the 41% soju with 41% chilli, but held off (phew!). Instead we had a milder Surf, Turf and Sky BBQ plate – a Korean twist on the Aussie ‘surf and turf’ with lashings of chilli marinated pork, chicken and octopus, and of course, kimchi. Pillowy wholegrain rice cushioned our food comas – we struggled to finish the generous helping.
But we couldn’t resist the next dish, Bossam – carefully steamed and sliced pork belly flanked with chilli radish, cabbage and sesame leaves. We all eyed the pretty arrangement, before folding the meat into the foliage and fresh bundles of deliciousness. This Korean classic was our second favourite dish from the night and it’s the perfect palate cleanser before dessert.
Maesilwonju Black, a Gwashilju (20% ABV) was next. This fruit-based wine smelt of sweet plum, reminding me of Japanese Umeshu. It was served with our first dessert, a cute little pavlova with seasonal berries! A smash-up of Australian and Korean cuisine, the pav went great with the syrupy, fruity taste of the Gwashilju – the drink’s bitter finish prevented any cloying sweetness from rest of the dessert.
Lastly we sipped some Chonga Baekhwamiin (18% ABV), a thick cloudly Takju rice beer alongside a self serve cheese course. With a yeasty whiff, this Takju was probably my least favourite drink of the night, however I warmed to it with a side of cheeses, crackers and quince paste. The texture was smooth and the alcohol flavour strong. It mellows out with a bit of natural sweetness and a dry finish. As the only pasteurised drink of the evening, this drop is also good warm.
Warm too were my cheeks by the end of it all – like their menu together, Julia and Heather make a good pair. If ever you are interested in receiving a primer on Korean alcohol, cuisine, or culture, the Korean Cultural Centre Australia is a great place to begin your journey – whether you choose to do so over land, sea, or air. Geonbae!
Korean Cultural Centre Australia (KCC)
Visit the KCC for traditional craft and exhibitions – learn through cultural classes like Korean language, food, k-pop dance, art, dress, tea and craft making. They also showcase Korean cinema from smaller film nights to the larger scale KOFFIA Korean Film Festival. Check their website for all the latest.
Address: Ground Floor, 255 Elizabeth St, Sydney, NSW, 2000
Phone: (02) 8267 3400
Opening hours: Monday – Friday 10am – 6pm
I Ate My Way Through dined as guests of the Korean Cultural Centre Australia